KABUL —The top Islamic State leader in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike in eastern Afghanistan, the latest in a string of American air assaults against militants in recent days, Afghan intelligence officials said Saturday.
This is not the first time Hafiz Saeed Khan — a former Pakistani Taliban commander who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in January — has been reported killed. If verified, his death could represent a major blow to the radical Syria- and Iraq-based Islamists’ ambitions of establishing a strong presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an area they call Khorasan.
Khan, who is from the Orakzai tribe in Pakistan, was killed Friday in the Achin district of Nangahar province, said Asib Sediqqi, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.
“Hafiz Saeed was killed in a gathering in an area where they were making plans,” Sediqqi said, adding that the agency’s operatives provided U.S. commanders with the intelligence to launch the airstrike.
The corpse was retrieved and identified as Khan before Afghan officials reported his death, Sediqqi said. At least 30 other insurgents were killed in the airstrike, he added.
Two other senior Islamic State leaders were also killed in the past week in Nangahar by U.S. airstrikes, according to Afghan intelligence officials: Shahidullah Shahid, who is thought to have been the group’s chief spokesman in Afghanistan, and Gull Zaman, believed to be the deputy head of the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch.
The Islamic State has not confirmed any of the deaths.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan confirmed that it had conducted an airstrike Friday in Achin district. Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said the strike targeted “individuals threatening the force.”
Tribus did not confirm whether Khan died in the attack.
On social media Saturday, there were conflicting reports of Khan’s fate. Abu Talut al-Khorasani, who described himself as a former Taliban commander who has defected to the Islamic State, claimed in a tweet that Khan “is alive and well” and branded the Afghan intelligence agency’s claims as propaganda. But the agency’s chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, also took to Twitter and insisted that Khan had been killed.
For the past two weeks, a joint U.S.-Afghan military operation has been unfolding in Nangahar, where the Islamic State has made the deepest inroads, according to Afghan officials. Provincial officials and tribal elders report numerous drone strikes in Achin and other districts, underscoring the growing American concern about the rise of the Islamic State at a time when most U.S. and international forces have left the country.
Since January, when the Islamic State announced the creation of its Khorasan wing, numerous Taliban members have defected. In several districts, the Taliban is now engaged in clashes with the Islamic State, which has seized a number of areas.
Tim Craig in Islamabad, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.