During a raid in Nuristan province on May 15, Afghan and Coalition special operations forces targeted a senior Taliban leader who is known to assist members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, according to the International Security Assistance Force. The mention of al Qaeda by ISAF is the first since the end of January.
The ISAF report comes as members of Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, a group with ties to al Qaeda, conducted a suicide attack that killed six Americans in Kabul. Security forces also arrested two insurgent leaders with ties to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan earlier in the week.
The targeted leader is the “top military official” for the Taliban in Nuristan’s Waygal district, according to ISAF. He is reported to be “responsible for facilitating the movement of al Qaeda terrorists” in the district. He is also known to erect and enforce “illegal checkpoints” and to kidnap Afghan officials, in addition to directing attacks against security forces.
One insurgent was wounded during the raid; ISAF told The Long War Journal that he was an Afghan national affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Furthermore, ISAF said there are indications that he is affiliated with Arab foreign fighters. These are also likely members of al Qaeda.
Yesterday’s mention of al Qaeda by ISAF is the first in its press releases since Jan. 24, when the military command announced that Wali, an al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader who coordinated the two groups’ operations in the province, was killed during an operation in Dangam district in Kunar province. The day before, on Jan. 23, ISAF announced that it targeted another al Qaeda-associated Taliban leader during an operation in Ghaziabad district in Kunar.
ISAF has not explained the lack of reporting on operations against al Qaeda, and has declined a request by The Long War Journal to discuss the terror group’s operations in Afghanistan.
Curiously, when asked by The Long War Journal about three separate operations in Nuristan province in the beginning of May, ISAF began to reveal the existence of “Arab”-linked insurgents. In one of those operations, Saleh Abd al Aziz Hamad al Luhayb, a Saudi operative, was killed in a raid in Waygal district. Luhayb was listed by Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry as one of the 47 most wanted terrorists in 2011, a strong indication that he was a member of al Qaeda. ISAF refused to assocate Luhayb and the other “Arab”-linked fighters to al Qaeda, however.
Both Nuristan and neighboring Kunar province are known hotbeds for al Qaeda activity in Afghanistan. Their border with the tribal regions of Pakistan makes them strategically situated for funneling weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Additionally, Coalition forces have largely withdrawn from Nuristan following deadly attacks on US Army positions in the province.
Waygal district has seen some of the most intense fighting in Afghanistan. In 2011, the Taliban overran the district and expelled the Afghan government. US troops withdrew from the district in the summer of 2008 after a deadly assault by a joint force of 200-400 fighters made up from the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, and al Qaeda’s Shadow Army assaulted a small combat outpost as it was being built. Based on a study by The Long War Journal, it appears that Afghan and Coalition forces have targeted al Qaeda-linked fighters twice in the district this year.
Raids against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Also reported this week were two operations in Burkah district, Baghlan province in which members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al Qaeda-linked group, were arrested. Both targets, identified as Afghan nationals of Uzbek descent with ties to Uzbek foreign fighters, were detained on the same day. The first, an IMU leader, was an IED expert who constructed, distributed, and planned IED attacks, ISAF says. He also directed suicide bombing operations in the district.
The second target was identified as a “senior insurgent leader” with ties to both the Taliban and the IMU. He is reported to command a group of fighters responsible for “a wide range of insurgent activities” including kidnapping Afghan civilians for ransom, robbing local businesses, and collecting taxes to fund insurgent operations. He also facilitates the movement of weapons and suicide vests in the local area. One other insurgent was captured during the raid, but he was not identified.
Burkah district, like Waygal district in the east, has served as a stronghold for insurgents. So far this year, Afghan and Coalition special operations forces have launched 11 raids in Burkah targeting the IMU and insurgents with ties to the group. Last week, five operations were conducted against the IMU, including two in Burkah.
The IMU has been heavily targeted by Coalition and Afghan forces. So far in 2013, ISAF has reported 27 raids against the IMU’s network in the Afghan north.