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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

ISIS leader in Afghanistan killed in strike, spy agency says 

Saad Arhabi killed with 10 other fighters in Nangarhar overnight, security officials say

Smoke rises from air strikes on ISIS positions in eastern Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan. AFP
Smoke rises from air strikes on ISIS positions in eastern Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan. AFP

The leader of ISIS in Afghanistan has been killed in a US air strike in the eastern province of Nangarhar, Afghan and Nato officials confirmed to The National.

Saad Arhabi, the leader of ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K), the affiliate named after an ancient province, was killed alongside 10 other fighters in strikes on the Khogyani district on Saturday night, said the Afghan National Directorate of Security, the country’s primary domestic and foreign intelligence agency.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's deputy spokesperson confirmed his death. Nato's Resolute Support mission said it was American forces who carried out the strike. Both gave a different name for Arhabi, referring to him as Abu Saad Orakazai, the last name an identifier of his tribe. His nomme de guerre "Arhabi" means "terrorist" or someone who strikes fear into an enemy.

"I can confirm that US forces conducted a counterterrorism strike, August 25, in Khugyani district, Nangarhar province, which targeted a senior leader of a designated terrorist organisation," Resolute Support spokesperson Martin O'Donnell told The National in an email.

Arhabi was appointed the emir of ISIS-K after the death of Abdul Haseeb Logari in April 2017. His death represents another blow to the group that has been vying for dominance with the more-established Taliban group.

The militant chief was notorious for increasing brutal ISIS attacks in the country. Little else is known about Arhabi's background.

ISIS's affiliate in Afghanistan was established in 2014 when it pledged allegiance to ISIS central in Syria and Iraq. The group's ideology differs to the nationalist, Islamist-driven vision of the Taliban, conferring to an ultraconservative form of Salafi Islam. Its ranks derive from foreign fighters who have found refuge in Afghanistan, as well as the array of militias that operate in the country and even defectors from the Taliban.

Parts of the Pakistani Taliban also pledged allegiance to ISIS, offering ISIS-K greater authority in its recruitment goals and aiding its rise. It gained ground in traditional Taliban heartlands such as Helmand and Farah before being pushed back, eventually establishing the eastern province of Nangarhar, a remote eastern province, as its main stronghold.

Multiple militant factions use the Afghan-Pakistani border as a hub from which they can operate. The group is believed to be well-equipped after capturing sizeable amounts of weaponry given to Afghan forces on the battlefield. A 2014 report published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that around 43 per cent of arms given to the Afghan military ended up in ISIS or Taliban hands.

The group is battling the Taliban militant group for influence in Afghanistan and has carried out several deadly attacks in Afghanistan in the past year, mostly focusing on civilian targets. Several have penetrated the centre of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Their attacks peaked at the end of 2017, when the group struck Kabul seven times in three months.

Earlier this month, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 34 students in a Shia area of Kabul. The students were studying for university entrance exams.

Its latest claimed attack was a suicide bomb that killed at least two people on Saturday in the eastern city of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province.

The attack appeared to target a protest camp outside an election commission office where a group of people were rallying in support of a candidate disqualified from parliamentary elections due in October.

The US has conducted airstrikes against ISIS-K to help curtail the affiliate's growth in the country. "These efforts are unlike the nationwide Afghan-led offensive targeting Taliban irreconcilables who refuse to listen to the calls of the Afghan people for them to take the courageous step towards peace and reconciliation. These efforts target the real enemies of Afghanistan, the same enemies who threaten America," Mr O'Donnell added.

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In April, an American strike killed the leader of ISIS in northern Afghanistan, Qari Hekmatullah. He was a senior commander in the group's ranks.

Afghan officials said Afghan-operated drones had struck Hekmatullah in his hiding place in the northern province of Faryab. Kabul said it had photographs of his body as proof of his death.

Afghan government forces supported by US special forces have recaptured the majority of territory that ISIS had captured in Afghanistan.

There are fears in Washington and Kabul that as ISIS continues to lose the last remnants of territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, the group will increasingly turn its focus to Afghanistan, a country wracked by 17 years of war and the focal point of a bloody Taliban insurgency.

Earlier this month, around 200 of the group's fighters surrendered to the Afghan military instead of being captured by the Taliban. Those who gave themselves up included the new leader of ISIS in northern Afghanistan, Habib Rahman, and his deputy, officials said.

The group said it had surrendered because it faced battles from both sides – the Taliban and the Afghan military.

In early 2017, US officials said they estimate around 700 ISIS fighters to remain in Afghanistan, but it remains unclear how much those numbers have changed. In April of that year, it dropped what it said was the "mother of all bombs", the most powerful non-nuclear explosive in Washington's arsenal, on an ISIS cave complex in the Achin district of Nangarhar.

The device, known as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast and which reportedly costs $170,000 per bomb, can destroy everything within 1,000 yards.

US President Donald Trump has reversed his mooted policy of withdrawal in Afghanistan, boosting troop numbers to 15,000 and bestowing more authority on his generals in a bid to defeat the Taliban and ISIS in the country, as well as Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

The country has suffered a surge in violence in the past month at the hands of both the Taliban and ISIS-K, coming after an unprecedented three-day Eid ceasefire between the government and the Taliban. But, soon after, the Taliban relaunched its insurgency, again driving a stake into peace hopes.

The group calls for direct talks with the US government but refuses to enter into talks with the Afghan government, which it considers to be an illegitimate entity created by the West after it overthrew the group from power in 2001.

America's top commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said that there was an "unprecedented" opportunity for peace after the June truce. Mr Ghani offered the Taliban another truce to coincide with Eid Al Adha, this time a three-month ceasefire, but the group rejected it outright.

The Afghan leader faced his own internal troubles on Sunday. He was forced to reject the resignations of his intelligence chief, interior and defence ministers as the government comes under fire for failing to plug the deadly insurgency.

Ghani called on Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak and intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai to continue their duties and demanded they help bolster the country's defences.

"President Ghani did not approve their resignations... and gave them the necessary instructions to improve the security situation," said a palace statement.