ISIS Captures Tora Bora, Once Bin Laden’s Afghan Fortress
KABUL, Afghanistan — Tora Bora, the mountain redoubt that was once Osama bin Laden’s fortress, fell to the Islamic State early Wednesday, handing the extremists a significant strategic and symbolic victory, according to Afghan officials and local elders and residents.
Taliban fighters who had previously controlled the extensive cave and tunnel complex fled overnight after a determined, weeklong assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, according to villagers fleeing the area on Wednesday.
A local Afghan police official confirmed that the fortress had fallen. “ISIS has captured Tora Bora and areas around it,” he said. “The tribal elders are here in my office. They all escaped the area last night.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the Taliban in that area, denied that Tora Bora had fallen to their rival insurgents. “Fighting is underway in the Tora Bora area between ISIS and our mujahedeen,” Mr. Mujahid said via the Viber messaging service. “It is the front line between our mujahedeen and ISIS. No one has advanced in the area.”
He accused the United States of carrying out airstrikes in support of the Islamic State, but local officials and residents denied hearing any.
Residents said the Taliban had fled. “The Taliban escaped from the area last night and left us to ISIS with our women and children,” said Juma Gul, a tribal elder from the Suleymankhel Valley, close to Tora Bora, who said he was among hundreds of families who fled the area after the Islamic State took over. “There was no resistance by the Taliban against ISIS, and local tribes had no way to fight them anymore, so we just escaped.”
Hazrat Ali, a member of Parliament and a prominent warlord from the area who helped the Americans capture Tora Bora from Al Qaeda in 2001, said that the offensive was prompted by the American decision to drop the so-called mother of all bombs on an Islamic State network of tunnels in Achin District in April. The 20,000-pound bomb was thought to be the largest non-nuclear bomb ever deployed.
The Islamic State then decided to shift its refuge to the Tora Bora caves and tunnels, Mr. Ali said. “Some 1,000 ISIS militants were gathered close to Tora Bora, to capture the area,” Mr. Ali said. “I informed government forces to target them, and I told them they are trying to capture Tora Bora, but they did not pay attention.”
The militants now have not only an easily defended base at Tora Bora, Mr. Ali said, but also access to many other parts of Nangarhar Province through the Spin Ghar mountains along the Pakistan border, where Tora Bora sits. “ISIS has a stronghold and will capture these areas one after another,” he said.
Mr. Ali has extensive experience fighting against Al Qaeda in the area but has also been accused of having helped bin Laden escape from Tora Bora in December 2001, reportedly betraying his American and Afghan allies as they closed in on the Qaeda leadership.
Mr. Ali has denied having done so.
The Islamic State in Khorasan, as the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan are known, has no direct connection with Al Qaeda, which is largely a spent force in the area. But the Islamic State was originally formed by Qaeda elements, and the two groups have many doctrinal similarities.
Government forces and their coalition allies in the Tora Bora area have engaged in little recent fighting against the Taliban who have been entrenched there, supported by local tribes along the mountainous border with Pakistan. But since March, Afghan forces supported by American Special Operations troops have been mounting a vigorous campaign against the Islamic State in Achin District, also in the Spin Ghar range but about 50 miles to the east of Tora Bora.
All six of the American soldiers killed in Afghanistan so far this year died in the fighting around Achin District.
The American military said it had killed hundreds of Islamic State fighters in the Achin District area, including the “emir” of the Islamic State in Khorasan, Sheikh Abdul Hasib. Mr. Hasib was a former commander with the Pakistani Taliban, who broke away to join the Islamic State. The Islamic State and the Taliban have been competing savagely for dominance in the areas they control, but the more extreme Islamic State fighters have dominated Achin District as well as some other areas in southern parts of Nangarhar Province.
Taliban officials are concerned about the Islamic State’s appeal to younger fighters impatient with the progress of the 15-year insurgency.
In the Tora Bora area, residents were angry at both the Taliban and the government for allowing the Islamic State to take over. Malak Tor, a tribal elder from Pachir Agam District, where Tora Bora is situated, complained that residents’ demands that the government mount an offensive to protect Tora Bora were ignored.
Among other things, the Islamic State insurgents had taken a large marble quarry as well as a fuel depot. “Now they will find financial resources for themselves, and then it will be very difficult to push them out of Tora Bora,” Mr. Tor said.
President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday ordered the 201st Corps of the Afghan National Army to move against the Islamic State in the districts including the Tora Bora area, according to Attaullah Khogyani, the spokesman for the Nangarhar Province governor. Alim Eshaqzai, the deputy governor, said security officials would start ground, air and artillery operations against the Islamic State as soon as possible.