U.S. and Afghan officials confirmed Sunday that Abdul Hasib, the emir of the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, died in a joint special forces operation that killed 35 ISIS fighters and several other high-ranking leaders of the terror group last month. The Pentagon had said in the aftermath of the April 27 raid in Nangarhar Province that Hasib had probably been killed, but it wasn’t confirmed until now.
Hasib is the second leader of ISIS-K — an ISIS division based in the Khorasan region, which spans some of Afghanistan and neighboring countries — to be killed in the past year. His predecessor, Hafiz Saeed Khan, dies in a U.S. drone attack in July. Analysts say he is an important scalp for U.S. counterterror operations to have, but the deaths of dozens of fighters in the same raid are likely to prove more significant.
The U.S. military says ISIS-K has been greatly weakened by a campaign to drive the group from its stronghold in Nangahar Province; officials say the number of fighters has been reduced from 3,000 to about 700, and the group’s stronghold has shrunk from 10 or more districts in Nangahar to a handful.
“This successful joint operation is another important step in our relentless campaign to defeat ISIS-K in 2017,” Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
But Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor of the Long War Journal, said the militant group “isn’t going away easily,” pointing to the heavy fighting in Nangahar and the terror group’s continued ability to launch significant attacks elsewhere, including the capital of Kabul.
Military officials say Hasib was killed during an intense three-hour firefight involving about 50 U.S. Army Rangers and 40 Afghan commandos. Two rangers, Sgt. Joshua Rodgers and Sgt. Cameron Thomas, were killed during the mission, possibly by friendly fire, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters at a briefing last month.
The raid took place not far from where the U.S. dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb (to much fanfare) on an ISIS tunnel complex earlier in April.
Joscelyn says that Hasib’s killing was significant because the deaths of leaders can “disrupt the chain-of-command and communications, thereby leading to less organizational cohesion.” But ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Qaida have all successfully rebounded in the past after replacing senior leadership figures killed in “high-value targeting” missions. And so the dozens of fighters also killed in the April raid will likely have greater effect.
“It is often more important to thin out the middle tier of jihadist organizations, as this tier contains the operatives who actually plan and execute operations,” he said.
Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at King’s College London, said the most significant implication of Hasib’s killing is that choosing a replacement could prove a divisive issue for the terror group. Hasib had been appointed interim governor after the death of his predecessor; he was seen as neither effective nor popular, but the group had been unable to agree on another candidate, Giustozzi says.
“The main thing is that the string of leaders killed gets longer,” he said.
A U.S. military statement said Hasib had directed a devastating attack on March 8 when fighters dressed as medical personnel killed more than 50 people in a military hospital in Kabul’s diplomatic district.
Joscelyn said the threat posed by ISIS-K, which at the peak of its powers in early 2016 controlled or contested about 2 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, is dwarfed by that of the Taliban, which currently controls or contests at least 40 percent despite having been targeted by U.S. and coalition forces for the past 16 years.
In February, Nicholson described the war against the Taliban as being in “a stalemate,” and last week U.S. military officials said they were considering sending in additional forces. Last month, the Taliban carried out a deadly assault on an army base near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, massacring more than 100 Afghan soldiers; on Sunday the group captured Qala Zal district in the northern province of Kunduz.
Giustozzi said he did not believe the high-profile strikes against ISIS-K targets reflected a disproportionate U.S. focus on the terror group. Instead, he said that, unlike the Taliban, ISIS-K lacked a safe haven in Pakistan, so its leaders were being “exposed.”
“That is the main reason for them getting killed in large numbers,” he said, “rather than a particular U.S. obsession.”