US military kills senior Islamic State commander in Afghan north


Qair Hikmatullah. Image from NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan.

The US military killed Qari Hikmatullah, who was described as “the senior ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan province or IS-K) commander and the main facilitator of ISIS-K fighters into northern Afghanistan” in an airstrike in the northern Afghan province of Faryab on April 5. Hikmatullah is part of the contingent of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that defected and joined the Islamic State after the Taliban was caught hiding the death of Mullah Omar.

NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan reported that Hikmatullah and his bodyguard were killed in an airstrike in the Bal Chiragh district in Faryab province.

The military described Hikmatullah as a “a native Uzbekistani” who had “a history of divided loyalties,” as he first served as a leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), then in the Taliban, and then in the Islamic State Khorasan province (IS-K). However, this characterization is not accurate. The IMU swore allegiance to the Taliban’s emir, Mullah Omar, but still maintains a cohesive structure, so there were no “divided loyalties” involved. A faction of the IMU broke with the Taliban in 2015 after they found out the Taliban hid the death of its founder and first emir, Mullah Omar, for nearly two years.

Hikmatullah has been replaced by Mawlavi Habibul Rahman, who also is identified as an Uzbek national. According to NATO, “Rahman has had intermittent ties to both the Taliban and GIRoA, highlighting the difficulty [IS-K] is having replacing leaders.”

Nevertheless, in the Afghan north, the former IMU members who defected to IS-K often coexist and even cooperate with the Taliban. Unlike Islamic State fighters in other areas of Afghanistan, such as Nangarhar, where the Taliban and IS-K fighters often are at war, the break between the IMU and the Taliban did not result in widespread infighting.

IS-K targeted in Jawzjan

While announcing Hikmatullah’s death, the military disclosed an interesting detail on IS-K’s foreign facilitation network.

“Jawzjan province is the main conduit for external support and foreign fighters from Central Asian states into Afghanistan,” the NATO statement said, and “Hikmatullah was the key leader for those operations.”

The US military hinted at the existence of this network in the past. During a raid in neighboring Sar-i-Pul province in 2013, the US targeted a senior Taliban leader who has ties to foreign fighter facilitation networks and suicide training camps. The Taliban leader was identified as a key power player in Jawzjan, Faryab, and Sar-i-Pul provinces.

Jawzjan province has been a major hub for the IMU for well over a decade. The US military has targeted IMU leaders in Jawzjan in the past.

The US military continues to target that network to this day. According to NATO, US and Afghan special operations forces have killed 21 low level IS-K, including three “platoon commanders” who served as “head facilitator of foreign fighters in Jawzjan” since Jan. 28, 2018.

Targeting the IS-K leaders in Afghanistan

The US military has put an emphasis in targeting IS-K’s network since it emerged in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2014. IS-K is primarily made up of former disaffected mid-level leaders from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as a faction from the IMU.

The US military has killed IS-K’s first three emirs in the span of one year.

IS-K’s first two emirs were killed in US military operations in Nangarhar. The US killed Hafiz Saeed Khan, its first emir, in an airstrike in Nangarhar’s Achin district on July 26, 2016. Khan, a former leader in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, served as the group’s emir for more than one and a half years before his death.

The US killed Abdul Hasib, Khan’s successor, during a joint US and Afghan raid in Nangarhar on April 27, 2017. Two US soldiers were killed during the fighting.

On July 11, 2017, the US killed Abu Sayed in an airstrike in Kunar. IS-K’s leadership is thought to be relocating to the remote, mountainous province in an effort to dodge US operations.

The last major IS-K leader killed by the US military was Abdul Rahman, on Aug. 10, 2017. Rahman was said to be in the running to lead IS-K after Abu Sayed’s death. Also killed were IS-K’s “mufti” or religious leader, as well as a member of its shura, or executive council.

US military commanders have touted the killing of IS-K’s leaders as a major defeat for the group and has predicted its eminent collapse. However, the Islamic State’s Khorasan province – which has far fewer resources and personnel, and a smaller base a of support than the Taliban and its allies – has weathered a concerted US and Afghan military offensive in Nangarhar and the persistent targeting of its leaders for nearly three years.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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