The kills the Ayman al-Zawahiri on a balcony in Afghanistan’s capital on Sunday morning demonstrated the lethal power and reach of US intelligence services, even a full year after President Biden pulled all US forces out of the country. But one aspect of the killing worries counterterrorism experts: its exact location.
The fact that al-Qaida’s top leader lived with his family in an expensive neighborhood in central Kabul reveals to the public the extent to which the Taliban have given al-Qaida’s leadership a license to operate in the country, and in some cases even housed them in high government positions.
“We believe there were senior members of the Haqqani network who were affiliated with the Taliban who knew that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told NBC News in Tuesday. “There may have been other members of the Taliban who did not know.”
Zawahiri played a key role in planning the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and took over al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Administration officials Biden said that Zawahiri remained at the head of the terrorist group until his death on Sunday.
Michael Allen, former director of the House Intelligence Committee from 2011 to 2013 and a former senior official on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, says the circumstances surrounding the strike against Zahawiri are reminiscent of the hard line. which the Bush administration took on countries that allowed terrorists into their borders after the 9/11 attack. “The Bush doctrine was that if you harbor a terrorist, we’ll treat you like a terrorist,” Allen says. “This is not some garden terrorist. This was a person who was involved in the 9/11 plot and the embassy bombings.
The strike in Zahiwiri parallels in some ways the killing of bin Laden 11 years ago in a nighttime operation by US special operations forces. The al Qaeda founder lived in a gated compound in northeastern Pakistan less than a mile from Pakistan’s top military academy. Bin Laden hid there for six years, raising questions about whether Pakistani intelligence services knew he was there and turned a blind eye. In 2013, Al Jazeera reported a secret report by a commission set up by the Pakistani government to investigate the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death. The report found “routine” incompetence at almost every level of government that allowed the terrorist leader to live in different places in the country for almost a decade.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement on Monday that by “hosting and sheltering” the al Qaeda leader in Kabul, the Taliban violated the terms of the Doha agreement they signed in February 2020 with the Trump administration. Under the terms of that deal, President Donald Trump promised to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and the Taliban agreed not to allow their territory to be used by terrorist groups that threaten the United States. “The Taliban have grossly violated the Doha agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries,” Blinken said.
Zawahiri was given the “VIP treatment” in Kabul, said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism and homeland security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied terrorism and the evolution of al Qaeda for decades. “One can only imagine the treatment received by other al Qaeda operatives and fighters,” says Hoffman.
Three dozen senior al Qaeda leaders were released from prison when the Taliban came to power, Hoffman says. Sirajuddin Haqqani, a longtime close ally of al-Qaeda, now runs Afghanistan’s interior ministry. Other allies have been put in charge of the country’s intelligence and refugee services and given important administrative duties in Afghanistan’s provinces, Hoffman said.
Counterterrorism experts warn that the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda is likely to go beyond simply empowering its leaders. Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, says the Taliban may once again allow al Qaeda to set up training camps in the country and once again use Afghanistan as its main base, plotting terrorist attacks from there. as well as managing its fighters in rebel movements in Yemen, Syria and across Africa. “The fact that he was killed there shows that al Qaeda believes that Afghanistan is safe enough for its leaders to regroup there.” They rest, they have access to the entire Taliban state,” says Roggio.
Even before the Taliban retook Kabul last summer, there was evidence that they had previously allowed al Qaeda to train fighters in areas of Afghanistan under its control. In 2015, while the US military was still operating in the country, the Taliban allowed al Qaeda to set up training camps in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, Rojo says. The U.S. military stormed the camp in October of that year, killing dozens of al Qaeda trainees, Roggio said, citing the public State Department documents. He described conditions in Afghanistan as ripe for setting up such training camps. “Al Qaeda now has the time and space to reorganize, regroup and resume attacks against the West,” he says.
A UN Security Council report released on July 15 assessed that al-Qaeda has a “safe haven” in Afghanistan and has ambitions “to be recognized again as the leader of global jihadists”. the group, report said, “it is not seen as posing an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks external operational capacity and does not currently wish to cause international difficulty or inconvenience to the Taliban.”
White House officials say Biden sent a deadly signal by killing Zawahiri and al Qaeda leaders should not feel safe operating in Afghanistan. “I think if you ask some members of al Qaeda — ask them how safe they feel in Afghanistan right now, I think we’ve proven this weekend that it’s not a safe haven, and it’s not going to be, going forward,” Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.
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