KABUL (Reuters) - The top Islamic State commander in Afghanistan has been killed by a U.S. air strike in the country’s east, officials said on Saturday, the fourth ex-Taliban who declared loyalty to the Middle East-based militants to be assassinated within a week.
Hafez Saeed was the leader of Islamic State in the “so-called Khorasan state”, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) said, referring to an old term the militants use to describe Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He was killed along with 30 other militants as they gathered in Achin district of Nangarhar province late on Friday, the intelligence agency said. It gave no further details of the air strike.
Saeed, a Pakistani, was among a small but increasing number of senior Taliban militants who have switched allegiance to Islamic State, the radical Islamist movement that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and inspired attacks worldwide.
The new IS loyalists have been targets for U.S drone strikes in Afghanistan, which have killed three other Islamic State commanders in the same area in the past week, including top commanders Shahidullah Shahid and Gul Zaman.
The U.S. military has expressed concern about the budding Islamic State presence in Afghanistan - still struggling to quell the Taliban’s insurgency - and is using its remaining military force in the country to prevent IS from turning into the powerful force that emerged after the American withdrawal from Iraq.
A spokesman for U.S. military in Afghanistan, Col. Brian Tribus, confirmed on Saturday that “U.S. Forces conducted a precision strike in Achin District, Nangarhar Province, on July 10 against individuals threatening the force”.
After pushing out the Taliban insurgents, Islamic State fighters have in the past two months gained ground in several districts of Nangarhar province, which shares a long and porous border with lawless areas inside Pakistan.
Achin fell to the IS militants last month after heavy clashes with the Afghan Taliban, which has warned Islamic State to stay out of its territory.
Both rival movements espouse a radical vision of strict Islamic sharia law, but each rejects the other’s leadership.
Saeed was a senior commander in the Pakistani branch of the Taliban. He left and declared loyalty to Islamic State in October 2014 after differences with the Taliban leadership.
Together with other ex-Taliban he declared the mountainous Tirah valley in northwestern Pakistan as his headquarters, but soon fled across the border to Nangarhar in Afghanistan when the Pakistani military launched an offensive on his base.
Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan. Writing by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Ralph Boulton/Hugh Lawson