UN reports veteran al Qaeda leader likely back in action in Afghanistan

A new report from the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team asserts that Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, a veteran al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, is likely active again in the country’s east. Masri was arrested over a decade ago and only freed following the Taliban’s takeover.

Based on the reporting from one member state, the UN’s team notes that “al Qaeda-linked Katiba Umer Farooq (Red Unit) was possibly being reactivated in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces following the return of Abu Ikhlas al-Masri.” The UN does not provide any further information on Masri’s reported reactivation or Al Qaeda’s Red Unit. 

Though the UN’s report notes this information came from only one member state, FDD’s Long War Journal assesses the potentiality of Masri’s return as likely given his long history in the jihad. 

Before his arrest over a decade ago, Masri led al Qaeda’s men in Kunar. In this role, he maintained an extensive network in Kunar due to his close links with the local tribes. Abu Ikhlas was also named al Qaeda’s operations chief for Kunar province in the early to mid-2000s. 

He assumed command of Kunar operations after his predecessor, Abu Ubaidah al-Masri, another Egyptian commander, was promoted to take over al Qaeda’s external operations branch (the latter Egyptian died of natural causes in 2008). 

Under Abu Ikhlas, Afghanistan’s Kunar Province remained a significant sanctuary for al Qaeda and allied terror groups despite a heavy presence of US troops in the province for much of the US time in the country. Al Qaeda operated in the districts of Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Dangam, Asmar, Asadabad, Shigal, and Marawana; or nine of Kunar’s 15 districts. 

During the US War in Afghanistan, US and allied troops killed or captured numerous al Qaeda commanders in the province. Kunar’s importance was demonstrated by al Qaeda itself, as the province was listed among the group’s most active areas by al Qaeda’s own leadership in a letter dated from 2010 recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound. 

Masri was initially captured by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) members in Kunar in late 2010. He was then held in detention at Bagram airbase, just north of Kabul, until the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan during the summer of 2021. 

Masri thus joined the ranks of hundreds of jihadists – from various different factions and nationalities – freed by the Taliban’s emptying of Bagram and other prisons during its takeover of Afghanistan. It is unclear how many other important al Qaeda figures were freed in these prison releases, though Masri’s freedom exemplifies the primary danger of the prison breaks.

Given his long ties to the jihad in Afghanistan, having reportedly been based in Kunar since the 1980s, it was unlikely that Masri would have given up the fight. Al Qaeda’s newfound latitude to more freely operate in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan means Masri had the freedom to return to his former stomping grounds to once again set up shop for al Qaeda.

Additionally, the Monitoring team mention of Masri’s unit in Kunar leaves many unanswered questions. For instance, the Taliban has long maintained its own Red Unit, which acts as its form a special forces unit. It has been active across the country since its formation around 2015 and has long been integrated with al Qaeda and other foreign cadres in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s Red Unit was instrumental in the Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan. It is unclear if the UN is indeed referring to the same Red Unit. 

And Masri’s new group is itself, however, is ostensibly named after a killed al Qaeda leader who reportedly once led al Qaeda’s men in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and also was an alleged key deputy to now-deceased al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. 

But US officials speaking at the time of the purported Umar Farooq’s death in 2014 noted the confusion around that commander’s real identity. It is likewise unclear if this new group is named in honor of the deceased al Qaeda leader. 

Nevertheless, that al-Masri is now reportedly back in action leading a new unit for al Qaeda in Afghanistan further demonstrates both the failure of the United State’s efforts in the country and how undersold al Qaeda’s activities remain in Afghanistan. US officials justified the withdrawal from Afghanistan by claiming al Qaeda was “defeated,” “degraded,” “decimated,” “down,” and “gone.” Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even claimed that the Taliban would “destroy al Qaeda.” The Taliban never lifted a finger to fight al Qaeda, and instead the alliance is as strong as ever.

US intelligence and the Department of Defense have consistently underestimated al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, despite the fact that dozens of key Al Qaeda leaders and thousands of fighters and operatives have been killed or captured since 2007.

But the facts do not support prior and current official assessments of al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. For instance, in August 2022, US intelligence denied that al Qaeda was regrouping in Afghanistan, despite the fact that al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri was killed in a Taliban safe house in Kabul one month prior. 

Al Qaeda isn’t regrouping in Afghanistan because, as FDD’s Long War Journal has reported for the past 13 years, al Qaeda is well established in the country. And emblematic of al Qaeda’s future in Afghanistan stands Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, a veteran al Qaeda leader now likely back in action in his former stronghold after more than a decade of incarceration. 

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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