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Head of Islamic State in Afghanistan killed in airstrike, Pentagon says

A MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan in this December 27, 2009 photo. (Efren Lopez/U.S. Air Force via Reuters

The head of the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, a former Pakistani Taliban member named Hafiz Saeed Khan, was killed in a U.S. airstrike last month, the Pentagon announced Friday.

The July 26 strike took place in the Achin district of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, said Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Trowbridge in a statement.

“Nangarhar province has been a hotbed for [Islamic State] activity since the summer of 2015,” Trowbridge said. “Khan’s death affects [Islamic State] recruiting efforts and will disrupt [its] operations in Afghanistan and the region.”

Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal told Reuters Friday that the strike that killed Khan had also targeted other Islamic State leaders. It is unclear how many others were killed, and if that number included civilians.

Khan was also reported to have been killed in a drone strike in January of last year.

According to a 2015 U.S. Treasury sanctions notification release, Khan was appointed head of the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, known as the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province, in Oct. 2014, following his pledge of loyalty to the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Khan previously served as senior commander in the Pakistani Taliban. Khan helped establish training camps in western Afghanistan for the Islamic State and also claimed that the group was responsible for a series of suicide attacks that killed up to 30 people in the city of Jalalabad in April 2015, according to the Pentagon release.

American forces have been active recently in the region where the strikes took place. Late last month, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, told reporters that five U.S. Special Operations troops had been wounded alongside their Afghan counterparts while clearing parts of Nangarhar Province. Roughly a week later, the Islamic State posted pictures of captured U.S. equipment and identification cards from a U.S. soldier who had been involved in the fighting there. Some of the captured gear included a disposable rocket launcher, grenades and an encrypted radio.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan said the equipment was lost when U.S. forces had to move a casualty collection area because they came under fire and denied that any U.S. personnel had been captured.

The uptick in activity against the Islamic State in Afghanistan follows a twin suicide bombing in Kabul last month that killed 80 during a series of peaceful protests. It was the first terrorist attack carried out by the group in the country’s capital.

In January, President Obama authorized new measures allowing U.S. forces in Afghanistan to target Islamic State fighters in the country under counterterrorism rules of engagements usually reserved for al-Qaeda. Last month Nicholson told reporters that the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan has been cut in half, from some 3,000 fighters to 1,500 after heavy airstrikes and frequent ground operations by U.S. and Afghan forces.

The Islamic State in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon, gaining traction in the war-torn country over the last two years. According to Nicholson, 70 percent of the Islamic State’s membership in Afghanistan includes former Pakistani Taliban members who joined the group earlier this year. If Khan is dead, it is unclear who would replace him.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report. This post has been updated.