A Pakistani Taliban commander said that the US killed three al Qaeda military “training experts” in a drone strike in North Waziristan that took place last weekend. Al Qaeda continues to support Taliban military operations in Afghanistan and conduct its own attacks despite claims from US commanders that the terrorist group is merely fighting for its survival in the country and maintains a minimal presence.
The US drone strike, which took place on July 28 in the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan, a known hub for terrorists crossing into Afghanistan, is reported to have killed four Arabs and four Taliban fighters.
The Taliban commander told Reuters that the Arab fighters were “al Qaeda training experts who had crossed the border from Afghanistan to look at ways of setting up a similar camp on Pakistani territory.” The al Qaeda fighters were identified as “Abu Rashid from Saudi Arabia, Muhammed Ilyas Kuwaiti from Kuwait, and Muhammed Sajid Yamani from Yemen.”
US intelligence officials who track al Qaeda in the region told The Long War Journal that they are aware of the reports of the deaths of the al Qaeda operatives, but would neither confirm nor deny them.
The Lashkar-al-Zil, or the Shadow Army, al Qaeda’s paramilitary force that fields small conventional units in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is known to operate training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s tribal areas, which include North and South Wazirstan, host training camps for al Qaeda as well as a multitude of allied jihadist groups from inside and outside of Pakistan. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda is known to operate training camps in the remote northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
The Lashkar-al-Zil embeds military trainers within Taliban units in both countries. These trainers provide instructions for battling security forces in local insurgencies and furnish knowledge, expertise, funding, and resources for conducting local and international attacks. The US Treasury Department officially acknowledged the existence of this unit when it added one such Pakistan-based trainer and commander of al Qaeda’s “paramilitary brigades” to the list of global terrorists in June. [For more information on this unit, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army,’ from February 2009.]
The US may have killed Abu Saif al Jaziri, a mid-level paramilitary commander from Algeria who works with the Haqqani Network in the region, in a drone strike on July 2 in North Waziristan. A Haqqani Network commander known as Maulana Akhtar Zadran and two Pakistani jihadists are also reported to have been killed in the strike.
US officials downplay al Qaeda’s importance in Afghanistan
US military officials continue to downplay al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, despite ample evidence that the group is active in the country as well as in Pakistan.
In an interview on July 28, General Joseph Dunford Jr., the Coalition commander in Afghanistan, said al Qaeda was merely a “shell” of its former self, with only about 75 members in Afghanistan, who were mostly too busy trying to stay alive to plan attacks against the West, the New York Times reported.
Similarly, Major General Joseph Osterman, the deputy operations commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told Reuters last week that al Qaeda is fighting for its survival in Afghanistan and is isolated primarily in Nuristan province.
“They are less than 100, I would say, and they are in fact just trying to survive at this point,” Osterman told Reuters. “I think what you find is that it’s not necessarily that they have got a springboard in there.”
Since the summer of 2010, Obama administration officials have been consistently claiming that 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives are present in Afghanistan [for examples, see Threat Matrix reports, The ‘only 50 to 100’ al Qaeda in Afghanistan fallacy, from July 2010; and How many al Qaeda operatives are now left in Afghanistan?, from April 2011].
But a study by The Long War Journal that looks at ISAF’s own reports on its raids against al Qaeda since 2007 paints a different picture. Since 2007, ISAF has conducted 357 reported raids against al Qaeda and allied groups in Balkh, Farah, Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Wardak, and Zabul, or 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Many of these raids have taken place over the past three years.
ISAF’s data on the location of al Qaeda’s network is mirrored by al Qaeda’s propaganda. Al Qaeda routinely reports on its Afghan operations in Vanguards of Khorasan, a magazine produced for its members and supporters. Al Qaeda has reported on operations in all of the provinces where ISAF has conducted raids.
At the end of June, after completing its transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces, ISAF stopped reporting on its raids against al Qaeda, shutting off a window into how it targets al Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan.