Al Qaeda leader killed in US strike in Afghanistan

Airmen manhandle an MQ-9 Reaper drone used in Afghanistan by the US

Senior al Qaeda leader Faruq al Qatani was killed in a “precision strike” on October 23 in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, the Pentagon has confirmed.

A second strike that day is believed to have killed Bilal al Utabi, another senior al Qaeda leader, though the US is yet to confirm his death.

The strikes hit “command-and-control locations” in the eastern province following an “extensive period of surveillance”, the US said in an annoucement on October 26.

Both men are accused of attempting to re-establish safe havens for al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Al Qatani was described as al Qaeda’s leader in northeastern Afghanistan. The US has been hunting him for four years.

Growing list of alleged terrorists killed in airstrikes

Al Qatani’s name will be added to the Bureau’s growing list of alleged terrorists and militants reported dead in US strikes. Since 2015, when the US became the only country to fly fast jets and armed drones in Afghanistan, we have identified 123 alleged militants killed by US strikes there.

Many of these deaths are difficult to verify and it is not uncommon for operatives killed to “reappear” several months later.

The number of named dead is in contrast with Pakistan where CIA drones have hunted al Qaeda and other armed groups along the country’s border with Afghanistan. Since 2015, only two alleged militants killed by US strikes in Pakistan have been identified. From 2004 to 2014, the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project identified 302 alleged militants killed.

US attacks in Pakistan have since ground to a halt, with the last strike hitting on May 21.

That particular attack resulted in the death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour. It was the first strike in Balochistan, a troubled province in western Pakistan that borders Iran and Afghanistan. It has long been presumed to be the home of Afghan’s Taliban leadership. It was also the first known drone strike in Pakistan to be conducted by the US military and not the CIA.

Surge in US strikes in Afghanistan

Strikes in Afghanistan had significantly slowed by the end of 2014, but are now on the rise as the US is targeting the Taliban once again. The US officially ended combat operations against the Taliban in December 2014 but President Barack Obama brought in new rules in June allowing the US military more freedom to hit the insurgents.

The rate of strikes under the new rules has increased with each passing month – the Bureau reported in August that since the rules changed, strikes targeting the Taliban had been taking place at a rate of two a day. Since then, the rate has tripled. Afghan troops have however struggled to assert control in some key areas despite US air support.

The US is also engaged in targeting Islamic State in Afghanistan. The group is trying to carve out a strong presence in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

Follow the TBIJ’s drone war updates on Twitter: @latest_strike

This story is part of the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project, which is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Photo of airmen handling a drone at Kandahar air base by Senior Airman Jack Sanders/US Air Force