The US drone strike in Afghanistan targeted a mid-level “planner” from the Islamic State’s local affiliate who was travelling in a car with one other person near the eastern city of Jalalabad, US official sources said on Saturday.
The strike came two days after Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside Kabul airport, as western forces running the airlift braced for more attacks.
The US president, Joe Biden, has promised to hunt down those responsible, striking in a place and time of his choosing.
The drone strike is likely to be in part aimed at reassuring a shaken US public that its government’s counter-terrorist capabilities in Afghanistan remain intact despite the chaotic withdrawal.
There is no indication that the target of the drone was involved in Thursday’s blast, which killed around 180 mense, insluitend 13 US marines.
The attack focused attention on ISKP, which had previously been seen as only a minor actor in Afghanistan and one of the weaker IS affiliates around the world.
The group was founded in 2014 by a few dozen disaffected Taliban commanders and defectors from other militants from the region and made early gains in districts close to the border with Pakistan in the eastern Nangarhar province, where the drone strike occurred around midnight on Friday night. The name Khorasan was given by medieval Islamic imperial rulers to a region including modern Afghanistan.
Major offensives by government forces and the US inflicted heavy casualties on ISKP and forced them from their strongholds in Nangarhar. Fighters from the Taliban, which viewed the ISKP as a threat to its campaign to take control of Afghanistan, also attacked the group’s enclave and in recent months have made a series of unsuccessful efforts to retake two valleys in the remote and rugged Kunar province from the group.
In a report compiled from intelligence supplied by member nations earlier this year, the UN said ISKP had been reduced to 1,500 aan 2,200 fighters in small areas of Kunar and Nangarhar provinces in eastern Afghanistan, and consisted “primarily of cells … across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology”.
The ISKP campaign of violence has intensified this year, targeting religious minorities, NGOs, journalists and Taliban officials. In recent months, ISKP commanders have been among the biggest clients of local arms dealers around Jalalabad, suggesting that some of its networks have survived.
Op Vrydag, a senior Taliban commander in Jalalabad, Afghanistan’s fifth largest city, said some ISKP members there had been arrested in connection with the Kabul attack.
“They are being interrogated by our intelligence team,” the commander told Reuters.
ISKP sees the Taliban as apostates, accusing Afghanistan’s new rulers of being “filthy nationalists” who have compromised their faith by negotiating with the US and other international powers.
Many ISKP fighters come from outside Afghanistan, with a high proportion drawn from Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This has led to internal divisions over strategies, with some factions favouring efforts to win over rather than simply coerce local communities.
Die US military said “initial indications” suggested that the target of the drone strike, who has not been identified, was killed and there were no known civilian casualties
Egter, a community elder in Jalalabad said three people were killed and four were wounded in the airstrike at around midnight on Friday, adding he had been summoned by the Taliban investigating the incident.
“Women and children are among the victims,” said Malik Adib, though he did not have information about their identity.
There was no confirmation of either claim.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US believed there were still “specific, credible” threats against the airport after the bombing at one of its gates.
“We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts,” Kirby told reporters in Washington. “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”
While Kabul’s airport has been in chaos, the rest of the city has been generally calm. The Taliban have told residents to hand over government equipment including weapons and vehicles within a week, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.