The chief of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban, has been killed in a US drone strike, a spokesman for the group confirmed to AFP on Thursday.
“Chief of our Jamaat-ul-Ahrar Umar Khalid Khorasani, who sustained serious injuries in a recent US drone strike in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, succumbed to his injuries Wednesday evening,” JuA spokesman Asad Mansoor told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“At least nine close associates of Khorasani were also killed in the strike,” he added.
Mansoor said a high-level meeting of JuA’s consultative council will be convened soon to appoint the outfit’s new chief.
However, an important Taliban commander said on condition of anonymity that one of JuA’s senior commanders, Asad Afridi, has already been appointed new JuA chief.
The recent unprecedented increase drone strikes in the Pak-Afghan border region appears to be reflective of a change in policy in Washington, with at least 70 strikes ─ both drone and ground ─ conducted in Afghanistan in the past three weeks, and over 30 people killed in strikes near the border in the last few days.
The strikes came days after Canadian hostage Joshua Boyle and his American wife and three children were freed in Pakistan after five years of captivity at the hands of the Haqqani network.
Analysts said Khorasani’s death suggested resumption of intelligence sharing and coordination between Pakistan and the US.
“The resumption of drone strikes on anti-Pakistan elements following hard stance on Trump’s Afghan policy signals moderation of positions by Islamabad and Washington,” leading Pakistan security analyst Imtiaz Gul told AFP.
He said “it shows America’s willingness to redress Pakistan’s complaints about presence of militant safe havens on Afghan soil”.
“Both countries now seem to be back to their business. “
Journalist turned militant
One of the founding members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Khorasani (aka Abdul Wali) was a former journalist from Mohmand agency. Within organisational circles, he was known as a formidable military commander. He was also given additional charge of the Khyber agency chapter for a brief period where he orchestrated a bloody campaign against government-backed lashkars (militias).
Climbing up in the ranks to Mohmand agency chief, he was later ousted from the TTP for forming JuA.
Khorasani previously led a faction called Ahrarul Hind, which claimed several attacks during a ceasefire period between the government and Taliban in 2014, including one on an Islamabad court complex that killed 12 people.
Analysts believe Khorasani had strong links to Al Qaeda and its chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
The JuA first came to prominence when it claimed responsibility for the 2014 Wagah attack. At least 61 people were killed in the attack and over 100 others were injured.
The terror group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Pakistan in recent times, particularly those targeting military and law enforcement personnel, government buildings, politicians, minority groups and lawyers.
More recently, it was behind the suicide attack on police officials on Lahore’s Mall Road earlier this year and a deadly double attack in Parachinar targeting the city’s Shia community. Thirteen people were killed and 85 injured in the Lahore attack; more than 72 lost their lives in Parachinar.
On March 7, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar also claimed responsibility for an attack from across the Afghan border on three security posts at Gora Pari in the Mohmand tribal region. The attack claimed the lives of five soldiers, the military’s media wing had reported.
A few days later on March 16, the terrorist group claimed another cross-border attack in the Landi Kotal area of Khyber Agency, which resulted in six suspected militants being killed. The gun battle lasted several hours in which two FC personnel lost their lives and four others suffered injuries.
A nationwide crackdown launched in February specifically targeted JuA, and many of its members have been killed or apprehended since the surge in violence this year.
Earlier this year, the army had also released the confessional statement of Liaquat Ali, infamously known as Ehsanullah Ehsan, a former spokesperson of the JuA and TTP.
The video brought forth some startling revelations, including the claim that the TTP and JuA have been coordinating with Indian and Afghan security agencies to move freely in Afghanistan and have been guided by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s apex spy agency, in infiltrating into Pakistan.
Ehsan, who seemed disgruntled by what he termed the self-serving agenda of senior leaders of the TTP and JuA, also said that these organisations have twisted Islam to suit their own ends and are actively looking to recruit young men and women through propaganda and false interpretations of Islam spread through social media.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had said in February this year that JuA had been launching attacks from Afghan territory. The killing of its senior-most commander in Afghanistan’s Paktia province will serve to support Pakistan’s long-standing demand that terrorist hideouts across the western border be eliminated.