A recently issued report on the status of Afghanistan by the US Department of Defense has described al Qaeda as being primarily confined to “isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan.” But information on Afghan military and intelligence operations against the global jihadist group contradicts the US military’s assessment.
The Defense Department released its “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” in October. The report, which “covers progress in Afghanistan from April 1 to September 30, 2014,” contains only nine mentions of al Qaeda. Five of those mentions simply reference the mission to conduct “counterterrorism operations against remnants of core al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
The US military’s report states that “[s]ustained ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] counterterrorism operations prevented al Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a platform from which to launch transnational terrorist attacks during this reporting period.”
Then the report goes on to describe al Qaeda as “isolated” in the northeastern part of the country, a reference to the remote mountainous provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
“Counterterrorism operations restricted al Qaeda’s presence to isolated areas of northeastern Afghanistan and limited access to other parts of the country,” the report continues. “These efforts forced al Qaeda in Afghanistan to focus on survival, rather than on operations against the West. Al Qaeda’s relationship with local Afghan Taliban organizations remains intact and is an area of concern.”
Al Qaeda’s operations contradict US military claims
For years, the US military has claimed that al Qaeda is constrained to operating in northeastern Afghanistan, but ISAF’s own data on raids against the terrorist group and its allies has indicated otherwise. According to ISAF press releases announcing operations between early 2007 and June 2013, al Qaeda and its allies were targeted 338 different times, in 25 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Those raids took place in 110 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]
Continuing this pattern, while the latest DoD report, which covers the period between April 1 and Oct. 30 of this year, claims that al Qaeda is restricted to northeastern Afghanistan, reported Afghan military and intelligence operations during the same time period indicate that al Qaeda remains active beyond Kunar and Nuristan.
The most high-profile operation against al Qaeda was conducted in Nangarhar province in October. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security reported that al Qaeda leader Abu Bara al Kuwaiti was killed in a US airstrike in Lal Mandi in Nangarhar’s Nazyan district. The airstrike took place at the home of Abdul Samad Khanjari, who was described as al Qaeda’s military commander for the province.
Abu Bara likely served in al Qaeda’s General Command. He was close to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and had served as an aide to Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda’s former general manager who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in August 2011. Abu Bara wrote Atiyah’s eulogy, which was published in Vanguards of Khorasan, al Qaeda’s official magazine. US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Abu Bara was the most senior al Qaeda leader killed in Afghanistan in years. [See LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]
Another senior al Qaeda leader known to operate in Afghanistan is Qari Bilal. In August, Afghan officials said that he commands more than 300 fighters in the northern province of Kunduz, where several districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban. Bilal is also a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al Qaeda-linked group that has integrated its operations with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
Bilal escaped from a Pakistani jail in 2010, entered Afghanistan, and was subsequently captured by ISAF special operations forces in 2011. He was later freed by Afghan officials and rejoined the fight. [See LWJ report, Senior IMU leader captured by ISAF in 2011 now leads fight in northern Afghanistan.]
This month, Afghan officials announced the capture of Eqbal al Tajiki, a citizen of Tajikistan who served with al Qaeda’s network in Kunduz. Sediq Sediqi, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that Eqbal “is an active member of the al Qaeda network” who was “transferred by his colleagues to northern parts of Afghanistan to carry out terrorist activities,” according to Afghan Channel One TV. Sediqi said Eqbal had “received terrorist training in North Waziristan for three years.”
Eqbal may have been a member of the Qari Salim Group, “a high-profile Al Qaeda affiliate” that is commanded by Qari Khaluddin, Pajhwok Afghan News noted in October. Khaluddin “had recently trained in Pakistan’s city of Quetta.” The group is said to have been plotting to attack a military base in Kunduz.
Another al Qaeda group known to be operating in Afghanistan is Junood al Fida. In early October, Junood al Fida released video that purported to show the group taking control of the district of Registan in the southern province of Kandahar.
Junood al Fida, which is comprised of Baluch jihadists, has sworn loyalty to the Taliban but also describes Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri as “Our Shaykh al Habeeb” [beloved leader] and its “Ameeruna” [our chief]. The group’s propaganda routinely attacks the US. [See LWJ reports, Baloch jihadist group in southern Afghanistan announces death of commander and Jihadist group loyal to Taliban, al Qaeda claims to have captured Afghan district.]