US kills third emir of Islamic State’s Khorasan province

US Forces-Afghanistan announced today that the emir of the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan province, also known as ISIS-Khorasan) was killed “in a strike on the group’s headquarters in Kunar Province on July 11.”

Abu Sayed is the third emir of Wilayah Khorasan, which operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be killed in less one year. But he is the first hunted down in Kunar, as the US eliminated both of his predecessors in the nearby Nangarhar province.

“This operation is another success in our campaign to defeat ISIS-K in Afghanistan in 2017,” General John Nicholson, the commander of US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), said in a statement. “Abu Sayed is the third ISIS-K emir we have killed in the last year and we will continue until they are annihilated,” Nicholson continued. “There is no safe haven for ISIS-K in Afghanistan.”

The group’s first emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan, died in a US airstrike in the Achin district of Nangarhar on July 26, 2016. Khan, a former commander in the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban, or TTP), announced his allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in late 2014.

Wilayah Khorasan was established after Khan “went through the application process” set up by the so-called caliphate for forming new branches, Nicholson previously explained. Nicholson added that the Islamic State mother organization in Iraq and Syria has provided its Khorasan arm with “advice,” “publicity,” and “some financial support.”

Khan’s successor, Abdul Hasib, was killed during a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar on Apr. 27.

Abdul Hasib “directed” the Mar. 8 assault on the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul, according to USFOR-A. In order to sow confusion, the jihadists dressed as hospital employees during that attack, which resulted in more than 100 Afghans being killed or wounded. Hasib “also directed fighters to behead local elders in front of their families and ordered the kidnapping of women and girls to force them to marry” Wilayah Khorasan fighters.

The operation that led to Abdul Hasib’s death involved approximately 50 US Army Rangers and 40 Afghan commandos, according to the Department of Defense. The joint American-Afghan team was “inserted by helicopter into the Mohmand Valley about 10:30 p.m. local time” on Apr. 26 and immediately engaged in an “intense, three-hour firefight.” Two Americans died during the operation and the Pentagon is investigating the possibility that they “were struck by friendly fire.” In addition to Abdul Hasib, several other “senior” Wilayah Khorasan leaders and “about 35 ISIS operatives” are thought to have died during the fighting.

The battle took place near the location where the US dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (MOAB, or “Mother of All Bombs”) on a Wilayah Khorasan tunnel complex earlier in April. Afghan officials initially said that the explosion caused 36 Islamic State casualties, but subsequently increased their estimate to 94 killed, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Another American also perished in a separate operation carried out against Wilayah Khorasan in Nangarhar in April.

Little is publicly known about Abu Sayed. But the US quickly identified him as a key figure in Wilayah Khorasan and tracked him down less than three months after his predecessor, Abdul Hasib, was killed.

The US has targeted not only Wilayah Khorasan’s emirs, but also other key personnel in the group. In June, the US military announced that Jawed Khan, a “senior director of media production” was killed in a June 3 airstrike in Nangarhar. The “strike also destroyed a major ISIS-K media production hub and disrupts their connections to ISIS main in Syria,” the US military said.

While Wilayah Khorasan has suffered significant leadership losses, the same cannot be said for its much larger jihadist rival: the Taliban. Senior Taliban figures are thought to be based in Pakistan, where they are free to operate with relative impunity. The US did kill Taliban emir Mullah Mansour in a May 2016 airstrike. But that bombing was an exception. Mansour’s successor, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has survived more than a year since then. Siraj Haqqani, who serves as one of the Taliban’s top two deputies, has also managed to escape death for years. It is well known that the Haqqani Network, a key part of the Taliban coalition, has an extensive network inside Pakistan.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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