PESHAWAR, Pakistan/KABUL (REUTERS) - The leader of Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan was killed in a US drone strike on July 26, a US defence official said on Friday (Aug 12) after the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan announced the news to Reuters.
The death of Hafiz Saeed Khan is a blow to efforts by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – also known as ISIS or Daesh – to expand from its heartlands in Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan and Pakistan, already crowded with militant movements including the Taleban and Al-Qaeda.
It is the second US killing of a prominent militant in the region in months. In May, a US drone killed Afghan Taleban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a strike in Pakistan.
Despite that, Afghanistan’s 15-year-old war grinds on with no clear victory in sight. Taleban fighters have been threatening at least two provincial capitals this summer, in Helmand and Kunduz, and a US government report said Afghan forces have lost 5 per cent of territory this year.
In terms of its own territory, ISIS has been largely confined to a handful of districts in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, where ISIS militants - mostly defectors from the Taleban – are blamed for raiding villages and government outposts.
Still, worries that ISIS might be expanding its operational reach heightened this week when the group took credit for an attack on a Pakistani hospital that killed at least 74 people in the southwestern city of Quetta. A Pakistani Taleban faction also claimed responsibility.
A few weeks earlier, Islamic State claimed an attack on a rally in Kabul which killed more than 80 people.
Khan has been reported dead before. But a claim by Afghan intelligence agents last year that he had been killed was never confirmed.
On Friday, however, Afghan Ambassador Omar Zakhilwal told Reuters he had seen confirmation from Afghan security forces. “I can confirm that ISIS Khurasan (Afghanistan and Pakistan) leader Hafiz Saeed Khan along with his senior commanders and fighters died in a US drone strike on July 26 in Kot district of Afghanistan’s Nangharhar province,” he said.
A US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the news.
Khan – a longtime commander with the Pakistani Taleban - pledged allegiance in October 2014 to ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Taleban’s various factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as their Al-Qaeda allies are bitter rivals of ISIS' al-Baghdadi. The Taleban reject al-Baghdadi as leader of an invisioned worldwide caliphate.
In Afghanistan, Taleban and ISIS fighters have battled over territory in Nangarhar, though both have recently been more busy defending against US and Afghan assaults.
Between January and early August, American warplanes conducted nearly 140 air strikes against ISIS targets in Afghanistan, according to the US military.
Afghan forces, backed by the American military, killed an estimated 300 ISIS fighters in an operation mounted two weeks ago, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan said on Wednesday, calling it a severe blow to the group.