Ultra-hardline ISIS fighters have captured Tora Bora, a mountain cave complex in eastern Afghanistan that was once the hideout of Osama bin Laden, officials said Thursday, despite pressure on the extremists from US-led forces.
The militants seized the territory from the Taliban this week after days of heavy fighting, in a show of strength just two months after the US military dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat on a nearby ISIS stronghold.
“Tora Bora has fallen into the hands of ISIS fighters,” government spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told AFP. “Afghan troops last night launched an operation to take it back from ISIS.”
Tora Bora in eastern Nangarhar province was the site of a major US military offensive in late 2001, when Al-Qaeda chief bin Laden was believed to be hiding there.
He later crossed into neighboring Pakistan, where he was killed in a US raid in 2011.
Local tribesmen confirmed to AFP that the Taliban had retreated from large parts of Tora Bora.
“When ISIS fighters launched their operation to seize Tora Bora, the Taliban fled the area and left us alone to protect our women and children,” said Juma Khan, a tribesman who fled the area with hundreds of other local families.
First emerging in 2015, ISIS’s local affiliate has made rapid inroads into Afghanistan, overrunning large parts of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.
The fresh ISIS assault and capture of Tora Bora comes despite a heavy US-backed Afghan offensive against the militants.
The deployment in April of the US military’s so-called Mother Of All Bombs on another tunnel-and-cave complex in nearby Achin district killed dozens of armed radicals, but fighting in the area has continued unabated.
The fall of the Tora Bora has also prompted heated discussion in the Afghan parliament, with lawmakers warning the government of growing ISIS activity in eastern Afghanistan.
“Is this government unaware of the problem? Is this government here to kill us?” asked MP Hazrat Ali.