Al Qaeda Operates in Southern Helmand Province
Foreign jihadists, including members of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), are training at facilities in southern Helmand province in Afghanistan. The camps are used to prepare fighters to conduct attacks throughout Southeast Asia, according to reports reviewed by The Long War Journal. The discovery of the training centers in Baramcha, a town in southern Helmand province, indicates that al Qaeda and affiliated groups are training in multiple regions of Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, the US military raided two significant al Qaeda camps in the neighboring province of Kandahar. One of the facilities was approximately 30 square miles in size, according to a US military spokesman. [See LWJ report, US military strikes large al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan.]
But reporting in the Indian and Pakistani press indicates that the camps in Kandahar are not the only ones where al Qaeda is training inside Afghanistan. These same reports indicate that al Qaeda-linked groups, such as the Indian Muhajideen and Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, are also training in the district of Dishu in Baramcha.
The training facilities in Baramcha are likely tied to al Qaeda’s relocation from northern Pakistan into Afghanistan.
AQIS, which was established in September 2014, is the newest regional branch of al Qaeda. It is led by Asim Umar, who was groomed by al Qaeda to assume a leadership position, and includes jihadists from several established groups in the region. The earliest plots conceived by AQIS focused on the Pakistani military and other security forces, as well as American and Indian interests.
Since the beginning of the year, Pakistani authorities have carried out multiple raids against the group. However, according to Pakistani officials, AQIS has relocated a significant portion of its operations into Helmand. The move by AQIS was made in anticipation of the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive that began in June 2014. The offensive has targeted al Qaeda and affiliated jihadist groups, including several from Central Asia. Some of these same organizations have helped fuel the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan this year.
In April, Pakistani officials announced that they had broken up an AQIS cell in Karachi. However, a senior Pakistani counterterrorism official, Mohammed Arif Hanif, said that the jihadist group was using Helmand as a hub for its operations. “AQIS terrorists are provided assistance in Helmand from where they travel to Chaman, Quetta, Shikarpur and Karachi,” Hanif said, according to Dawn. A young Bengali suicide bomber who had targeted Pakistani Rangers had been traced back to Helmand, according to Pakistani officials. They added that AQIS had “relocated from Waziristan to Helmand province.”
In August, Dawn again reported that the Taliban was “sheltering” al Qaeda in Helmand. “The bond between us and our Taliban brothers is a solid ideological bond. They opted to lose their government and family members just to protect us,” Qari Abu Bakr, who works for As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, was quoted as saying. “There is no question of us moving apart now after going through this war together. Our common enemy does not know what is coming its way,” he added.
Al Qaeda has announced its relocation out of northern Pakistan. Earlier this month, an audio message featuring Hossam Abdul Raouf, a veteran al Qaeda leader who is close to Ayman al Zawahiri, was released online. Al Qaeda has “almost completely vacated Waziristan and Pakistan,” Raouf said in the recording. He explained that the “weight” of al Qaeda has been shifted to Syria and Yemen, because that is where al Qaeda’s efforts are most needed. But it is clear that al Qaeda has relocated senior leaders, including perhaps Raouf himself, to Afghanistan as well.
In July, the US killed Abu Khalil al Sudani, one of Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al Zawahiri’s closest compatriots, in an airstrike in Paktika province. In October 2014, another veteran al Qaeda commander, Abu Bara al Kuwaiti, perished in a US airstrike in Nangarhar province.
The training facilities in Baramcha are, therefore, almost certainly part of al Qaeda’s broader effort over the past few years to entrench its operations inside Afghanistan once again.
Taliban control Dishu, training camps established
The conditions are ripe for al Qaeda and affiliated groups to train at camps in Baramcha. The Afghan government admitted that the wider Dishu district is under the control of the Taliban, The New York Times reported in June.
In 2014, Pajhwok Afghan News reported, citing Afghan police officials, that Taliban “training camps and hideouts of drug smugglers were operational in [the] Dishu and Khanishin districts” in Helmand.
“[T]he rebels had established training centers in the Baramcha area of Dishu district,” the Afghan news agency said in February of that year.
The Taliban and al Qaeda have used Baramcha to host training facilities because the town is located in the remote southern district and borders Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The Afghan military and police find it difficult to project power in the area, and jihadists can quickly cross the border into Pakistan if threatened. The town is across the border from the Gerdi Jangal refugee camp, where one of the Taliban’s four regional military shuras is based.
The US military noted in October 2010 that Baramcha was a key node for the Taliban and “foreign fighters,” a term the US military often uses to mean al Qaeda.
“The area is a Taliban command and control area that consists of narcotics trafficking, weapons and ammunition storage, improvised explosive device factories, and foreign fighter training areas,” the now-defunct International Security Assistance Force noted in a press release announcing an operation to clear the Taliban and allied jihadists from the town.
US Marines and Afghan troops ultimately cleared Baramcha, but after US forces withdrew from the area in 2012, it quickly slipped back under the Taliban’s control, and the jihadists’ camps were back in operation.
Jihadists train in Baramcha
The Pakistani and Indian press have identified several jihadists who have passed through Baramcha for training over the past several years.
On Oct. 7, the Islamabad-based Daily Express reported that police captured Saeedullah, “an important member of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.” According to police, Saeedullah (AKA Rizwan Mullah, Choti Dunya), who was arrested in Karachi, “confessed that he had received training from Amir Jawad in Baramcha city of Afghanistan.”
In April 2014, The Indian Express reported that two Pakistanis from Karachi, Abdul Waleed Rind and Fahim, were recruited by Riyaz Bhatkal, who was identified as the founder of the Indian Muhajideen. The two Pakistani jihadists, who were captured inside India in March 2014 before they could attack Indian soldiers, attended separate training camps in Baramcha.
“The training routine for Fahim and Waleed, even though they went separately to different camps, was quite similar – a 15-21 day capsule with three days dedicated to assembling and disassembling the AK-47, three days to do the same with 9 mm pistols, two days on grenades and ways to throw them,” The Indian Express reported. “The remaining days were used for physical training and endurance.”
And in August 2015, The Friday Times, a Lahore-based publication, reported that Abdul Kabeer Shakir, a leader in Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), is “providing financial and other assistance” to “assassins” that are targeting Pakistani Shiites. ASWJ is the new name for the radical anti-Shiite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which is closely allied with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other Pakistani terrorist groups.
“A source in law enforcement said the people involved in sectarian killings usually received training at a bordering village named Baramcha,” The Friday Times reported.