Center for Strategic Communication

The International Security Assistance Force executed multiple operations targeting al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province late last week. In total, five operations were conducted in two districts on June 6 and 7, putting the number of operations targeting al Qaeda in Afghanistan at 10 so far this year.

On June 6, Afghan and Coalition forces targeted a “senior al Qaeda leader” in Kunar’s Watahpur district. According to the ISAF press release, the targeted leader commands al Qaeda operations in Watahpur and neighboring Waygal district in Nuristan province, and oversees al Qaeda training in Nuristan. Specifically, he trains al Qaeda fighters and insurgents to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs), artillery, and “counter-interrogation techniques.” He also is reported to plan and conduct IED, indirect fire, and direct fire attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces.

The raid resulted in the arrests of four “extremists,” but ISAF did not identify their nationalities or the group or groups with which they are associated. The Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs was also contacted but gave no comment.

The following day, Afghan and Coalition forces again conducted two operations in Watahpur, searching for what ISAF described as an “al Qaeda linked senior leader.” Two raids were carried out, resulting in the deaths of three insurgents, who were not identified. The targeted leader is reported to be responsible for al Qaeda training in Watahpur. According to ISAF, “senior al Qaeda leadership sends money, weapons, supplies and new recruits to him for instruction in terrorism operations.” When the fighters’ training is complete, he then leads the fighters on attacks targeting Afghan and Coalition forces.

ISAF told The Long War Journal that two separate senior al Qaeda leaders were targeted on June 6 and 7.

“We can confirm that the missions in Kunar referenced in [the June 8] update was for two separate known al Qaeda senior leaders [who are] operating within the area.

Also, despite not releasing the nationalities of the targets, ISAF did say there were “indications” of Arab foreign fighters. However, it is unclear if Arabs were among the killed or captured insurgents.

The two al Qaeda commanders who were targeted in Kunar are likely members of al Qaeda’s Shadow Army, or the Lashkar al Zil. The paramilitary unit fields small units of conventional forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also embeds military trainers within Taliban units in both countries. These trainers provide instructions for battling security forces in local insurgencies as well as knowledge, expertise, funding, and resources to conduct local and international attacks. The US Treasury Department added one such Pakistan-based trainer and commander of al Qaeda’s “paramilitary brigades” to the list of global terrorists just last week. [For more information on this unit, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army’ from February 2009.]

Also on June 7, two more joint Afghan-Coalition operations were conducted to the east of Watahpur, in Kunar’s Darah-ye Pech district. Special operations forces searched for a “senior Taliban leader” who facilitates the movement of al Qaeda members in Waygal district to the north. ISAF mistakenly identified Waygal as being in Kunar when it is in fact part of Nuristan province.

ISAF additionally reported that the target of the Darah-ye Pech operations is the top military official for the Taliban in Waygal. As the top commander for the Taliban in the district, he has erected and enforced illegal checkpoints, kidnapped Afghan officials, and led attacks on Afghan and Coalition forces. One unidentified “extremist” was killed and another was wounded during the two raids.

Kunar and Nuristan are al Qaeda strongholds

Kunar and Nuristan provinces have been hotbeds of al Qaeda activity. Large areas of the two provinces are controlled by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other groups. In parts of Nuristan, particularly in Waygal district, there are few Afghan or Coalition forces.

US forces withdrew from Waygal district in the summer of 2008 after a deadly assault on a remote combat outpost by a joint force of 200-400 fighters made up from the Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, and al Qaeda’s Shadow Army. Then in 2011, the Taliban overran the district and expelled the Afghan government. ISAF and Afghan forces have launched two raids in the district against al Qaeda’s network so far this year.

The operations on June 6 and June 7 provide further evidence that al Qaeda and the Taliban are taking advantage of their safe havens in Nuristan to provide training for insurgents in the country. The province’s strategic location also allows fighters safe passage across the border into Afghanistan from Pakistan, a source of much of the money, weapons, and manpower for the insurgency.

Al Qaeda has also retained a significant haven in Kunar province, the site of this week’s operations. Watahpur district in Kunar is a known hub for al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terror group backed by Pakistan’s military and intelligence service. Several top al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders have been killed in the district over the past several years.

Although Afghan and Coalition forces still hold positions in Kunar, they have retreated from some districts. In early 2011, the US Army withdrew from the Pech River Valley in northern Kunar, the site of two operations on June 7. Prior to that, in April 2010, the infamous Korengal Valley was abandoned by US forces after sustained assaults by the Taliban.