The head of the Islamic State group in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has been killed in a drone strike in eastern Afghanistan, intelligence officials and militant commanders said Saturday.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan spy agency, said Hafiz Saeed was among 30 I.S.-linked cadres killed in the strike in restive Nangarhar province, close to the Pakistani border, on Friday.
Two I.S.-affiliated commanders in Afghanistan who said they were present when the strike happened confirmed Saeed’s death to AFP. The I.S. presence in Afghanistan is still thought to be at an embryonic stage and the killing of Saeed will come as a blow to the group’s efforts to establish itself as a serious force.
“Hafiz Saeed, I.S. leader in Afghanistan and Pakistan was killed in a drone strike last night,” the NDS said in a statement on Saturday. “As a result of drone strike in Achin district on gathering place of Daesh, 30 people associated with Daesh including their leader Hafiz Seed were killed.”
Daesh is another name for I.S.
The two militant commanders, who used to be with the Taliban, spoke with AFP by phone from an undisclosed location, claiming they were present when the drone strike happened. The strike took place while a meeting of the commanders was going on, they said, adding that Saeed’s badly mutilated body was buried soon afterwards.
It comes less than six months after a drone strike in Afghanistan killed Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was thought to be the I.S. number two in the country.
On Monday, two U.S. drone strikes in Achin targeted suspected I.S. militants, killing 49 people according to local officials.
Fierce clashes have been reported in recent months between fighters newly aligned with I.S. and Taliban cadres determined to preserve their dominance.
NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December, leaving local forces to battle the Taliban alone, but a residual force remains for training and counter-terrorism operations.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan confirmed a “precision strike” was carried out in Nangarhar on Friday but did not give details of the target.
Saeed was named head of I.S.’s “Khorasan province,” which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries, in January when a group of Pakistani Taliban switched allegiance to the group. Since then there have been defections from the Afghan Taliban, with some insurgents apparently adopting the I.S. flag to rebrand themselves as a more lethal force as NATO troops depart.
The extent of their links to the group’s operations in Syria and Iraq, and the extent of the support they receive, is extremely unclear.
I.S. has grabbed large areas of Syria and Iraq in a brutal campaign but last month the Pentagon said the group’s presence in Afghanistan was still “in the initial exploratory phase”. But their presence has clearly rattled the Taliban, who last month wrote to I.S. leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warning against waging a parallel insurgency in Afghanistan.
The I.S. Khorasan chapter claimed their first major attack in Pakistan in May, the killing of 43 minority Shia Muslims on a bus in Karachi.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has warned of the threat I.S. poses to his country as it seeks to end the Taliban’s bloody 13-year insurgency. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who held talks with Ghani at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on Friday, warned I.S. was “extending its tentacles” into Afghanistan.
Afghan and Taliban negotiators held their first face-to-face talks in Pakistan last week but efforts to find a negotiated path to peace could be complicated if I.S. becomes a serious threat.