A high-ranking Islamic State commander in Afghanistan has been killed in an airstrike, officials said Saturday, as Afghan and U.S. forces increase attacks on the militant group.
Qari Hekmat was the top commander of Islamic State – Khorasan Province in the northern province of Jowzjan, where the group established a stronghold after coming under intense pressure in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Hekmat was killed Friday in an Afghan airstrike in Darzab district, the defence ministry said in a statement, describing him as “one of the key figures” for ISKP in northern Afghanistan and adding that he has been replaced by Mawlawi Habib-ul-Rahman.
Images that appear to show his body have been posted on social media.
He was a driving force behind succesfull Taliban-ISKP April-May 2017 in Darzab. After that he managed to almost completely wipe Taliban out of Darzab and Qush Tepa districts of Jowzjan, multiple Taliban attempts to oust him failed.
— Paweł Wójcik (@SaladinAlDronni) April 7, 2018
Islamic State – Khorasan Province – known as ISKP, IS-K and ISIS-K – first emerged in Afghanistan in 2014 as NATO combat troops withdrew from the country and handed over responsibility to Afghan security forces.
Mohammad Hanif Rezaee, a spokesperson for the Shaheen 209 Military Corps in Balkh province, said Hekmat and his bodyguard were killed in an Afghan air force airstrike in Moghol village, Darzab district on Thursday, TOLOnews reported.
Provincial governor Lutfullah Azizi confirmed Hekmat had been killed but said U.S. forces carried out the airstrike.
“Our intelligence sources have identified his body. His death will affect the recruitment of Daesh and disperse IS fighters in Afghanistan’s north,” Azizi said.
Jowzjan provincial police chief Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani said Hekmat was killed on Thursday in a joint operation between Afghan and foreign forces, AFP reported.
“He was the founder of Daesh in northern Afghanistan and had recruited fighters,” Jawzjani said.
Jawzjani told Pajhwok Afghan News that Hekmat, Qari Ahmad and two foreign fighters were targeted by aircraft attached to NATO’s Resolute Support mission. He said that security forces later cleared 12 square kilometers in the district and recaptured the villages of Qurogh and Qashlaq.
U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesperson Colonel Lisa Garcia told The Defense Post: “While I cannot confirm the death of IS-K Commander Qari Hekmatullah, I can confirm that we are conducting a series of intensive operations in Jowzjan and across all of northern Afghanistan to defeat IS-K.”
Update, April 9: U.S. Forces Afghanistan said on Monday that a U.S. airstrike killed Hekmat and his bodyguard:
“A U.S. airstrike killed Qari Hikmatullah and his bodyguard in Bal Chiragh district, Faryab province, Afghanistan, Apr. 5, 2018. At the time of his death, Hikmatullah was the senior IS-K commander and the main facilitator of IS-K fighters into northern Afghanistan.
IS-K in Jowzjan province is the main conduit for external support and foreign fighters from Central Asian states into Afghanistan. Hikmatullah was the key leader for those operations.”
The Afghan defense ministry said on Saturday its forces carried out 13 airstrikes in seven provinces against Taliban and ISKP targets over the previous 24 hours.
Warlord’s loss is an important blow against ISKP
Previously a Taliban member, Hekmat left the group in 2015 and has since recruited fighters and attempted to build ISKP governance structures in Jowzjan, focused on Darzab. He survived a number of Taliban attempts to oust him earlier this year.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said Qari Hekmat was killed in an airstrike conducted by “foreign forces,” and said that the Taliban had nothing to do with his killing, Pajhwok reported.
Paweł Wójcik, an analyst who tracks al-Qaeda and Islamic State militancy in central and southeast Asia, told The Defense Post that the loss of Hekmat, one of the most powerful warlords in Afghanistan’s north, was an important blow to ISKP in the region.
“Qari Hekmat’s death is yet another major hit against Islamic State – Khorasan Province in the north of Afghanistan,” Wójcik said.
“Hekmat was responsible for most ISKP successes in Jowzjan, including the push to oust both the Afghan National Army and the Taliban from Darzab district between March and May 2017,” Wójcik said, adding that Hekmat may have been directly responsible for the infamous massacre in Mirza Olang, where ISKP killed more than 50 Hazara villagers.
“Hekmat’s influence allowed ISKP to not only defend itself from the Taliban but also expand into other Jowzjan districts – most significantly Qush Tepa – and Sar-i-Pul province, where they have been able to freely govern the areas under their control,” Wójcik said.
Wójcik added that while three recent Taliban offensives against ISKP failed, the death of Hekmat presents a opportunity for the Taliban to strike against ISKP, particularly if the Afghan security forces and the U.S. pursue their anti-ISIS operations.
U.S. and Afghan forces have ramped up airstrikes and ground offensives against ISIS in Jowzjan in recent months as the group seeks to expand its foothold in the country.
Last month, Afghan security forces detained a French woman fighting for ISIS in the same district of Jowzjan. AFP has reported that French and Algerian fighters, some arriving from Syria, have joined ISIS in the restive province.
In January, Afghan forces caught Khitab Aka, ISKP’s “head facilitator of foreign forces.” Two months later, his two successors were killed in a U.S. airstrike, a NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a statement.
This story was updated on April 9 to add confirmation from U.S. Forces Afghanistan that a U.S. airstrike killed Hekmat.
With reporting from AFP