FILE - Afghan militia men raise their weapons as they stand guard in the Achin district of Nangarhar province east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 27, 2015.
FILE - Afghan militia men raise their weapons as they stand guard in the Achin district of Nangarhar province east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 27, 2015.

WASHINGTON - A top commander of the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State group, implicated for his role in multiple suicide attacks and other atrocities, has been killed in a counterterrorism airstrike in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan officials said Thursday.

Qari Munib “was killed during a larger Afghan and U.S. counterterrorism operation focused on ... eastern Afghanistan,” according to a Pentagon statement issued Thursday. Officials said the strike occurred February 1 in Nangarhar Province’s Achin district.

The Pentagon and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said Munib was the mastermind behind multiple suicide attacks in Kabul and “large-scale atrocities” in Nangarhar’s Achin district, which borders Pakistan.

Islamic State’s self-styled “Khorasan Province” branch is active in Afghanistan and Pakistan; the name refers to a centuries-old description of Afghanistan and surrounding areas of Central Asia and Persia.

U.S.-Afghan joint operations are frequent

Asked about the joint operation targeting Munib, U.S. officials said American and Afghan forces routinely conduct counterterror operations together, and U.S. warplanes carried out hundreds of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Afghanistan during the first seven months of last year.

Munib, who by some accounts was one of two IS commanders killed in the February 1 strike, “was involved in large-scale atrocities against our people in Nangarhar’s Achin district and several other areas,” the Afghan government said.

A separate statement by the Pentagon said Munib played a key role in planning two suicide attacks in Kabul during June and July of last year that together killed nearly 100 people: Nepalese security guards at the Canadian Embassy and members of Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic minority. The second attack, during a Hazara protest in the capital, wounded more than 250 others and was considered the deadliest attack in the city since 2001.

Logar Province, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan
Logar Province, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan

A fugitive for years

Munib also was said to have orchestrated other attacks on Shi’ite Muslim worshipers during Ashura, a major religious observance for that branch of Islam, and against Afghan security forces. He had been hunted by Afghan and U.S. forces for years, and had been reported killed by a U.S. drone attack five years ago in another part of Afghanistan, but his death never was confirmed.

More recently Munib is believed to have trained IS fighters and recruits and planned several future attacks on villages in Nangarhar province, an area where Islamic State extremists have been growing in strength for the past two years.

IS attacks on Afghan government forces and villages have killed hundreds of people, Afghan authorities said. Just last month, Islamic State supporters kidnapped 12 teachers and two staff members from a religious school in the Haskamena district of Nangarhar.

President: IS atrocities ‘will be punished’

Afghan security forces have been engaged recently in fierce battles with IS militants in the province. They recently drove extremist fighters out of the Pachiragam district after a three-month operation, and two IS commanders were killed this week in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Nangarhar’s Haskamena district.

“Those who commit atrocities against our nation will not be able to evade justice,” President Ghani said this week. “They will be punished either through courts or killed in operations by the brave Afghan security forces.”

The Islamic State group is attempting to expand to other areas of Afghanistan, and officials told VOA this week that the son of a slain Uzbek commander of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been recruiting Uzbek men in northern Afghanistan to join the extremists. 

Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afg
Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 9, 2017, before the Senate Armed Services Senate Committee. Nicholson said he needs a "few thousand" more troops to better accomplish a key part of the mission in the war-torn country.

U.S. General John Nicholson, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill Thursday that until now, most IS fighters in Afghanistan were former members of the Pakistani Taliban.

VOA’s Carla Babb contributed to this report from the Pentagon and VOA’s Mehdi Jedinia from Washington.