The US has targeted senior leaders of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, including the group’s emir, in three airstrikes in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar over the past nine days. Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, survived one of the airstrikes. Two of the airstrikes took place in areas where senior al Qaeda leaders have been targeted and killed over the past year.
The first reported strike targeted Fazlullah and senior leaders of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan as they were meeting in the district of Nazyan in Nangarhar on Nov. 24. Taliban commanders told The News that Fazlullah is alive, but two commanders, known as Assad Mehsud and Zarqawi, were among five leaders killed.
The second strike, which took place in Nangarhar’s Shirzad district on Dec. 1, “killed three Taliban group commanders and two fighters,” the spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar told the Associated Press. The identities of the Taliban leaders were not disclosed. A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that a “leadership cell of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan” was targeted in the airstrike.
The third strike, which occurred on Dec. 2 in the village of Renay-Parchao, killed “some key militants belonging to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] Swat chapter,” Dawn reported. The strike likely took place in Nangarhar’s Lal Pur district, as the Kabul River runs through the district and makes up part of the border with Pakistan. Fazlullah originally led the Swat branch of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Pakistani military and government officials have long accused the Afghan government of supporting and giving sanctuary to the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, which has declared war against the Pakistani state. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan operates on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and has sheltered in areas outside of the Afghan government’s control in the mountainous provinces of Kunar and Nuristan as well as in Nangarhar.
In addition to targeting the group in drone strikes in Pakistan, the US has killed senior Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan leaders inside Afghanistan. On Aug. 24, 2012, the US killed Mullah Dadullah (a.k.a. Maulana Mohammad Jamal), his deputy, Shakir, and 10 Taliban fighters in an airstrike in the Shigal wa Sheltan district in Kunar province. [See LWJ report, Bajaur Taliban leader, deputy killed in airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]
Senior al Qaeda leaders killed where Pakistani Taliban commanders were targeted
Qaeda is known to be operating in two of the three districts in Nangarhar over the past year where the most recent strikes against the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan leaders took place.
In December 2013, the US killed two al Qaeda military commanders, three members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and two members of the Afghan Taliban, in an airstrike in the Lal Pur district in Nangarhar. The seven jihadists were reported to be traveling to Kunar for a meeting. [See LWJ report, 2 al Qaeda commanders reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]
The two al Qaeda commanders were described as “close companions of Ilyas Kashmiri,” the renowned Pakistani jihadist who was killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan in June 2011. Kashmiri rose through the ranks of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, or HUJI, led Brigade 313, and ultimately served as the leader of al Qaeda’s Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army, and as a member of al Qaeda’s military shura at the time of his death. The Lashkar al Zil is al Qaeda’s paramilitary unit that fields forces in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and also embeds military trainers within Taliban units in both countries. [For more information on this unit, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s paramilitary ‘Shadow Army,’ from February 2009.]
In October 2014, the US killed al Qaeda leader Abu Bara al Kuwaiti in an airstrike in Lal Mandi in the Nazyan district. Abu Bara was at the home of Abdul Samad Khanjari, who is described as an al Qaeda military commander who doubled as the Taliban’s shadow governor for the Achin district in Nangarhar. Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate (NDS) said that Abu Bara “had close relations with the family of Ayman al Zawahiri, the al Qaeda leader.”
Abu Bara was likely a member of al Qaeda’s General Command. He was known to be a “student” and “comrade” of Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda’s former general manager who was also known as Atiyah Allah and 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. [See LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda leader reported killed in US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan.]
Al Qaeda and its allies have been heavily targeted by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in special operations raids over the past decade. ISAF publicized 338 raids from 2007 until the summer of 2013, when it ended reporting. Many senior jihadist leaders and operatives were killed or captured during those operations. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]
The current targeting of senior al Qaeda and Movement of the Taliban leaders in eastern Afghanistan is a clear indication that the groups continue to operate in Afghanistan, often in the same locations, even as US forces continue to withdraw.