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Top al-Qaeda leader reported killed in Afghanistan in U.S.-Afghan operation

Afghan police special forces demonstrate their skills during an exercise in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province, east of Kabul, on Nov. 30, 2017. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Afghanistan's intelligence agency and the U.S. military announced Tuesday that a series of joint U.S.-Afghan operations killed a top leader of the extremist al-Qaeda network along with a number of other members.

Omar bin Khatab was the most senior leader killed in Afghanistan since the Taliban was driven from power in late 2001, said an official with the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

The U.S. military command in Afghanistan confirmed Tuesday the death of Khatab and “multiple other” al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, saying several related operations had been conducted in the past few weeks in Ghazni, Paktia and Zabul provinces. The Afghan intelligence agency said scores of other al-Qaeda members were killed.

U.S. military officials described Khatab as the No. 2 leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS. They said he was directly involved in fighting Afghan government and foreign troops and advised the Taliban in night attacks with rockets and mortars.

“This operation is a testament to the real growth the Afghan forces have achieved over the past year,” said Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “It is also another example of the lethality of the undefeated Afghan Special Forces and the success of working side by side with our Afghan partners.”

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Bin Khatab, also known as Omar Mansoor, was killed in air and ground operations in the Gilan district of Ghazni province southwest of the capital, an Afghan intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly. The Afghan intelligence agency’s statement did not give details of the joint operation or how authorities confirmed Khatab was killed.

In its statement, the agency said that “80 other members” of al-Qaeda were killed, including three top figures, in operations in Zabul and Paktia near the border with Pakistan and adjacent to Ghazni province.

The statement added that 27 members of the network were captured.

The Afghan official said Khatab was from the tribal regions in Pakistan and was in his early 40s, but did not offer details on how long Khatab was affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Last year, Afghan officials and the U.S. military reported the deaths of several foreign members of al-Qaeda who were living in Afghanistan.

The presence in Afghanistan of al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted the United States to intervene militarily, launching airstrikes in the fall of 2001 that helped Afghan resistance forces drive the Taliban out of Kabul.

The U.S. military also announced Tuesday that it had killed the leader of the Taliban’s “Red Unit” in Helmand province, Mullah Shah Wali, with a strike Dec. 1 in the district of Musa Qala. One of Wali’s deputy commanders and three other militants also were killed in the strike, U.S. military officials said.

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The Taliban Red Unit was responsible for planning numerous suicide bombings and improvised-explosive attacks, and of coordinating assaults against civilians and Afghan and coalition troops, U.S. military officials said. Wali coordinated the resupply of ammunition and explosives for the Taliban throughout Helmand, U.S. officials said.

“Mullah Shah Wali’s death will disrupt the Taliban network, degrade their narcotics trafficking, and hinder their ability to conduct attacks against Afghan forces,” Nicholson said. He added that the United States and the Afghan government “will continue to aggressively target Taliban leaders to destroy their drug network, disrupt their communications and deny them safe haven.”

Nicholson, speaking at a news conference with Pentagon reporters last week, said that he still saw a degree of collaboration and a “close relationship” between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban harbored al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks, during the period when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

AQIS still provides the Taliban with specialized training in bombmaking and weapons training, and the United States has continued to hunt its members, Nicholson said.

Asked why the United States has not announced the death of any senior al-Qaeda or AQIS leaders in recent months, Nicholson said the military kept that information classified because successful strikes usually lead to more strikes.

“We don’t want to give the enemy the advantage of knowing what we know about who we’ve struck, who we’ve taken off the battlefield and so forth,” he said. “I’m afraid that’s the best answer I can give you.”

Lamothe reported from Washington.

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