Two top al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan were killed in a US drone attack, the nation’s spy agency confirmed Thursday, in a major blow to the group as it seeks to re-establish safe havens in the country.
Washington said the strikes on Sunday targeted Farouq al-Qahtani, al Qaeda’s emir for northeastern Afghanistan, and his deputy Bilal al-Utabi, calling it the most significant attack against the group in several years.
Multiple Hellfire missiles “levelled” two different compounds in Kunar where the men were believed to be hiding, US officials said Wednesday, without confirming if the strikes were successful.
Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security offered confirmation of their death on Thursday, adding that a third senior member of the group had also been killed.
“The attack was carried out in coordination with NDS,” the spy agency said in a statement, without naming the third leader.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook had earlier said their demise would deal a blow to the militant group’s presence in Afghanistan.
“Eliminating these core leaders of al Qaeda will disrupt efforts to plot against the United States and our allies, reduce the threat to our Afghan partners, and assist their efforts to deny al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan,” Cook said.
Another US official said the attack represented the “most significant strike” against the al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan in years.
The Pentagon had been actively hunting for Qahtani for four years. He had longstanding ties with Osama Bin Laden before his death in the 2011 US raid on his Pakistan compound.
Qahtani has operated in Afghanistan since at least 2009 and led an al Qaeda battalion since at least mid-2010, officials said.
“He was seeking to re-establish (al Qaeda’s) control in Afghanistan,” the US official said.
“He was charged with the requirement to establish AQ safe-havens throughout Kunar and Nuristan provinces.”
His deputy Utabi, was seen as the second- or third-most senior Al- Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, the official said.
In October 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the US launched military operations to dislodge the Taliban from Afghanistan and capture or kill al Qaeda militants they were harbouring.
Their numbers have since been decimated, but the United States continues to target the remnants of the group.
In June, the White House restored the Pentagon’s authority to strike at insurgents.
The new authority has given the US-led NATO troops greater latitude to order air strikes against a web of militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, Islamic State jihadists and al Qaeda.
Qahtani and his deputies were in Hilgal village in Kunar’s Ghazi Abad district when they were attacked, US officials said.
They were in two separate buildings a few hundred metres (yards) apart and were targeted almost simultaneously by multiple missiles.
Provincial spokesman Abdul Ghani Mosamem told AFP at least 15 insurgents were killed, including two Arabs. A number of Pakistani Taliban fighters were also among the fatalities, he said.
An Afghan intelligence official in the province also confirmed two Arabs were killed in the strikes.
Qahtani and Utabi are well-known senior al Qaeda commanders in Kunar, and had been actively involved in recruiting local young people for the group.
Qahtani was born some time between 1979 and 1981 in Saudi Arabia and is a Qatari national.
In February this year, the US Department of the Treasury labelled Qahtani a specially designated global terrorist.
Qahtani “has a long history of directing deadly attacks against US forces and our coalition allies in Afghanistan, along with plotting al Qaeda terrorist operations in the United States and around the world,” acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin said at the time.