Afghan spy agency confirms Farouq al-Qahtani and his deputy Bilal al-Utabi killed in Sunday’s attack.
Two top Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan were killed in a U.S. drone attack, the nation’s spy agency confirmed on 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’s leadership in several years.
Multiple Hellfire missiles “leveled” two different compounds in Kunar province where the men were believed to be hiding, U.S. officials said on 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.
The Pentagon had been actively hunting Qahtani for four years. He had longstanding ties with Osama bin Laden before his death in the 2011 U.S. raid on his compound in Pakistan.
Qahtani had operated in Afghanistan since at least 2009 and was responsible for planning attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in the country, officials said. “He was seeking to re-establish [Al Qaeda’s] control in Afghanistan,” a U.S. 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 U.S. launched military operations to dislodge the Taliban from Afghanistan and capture or kill Al Qaeda militants they were harboring. 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 U.S.-led NATO troops greater latitude to order airstrikes 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, U.S. officials said. They were in two separate buildings a few hundred meters 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 young locals into the group. Qahtani was born some time between 1979 and 1981 in Saudi Arabia and is a Qatari national.
In February, the U.S. Department of the Treasury labeled Qahtani a specially designated global terrorist. Qahtani “has a long history of directing deadly attacks against U.S. forces… 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.