US air strike kills senior al-Qaeda member
A US air strike in Afghanistan killed a senior Al-Qaeda commander, the Pentagon said Friday, in the latest blow to the worldwide militant network struggling with the rise of the Islamic State group. The attack, which occurred in Paktika province on July 11, killed Abu Khalil al-Sudani, a "high-ranking Al-Qaeda operational commander", the Pentagon said in a statement released to reporters in Iraq who were travelling with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
"Al-Sudani was one of three known violent extremists killed in the strike. The death of al-Sudani will further degrade Al-Qaeda operations across the globe," the statement said. The Pentagon described Sudani as a senior member of the group's "shura", or council, and head of Al-Qaeda's suicide and explosive operations, adding he was directly linked to plotting attacks against the United States.
"He also directed operations against Coalition, Afghan and Pakistani forces, and maintained a close association with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's leader," the statement said.
Two militant sources - one in the Pakistani Taliban and the other in the Afghan Taliban - confirmed the death of Sudani, who also went by the alias "Saifullah Khalil", as well as his status as a core commander. Al-Sudani was responsible for training new fighters and also taking care of financial matters for the group in the area, according to the Afghan Taliban source.
"He used to finance militant groups and provide them money whenever they needed," the source said. A secretive figure who preferred to hide his identity, al-Sudani would cover his face with a white shawl whenever he went outside, the Afghan militant said, adding that the Taliban received the news of his death last week. "He was buried in Paktika along with the others and some eight to 10 fighters attended the funeral prayer," the source added.
The Pakistani Taliban source meanwhile said al-Sudani was based out of Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal district until the Pakistani military launched a major offensive in the region last year.
"In North Waziristan Al-Sudani used to travel with two personal bodyguards and used to carry several suicide vests in his vehicle," the Pakistani militant source said. The moniker "Al-Sudani" suggests he was a Sudanese national.
Defence Secretary Carter said the killing of Sudani underscored the work done by General John Campbell, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and his troops "to take the fight to Al-Qaeda".
"We will continue to counter violent extremism in the region and the world," Carter said. Already struggling with the rise of rival jihadists from the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months with several commanders reported killed. Its second-in-command Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of its powerful Yemeni branch, was killed in a US drone strike in June, in the heaviest blow to the jihadist network since the death of Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile in Syria, a US-led coalition air strike this month killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the leader of Al-Qaeda's offshoot Khorasan Group, which is accused of plotting attacks against the United States and its allies. Al-Fahdli was so trusted by Bin Laden's inner circle that he was among the few who knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks in New York.
US-led NATO forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in December, leaving local forces to battle militants alone, but a 13,000-strong residual force remains for training and counter-terrorism operations. Despite the draw-down, coalition forces carried out 106 military air strikes in June, a sharp jump compared to the previous month when it carried out 41 strikes, according to NATO statistics.
That figure is still significantly lower than previous years. US President Barack Obama has backpedalled on plans to shrink the US force in Afghanistan this year by nearly half, agreeing to keep the current level of 9,800 US troops until the end of 2015.