U.S. designates Al Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban leaders based in Afghanistan

The U.S. Department of State added three senior Al Qaeda leaders and the deputy emir of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists on Dec. 1. State said the designations are “part of our relentless efforts to ensure that terrorists do not use Afghanistan as a platform for international terrorism.”

State designated Osama Mehmood, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS); Atif Yahya Ghouri, the AQIS deputy emir; Muhammad Maruf, the top recruiter for AQIS; and Qari Amjad (who is better known as Mufti Muzahim), the deputy leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP).

“The United States is committed to using its full set of counterterrorism tools to counter the threat posed by terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP),” State’s press release claim. This is a bold statement because since the U.S. left Afghanistan in Aug. 2021, the U.S. has launched only one counterterrorism strike against Al Qaeda and allied terror groups that are based in Afghanistan.

Veteran jihadists

Mehmood and Muzahim are well-known figures in the jihadi scene, while there is little information publicly available on Ghouri and Maruf.

Osama Mehmood took control of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent from Asim Umar, the group’s first emir, sometime before 2019. Umar appeared to have been given a senior leadership within Al Qaeda’s general command before he was killed in a joint U.S. and Afghan raid in Helmand province in Sept. 2019.

Prior to taking command of AQIS, Mehmood served as the group’s spokesman. He has appeared in multiple messages released by As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s official propaganda outlet. Mahmood, who is also known as Abu Zar, Atta Ullah, and Zar Wali, is a Pakistani national and is believed to be sheltering in Afghanistan.

AQIS, which is based in Afghanistan, was formed in 2014 by former Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and his son-in-law, Uthamn Basha. AQIS serves as a bridge between a host of jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indian, Burma, and Bangladesh. Basha was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2015. Zawahiri was killed in a Taliban safe house in Kabul in July 2022.

Mufti Muzahim is both the deputy emir of the TTP and the man who also “oversees operations and militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province” in Pakistan, according to State. The TTP has also identified Muzahim as its “Minister of Defense.”

Just this week, Muzahim issued a statement that announced the end of the six month long ceasefire with the Pakistani government. Muzahim “ordered” TTP forces throughout Pakistan “to launch attacks anywhere in the country” in response to Pakistani military operations. “And now our revenge attacks will continue in the whole country,” Muzahim said. Muzahim is a Pakistani national who is believed to be sheltering in Dangan district in Kunar province.

Atif Yahya Ghouri and Muhammad Maruf are also Pakistani nationals and are thought to be based in Afghanistan.

Close allies, Afghan Taliban lies

Al Qaeda, the TTP, and the Afghan Taliban are all close allies and worked together to help the Afghan Taliban take over the country in 2021. The Afghan Taliban provides safe haven and support for both Al Qaeda and the TTP. Al Qaeda’s top leaders helped the TTP write its founding charter, while the TTP has supplied Al Qaeda with leaders and fighters to help replace its losses over the years.

The Afghan Taliban routinely claims that there are no foreign terrorists based in Afghanistan, and that it won’t allow the country to be used as a launching pad to attack its neighbors or the international community. The killing of Zawahiri, the recent designation of these four terrorist leaders, and their use of Afghanistan as home base, is yet more additional information that disproves the Taliban’s false claim.

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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