A U.S. drone strike in eastern Afghanistan earlier this week killed Abu Sayed, the leader of the Islamic State’s offshoot there, U.S. officials said Friday.
A Pentagon statement said that other Islamic State members were also killed in the July 11 operation in Kunar Province and said that it “will significantly disrupt the terror group’s plans to expand its presence in Afghanistan.” The statement provided little other detail about the strike.
A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details about the attack, said the strike targeted a meeting and that U.S. forces had not been tracking Sayed for long.
If confirmed, Sayed’s death marks another setback for the terror group in Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan forces have been pummeling Islamic State positions in eastern Afghanistan for months in an effort to dislodge the militants from the craggy peaks and remote valleys of Nangahar and Kunar provinces. In April, a team of 50 U.S. Army Rangers and 40 Afghan commandos assaulted a hamlet in Achin, a district of Nangahar province, killing Abdul Hasib, Sayed’s predecessor as commander of ISIS in Afghanistan, and roughly 30 other militants. Eight months before Hasib was killed, Hafiz Saeed Khan, the Islamic State’s leader in Afghanistan prior to Hasib, was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Two U.S. Rangers were killed in the operation t0 kill Hasib, the Pentagon said, possibly from “friendly fire.” Seven U.S. service members have died in combat in Afghanistan in 2017, six of them in the eastern part of the country while supporting the fight against the Islamic State.
Just two weeks before the attack on Hasib, the U.S. military dropped a 22,000 thousand bomb, called the MOAB, on a cave complex in Achin, destroying what was described by the military as a key cave complex used by the militants. It is unclear how many fighters, if any, were killed in that operation.
Despite being under constant bombardment and hemorrhaging leadership, the Islamic State’s offshoot in Afghanistan has managed to keep a foothold in the country. In June the group seized Tora Bora from the Taliban. Once a key battle ground between U.S. and al-Qaeda, the area–pockmarked with caves and redoubts–is easily defensible from the ground and hard to target from the air.
The Pentagon assesses that the Islamic State presence in Afghanistan is down to less than 1,000 fighters, from a 2015 mark of 2,500. The presence of the group has stretched Afghan forces thin as they have had to divert resources away from fighting the Taliban, the militant group that has fought the U.S.-backed government since they were ousted from power in 2001.
More than 2,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Afghans have died in what has become America’s longest running war. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told lawmakers that the United States is “not winning” there, and is set to propose a new strategy for the war that could involve sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Some NATO countries have already pledged to increase troop levels ahead of any formal U.S. announcement. The increase of forces will bring additional training capabilities to the struggling Afghan military along with fire support to give it more leverage against the revitalized insurgency.