Al Qaeda has reorganized its notorious paramilitary formations, setting the stage for a dramatic come back. Formerly known as Brigade 055, the military unit has been rebuilt into a larger, more effective fighting unit known as the Lashkar al Zil, or the Shadow Army, a senior US intelligence official told me.
The Shadow Army is active primarily in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and in eastern and southern Afghanistan, several US military and intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity. The force is well trained and equipped, and has defeated the Pakistani Army in engagements in North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, and Swat. In Afghanistan, the Shadow Army has attacked Coalition and Afghan forces throughout the country.
“The Shadow Army has been instrumental in the Taliban‘s consolidation of power in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in the Northwest Frontier Province,” a senior US intelligence official told me. “They are also behind the Taliban’s successes in eastern and southern Afghanistan. They are helping to pinch Kabul.”
Afghan and Pakistan-based Taliban forces have integrated elements of their forces into the Shadow Army, “especially the Tehrik-e-Taliban and Haqqani Network,” the official continued. “It is considered a status symbol” for groups to be a part of the Shadow Army.” The Tehrik-e-Taliban is the Pakistani Taliban movement led by Baitullah Mehsud. The Haqqani Network straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border and has been behind some of the most high-profile attacks in Afghanistan.
The Shadow Army’s effectiveness has placed the group in the crosshairs of the U.S. air campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In October 2008, the U.S. killed Khalid Habib al Shami, the leader of the Shadow Army, in a strike on a compound in North Waziristan.
The Shadow Army has a clear-cut military structure, a U.S. military intelligence officer said. A senior al Qaeda military leader is in command, while experienced officers command the brigades and subordinate battalions and companies. There are three or four brigades, including the re-formed Brigade 055 and several other Arab brigades. At its peak prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001 the 055 Brigade had an estimated 2,000 soldiers and officers in the ranks. The rebuilt units consist of Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians, North Africans, Iraqis, as well as former members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards. At present, the 055 Brigade has “completely reformed and is surpassing pre-2001 standards,” an official said. The other brigades are also considered well trained.
The blending of the Taliban and al Qaeda units has made distinctions between the groups somewhat meaningless. “The line between the Taliban and al Qaeda is increasingly blurred, especially from a command and control perspective,” a military intelligence official said. “Are Faqir Mohammed, Baitullah Mehsud, Hakeemullah Mehsud, Ilyas Kashmiri, Siraj Haqqani, and all the rest ‘al Qaeda’? Probably not in the sense that they maintain their own independent organizations, but the alliance is essentially indistinguishable at this point except at a very abstract level.”
The Taliban have begun an ideological conversion to Wahhabism, the radical form of Sunni Islam practiced by al Qaeda, further cementing ties between the two groups. “The radicalization of the Taliban and their conversion away from Deobandism to Wahhabism under Sheikh Issa al Masri and other al Qaeda leaders is a clear sign of the al Qaeda’s preeminence,” the official noted.
The establishment of joint Taliban and al Qaeda formations in the Shadow Army has been aided by the proliferation of terror training camps in the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. In the summer of 2008, there were reportedly more than 150 training camps and over 400 support locations in operation in those areas.
The Shadow Army has distinguished itself in recent years, particularly in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in the Northwest Frontier Province. Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban forces defeated the Pakistani Army in South Waziristan during fighting in 2005-2006, and overran forts and fended off a Pakistani Army offensive in 2008.
In Swat, the Pakistani military was defeated by forces under the command of Mullah Fazlullah in 2007 and in 2008. Last month, the military launched its third attempt to secure Swat, with little success so far.
In Bajaur, the hidden hand of the Shadow Army can be seen in the sophisticated trench and tunnel networks, bunkers, and pillboxes built by Taliban forces. The Taliban “have good weaponry and a better communication system [than ours].” a Pakistani official said. “Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defenses that would take us days to build. … they are fighting like an organized force.”
The Shadow Army also operates in Afghanistan. In July 2008, a unit comprised of al Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Hizb-e-Islami conducted a complex assault on a US outpost in Wanat in Nuristan province. The force nearly overran the base, and nine US soldiers were killed. This is the largest loss by US forces in a single engagement in Afghanistan to date.
In addition, an engagement last year in Kabul province was likely the work of the Shadow Army. A French Army unit was ambushed just outside the capital. Ten soldiers were killed, and the Taliban seized abandoned French weapons.
The effectiveness of the Shadow Army is clearly visible in a video taken by an Al Jazeera reporter during an operation in Bajaur in the fall of 2008. The Taliban forces repel a battalion-sized assault from Pakistani Army troops that are supported by at least a platoon of tanks. The Pakistani tanks race away from the fighting, followed quickly by the Pakistani infantry after taking fire. The Pakistani tank commander calls for air strikes, but the infantry and tanks go into full retreat and return to base.
A U.S. Army officer who saw the video observed: “You just watched a full battalion, supported by tanks, break contact after an attack by a supposedly undisciplined, ‘rag-tag’ force of Taliban fighters. For the Taliban to drive off that unit, it has to be organized, disciplined, well-armed, and competent.”
We are still a long way from a turnaround in Afghanistan.
Bill Roggio is the managing editor of the Long War Journal and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.