Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security claimed that Abu Sayed Bajauri, the emir of the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it calls the Khorasan province, was killed in an airstrike in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar on Aug. 25. Bajauri’s death, if confirmed, is unlikely to affect the growth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Bajauri was killed in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar as Afghan and Coalition forces were targeting Islamic State Khorasan province “strongholds,” TOLONews reported. Ten “key members” of the group, who were not named, are also said to have been killed, ATN News noted. Afghan news agencies identified Bajauri as “Abu Sayad Erhabi” and “Abu Sayed al Orakzai,” however the United Nations Security Council has identified the leader of the Khorasan province as Abu Sayed Bajauri. The nom de guerres indicate that the leader was of Pakistani origin, from the tribal agencies of Bajuar or Arakzai.
The Islamic State has not announced the death of its leader, and the US military and Resolute Support, NATO’s command in Afghanistan, has yet to confirm that he was killed.
While Bajauri’s death, if confirmed, is likely to be touted as a strategic blow to Khorasan province, the US military has killed the three previous leaders in the span of 25 months, and yet the group has expanded its operations. Khorasan province was thought to have only several hundred members when was formed in Jan. 2015 from a cadre of disaffected Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders and fighters, as well as al Qaeda members. Today, Khorasan province is estimated to have between 3,500 and 4,000 fighters, according to a recently released United Nations Security Council report on terrorist groups.
When Khorasan province came into being in early 2015, its primary base of operations was in Nangarhar, and had a small presence in Zabul, Helmand, and Farah. Since then, it absorbed a large segment of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and also has a significant presence in the eastern provinces of Kunar, and Nuristan, as well as in Faryab, Sari Pul and Badakhshan provinces, according to the UNSC report (the Islamic State recently suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Taliban in Jawzjan province, where a group of about 300 fighters were killed or captured, and another 200 surrendered to the Afghan government). Additionally, Khorasan province “already has sleeper cells” in the cities of Kabul and Herat, and “has the intention to expand into Ghazni, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar and Uruzgan provinces.”
The US military and the Afghan army have targeted the Islamic State’s network in Nangarhar for several years, and has dealt the group heavy casualties, yet has been unable to defeat it.
The US has killed two of the three previous emirs of the Khorasan province during operations in Nangarhar. Hafiz Saeed Khan, the group’s first emir, was killed in the Achin district on July 26, 2016. His successor, Abdul Hasib, was killed in the same area of Nangarhar on April 27, 2017, near where the US dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, the largest bomb dropped during the Afghan war.
Hasib was replaced by Abu Sayed (AKA Abdul Rahman Ghaleb). Ghaleb’s leadership of the Khorasan province was short lived. He was killed in a US airstrike in Kunar on July 11, 2017, less than four months after he replaced Hasib.
Khorasan province has not only been able to regenerate its leaders, but it has been able to absorb fighters from the Islamic State’s “core” network in Iraq and Syria. According to the UNSC report, “foreign terrorist fighters who are nationals of Algeria, France, the Russian Federation, Tunisia and Central Asian States have recently arrived in Afghanistan.” Among them is the Islamic State’s leader from the Iraqi province of Salahadin, who was identified as Abu Qutaiba.