Omar Khetab, a deputy AQIS leader, was killed in Ghazni province last year.
The Afghan defense minister said today that foreign fighters are involved in the Taliban-led assault in Ghazni province. Gen. Tareq Shah Bahrami claimed that 194 insurgents, including 12 leadership figures, have been killed in the government’s counterattack, according to an Associated Press (AP) account of his remarks.
There is often uncertainty concerning the specific ethnicity of foreign fighters involved in the Taliban’s operations. And the Afghan government has not released any specific details concerning the jihadists who have been killed thus far. This is understandable, in part, as the the battle for Ghazni is ongoing. Bahrami’s reference to Chechen fighters could also mean Russian-speaking jihadists, such as Uzbeks or others from around the region.
But we know from other sources that foreign fighters, including Pakistani al Qaeda operatives, have long fought alongside the Taliban in Ghazni.
In late 2017, US and Afghan forces launched raids against al Qaeda operatives in three provinces, including Ghazni. NATO’s Resolute Support described one of the jihadists killed, Omar Khetab (a.k.a. Omar Mansour), as “a senior al Qaeda leader” who served as the “second senior leader” in Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of AQIS in Sept. 2014. Its principal mission is to help the Taliban resurrect its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a totalitarian regime that ruled over the country prior to the US-led invasion in late 2001.
Khetab “was directly involved in fighting against the Afghan government and foreign troops and had a role in advising in the use of heavy weapons such as rockets, mortars and training for Taliban night attacks,” Resolute Support said at the time. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) offered the same description of Khetab’s role and released a photo of him. Citing an anonymous Afghan intelligence official, the Washington Post reported that Khetab was killed in the Gilan district of Ghazni province.
Earlier in 2017, Afghan forces killed Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a Pakistani al Qaeda leader, in the Nawa district of Ghazni. Akhtar, whose jihadist career began in the 1980s, worked for al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. He also commanded another group, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), which has long been affiliated with al Qaeda. Pakistani officials had released Akhtar from custody at least four times before he was hunted down in Afghanistan. The Nawa district, where Akhtar was killed, is a known Taliban safe haven. [For more on Akhtar, see FDD’s Long War Journal report: Afghan intelligence confirms top al Qaeda leader killed in raid.]
Years before these raids, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants discussed al Qaeda’s ongoing operations in Ghazni. In a June 19, 2010 memo to bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al Rahman wrote that al Qaeda had “very strong military activity in Afghanistan.” Rahman, who served as bin Laden’s key lieutenant, listed Ghazni was one of eight provinces in which al Qaeda “groups” had been “the same for every season for many years now.” Rahman was killed in a drone strike the following year.
In subsequent letters that were also written in 2010, bin Laden ordered his operatives in northern Pakistan to relocate into Afghanistan. Ghazni was one of several provinces that the al Qaeda founder considered hospitable for his men.
According to an analysis previously prepared by FDD’s Long War Journal, al Qaeda and other affiliated or allied groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, operated in Ghazni between 2007 and 2013. [See: ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]