Center for Strategic Communication

The International Security Assistance Force reported yesterday that an operation targeting an “al Qaeda associated Taliban leader” was conducted in Kunar province, Afghanistan on Jan. 23. Two insurgents were killed during the raid, but ISAF has not confirmed if the targeted leader was among the dead.

Afghan and Coalition security forces launched the operation in Kunar’s Ghaziabad district, not far from the Pakistani border. According to the ISAF statement, the targeted leader “organizes attacks against Afghan and coalition forces and enables insurgent movements throughout the province.”

This is the first insurgent targeted in 2013 with direct ties to al Qaeda. However, on Dec. 31, 2012, ISAF conducted a joint raid in Ghaziabad district that killed “several” insurgents who were “believed to be associated with the Taliban, but also have links to al Qaeda.”

Kunar is a known al Qaeda haven

For years, the rugged, remote Afghan province of Kunar has served as a sanctuary for al Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and allied terror groups. The presence of al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba cells has been detected in the districts of Asmar, Asadabad, Dangam, Ghazibad, Marawana, Nari, Pech, Shaikal Shate, Sarkani, Shigal, and Watahpur; or 11 of Kunar’s 15 districts, according to press releases issued by ISAF that have been compiled by The Long War Journal.

The 2012 New Year’s Eve operation marked the 16th raid in Kunar province in 2012 that targeted insurgents connected with al Qaeda. Based on The Long War Journal‘s investigation, Kunar province has remained a hotbed for al Qaeda throughout the surge of Coalition forces in Afghanistan, which ended last fall. Prior to the surge in 2009, there were six reported raids in Kunar targeting insurgents who were members of al Qaeda or were affiliated with the group. The number of raids increased slightly in 2010 to seven, then decreased in 2011 to three at the height of the surge. However, the spike in 2012 to 16 presents a discouraging indication that many of the al Qaeda-linked fighters who may have sought safe haven in Pakistan are now crossing back into Afghanistan as Coalition surge forces began to draw down.

Al Qaeda is known to run training camps and maintain bases in Kunar, and uses the province to direct operations in the Afghan east. ISAF has targeted several bases and camps in Kunar over the years [see LWJ report, ISAF captures al Qaeda’s top Kunar commander, for more details].

Al Qaeda remains entrenched in Afghanistan and Pakistan despite the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. A document seized at bin Laden’s compound suggested that the actual number of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much higher than the numbers mentioned in official estimates provided by the Obama administration over the past three years, which have remained static at 300-400 members in Pakistan and 50-100 in Afghanistan. [See LWJ reports, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan, and Bin Laden docs hint at large al Qaeda presence in Pakistan.]

A classified US military assessment based on prisoner interrogations that was leaked to The New York Times in February 2012 said that al Qaeda maintains “a small haven” in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan.

“Northeastern Afghanistan has become a small haven for al Qaeda. Several al Qaeda commanders, including the al Qaeda emir for Kunar and Nuristan, Farouq al Qahtani, now live and operate in Afghanistan, with permission from the Taliban, but with the direct support of TTP [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] elements,” the assessment stated.
US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Qahtani is a Saudi citizen. Several other Saudi al Qaeda members have also held top leadership positions in Kunar [see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader, facilitator killed in airstrike in Kunar].

Another senior al Qaeda leader known to operate in Kunar is Azzam Abdullah Zureik Al Maulid Al Subhi, a Saudi who is better known as Mansur al Harbi. He was added by the State Department to the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list on Aug. 7, 2012. The Saudi Interior Ministry has said that al Harbi works “at a training camp in Afghanistan and is tied to numerous senior al Qaeda leaders including Abdel Aziz Migrin and Saif al Adel.” Migrin headed al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia and led attacks in the kingdom before he was killed in a firefight with Saudi security forces in June 2004. Saif al Adel is al Qaeda’s second in command and top military strategist, and served as the interim leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011.

Additionally, Qari Zia Rahman, a dual-hatted al Qaeda and Taliban leader, operates in Kunar province as well as across the border in Pakistan’s tribal agencies of Mohmand and Bajaur. ISAF forces have been hunting Qari Zia for years but have failed to capture or kill him.