Following the death of Hamza bin Laden, al-Qaeda has lost another key leader in late September after U.S. and Afghan security forces killed al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) emir Asim Umar in Musa Qila district of Helmand province. Six other senior members of AQIS were also killed in the operation (NDTV, October 9).
Asim Umar, a veteran jihadist of Indian descent, was operating from Afghanistan, where AQIS also takes part in the Taliban-led insurgency against the Afghan government and U.S. troops. AQIS militants have been found embedded with Afghan Taliban forces in numerous terrorist operations in recent months.
Al-Qaeda Central established AQIS to serve two main purposes—launch terrorist attacks directly under the banner of Al-Qaeda Central and to compete with the newly established Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). After a spectacular start with the attempted hijacking of a Pakistani Naval Frigate in 2014, AQIS has since failed to compete with IS-K, as the group has shown a higher degree of ferocity in its attacks across Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Umar’s death is a colossal loss for al-Qaeda because he was one of the few experienced commanders the group had operating in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, as most of the high-level leaders have either been killed in drone strikes (in tribal areas of Pakistan) or arrested after the commencement of Global War on Terror.
Who was Asim Umar?
Umar, whose real name is Sana ul Haq, had been a prominent figure among Pakistani jihadist circles since the Afghan War (1979-89). Despite living in Pakistan and Afghanistan since the times of the Afghan War, Umar did not belong to either country. In fact, he was an Indian national who migrated to Pakistan to participate in Afghan jihad in the mid-1980s. He hailed from the Sambhal district of Uttar Pradesh (Economic Times, October 10). Zawahiri appointed Asim Umar as the emir of AQIS in September 2014 in an attempt to reinvigorate al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities in Pakistan. Zawahiri and Umar were featured together in the AQIS launch video. Previosly, Umar had served as a high-ranking leader of Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami and later Harkat ul Mujahideen (See TM, October 24, 2014).
Umar was acknowledged as a skilled propagandist and released countless video statements and press releases for al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) over the years. Umar also wrote a number of books on Dajjal (Anti-Christ). His books such as World War-III and Dajjal, Bermuda Triangle and Dajjal, Lashkar of Dajjal: The Black Water in Pakistan, and Friends and Foes of the Messiah are widely available on jihadist websites. Umar’s long association with al-Qaeda is evident from the fact that he served as head of the group’s Sharia committee in Pakistan before being elevated to emir of AQIS.
Under Umar’s leadership, AQIS started its terrorist campaign in Pakistan by assassinating Brigadier General Zahoor Fazal Qadri in September 2014. The attack was followed by an attempted hijacking of Pakistani Navy Frigate PNS Zulfiqar (See TM, October 24, 2014). If successfully concluded, the PNS Zulfiqar operation could have been the largest terror attack on a naval vessel since the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000. In later years, AQIS focused more on operations in Afghanistan against U.S. and Afghan forces, likely because of the close links between Umar and Afghan Taliban leadership. A number of AQIS cells did, however, continue operating in Karachi, Pakistan. Another organization, Jamaat al Ansar al-Sharia, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. It is not clear whether Jamaat al-Ansar al-Shariah, which perpetrated number of terrorist attacks in Karachi in 2016-17, had any formal links with AQIS.
Umar studied in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province at Darul Uloom Haqania madrasah, a religious seminary known for its role in Afghan jihad and later for supporting the Afghan Taliban. A significant percentage of the Afghan Taliban leadership attended Darul Uloom Haqania, including Mullah Omar, the now-deceased supreme commander of the Afghan Taliban.
Though the Taliban or al-Qaeda has not given an official confirmation of their own, the Afghan government has released pictures and confirmed his death alongside six other AQIS operatives in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation (Al Jazeera, October 8).
Umar was killed in an Afghan Taliban hideout in Musa Qila district, a known Taliban stronghold in Helmand province. The circumstances are indicative of long-running Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda ties and their collaboration in the Afghan insurgency. The idea that the Taliban would deny a safe haven to foreign fighters in Afghanistan after reaching a peace deal with the United States, as was suggested during negotiations, has been proven unlikely following Umar’s discovery in Taliban-held territory. Additionally, Umar’s presence in southern Afghanistan indicates strong al-Qaeda penetration into Afghanistan. Umar’s death is a significant loss for al-Qaeda, which has still not fully recovered from the deaths of its veteran leaders, including Hamza bin Laden, who was once believed to be the future of al-Qaeda. The implications of Umar’s death are far-reaching for the group’s activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Though he could not manage to take AQIS to the strategic level of IS-K, he still made an operational difference. AQIS under Umar’s leadership claimed responsibility for the death of secular bloggers in Bangladesh, and the group established cells in the Afghan provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni, and Nuristan. In 2015, U.S. forces also found a large AQIS training camp in Shorabak, Kandahar province (NDTV, October 9). It appears that there might be a serious leadership crisis looming for al-Qaeda as there are few senior leaders available to fill the current gaps in leadership. Given the current leadership circumstances, there is a vital chance of a plunge in al-Qaeda terrorist activities in in the Af-Pak region.
The killing of Asim Umar is a notable achievement for Afghan and U.S. security forces operating against the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda in the nearly two-decade-long Global War on Terror’s South Asia theater. Currently, there are concerted efforts to negotiate peace in Afghanistan bolstered by the Trump administration’s strong desire to exit the country at all costs. A peace negotiation with the Taliban and a quick exit for U.S. troops is worrisome in light of this incident, as it is indicative of the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s continued cooperation. This showcases the groups’ close alliance and the Taliban’s resolve not to abandon al-Qaeda, despite their claims in the recently collapsed peace talks.