Jhe murder of Ayman al-Zawahiri on a balcony in the Afghan capital on Sunday morning demonstrated the deadly power and reach of US intelligence, even a year after President Biden withdrew all US forces from the country. But one aspect of the assassination worries counterterrorism experts: its precise location.
The fact that al-Qaeda’s supreme leader lived with his family in an upscale neighborhood in downtown Kabul shows the public how the Taliban gave the al-Qaeda leadership permission to operate in inside the country and, in some cases, to place them even in high-level positions within the government.
“We believe there were senior Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network officials who knew al-Zawahiri was in Kabul,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC News on Tuesday. “Maybe there were other Taliban members who didn’t know that.”
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 control of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Biden administration officials said Zawahiri remained in charge of the terror group until his death on Sunday.
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Michael Allen, former staff 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 of the Zahawiri strike are reminiscent of the hard line the Bush administration has taken. adopted. countries allowing terrorists to enter their borders following the September 11 attacks. “The Bush doctrine was that if you harbor a terrorist, we’re going to treat you as if you were a terrorist,” Allen said. “He’s not just any backyard terrorist. He was an individual who was involved in the 9/11 conspiracy and the embassy bombings as well.
The Zahiwiri attack resembles in some ways the assassination of Bin Laden 11 years ago in a nighttime raid by US special operations forces. Al-Qaeda’s founder lived in a fortified compound in northeast Pakistan, less than a mile from Pakistan’s highest military academy. Bin Laden had been hiding there for six years, raising questions about whether Pakistani intelligence knew he was there and turned a blind eye. In 2013, Al Jazeera reported on a classified report from a commission set up by the Pakistani government to investigate the circumstances of bin Laden’s death. The report revealed “routine” incompetence at nearly every level of government that allowed the terrorist leader to live in multiple locations across the country for nearly a decade.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Monday that “by welcoming and sheltering” the leader of al-Qaeda in Kabul, the Taliban violated the terms of the Doha agreement they signed in February 2020 with the Trump administration. Under the deal, President Donald Trump pledged to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and the Taliban agreed not to allow its territory to be used by terrorist groups that threaten the United States. “The Taliban have seriously violated the Doha agreement and have repeatedly told 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 getting 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 kind of treatment that other al-Qaeda officials and fighters experience,” Hoffman said.
Three dozen top al-Qaeda leaders were released from prison when the Taliban took over, Hoffman says. Sirajuddin Haqqani, a close and longtime Al-Qaeda ally, now heads the Afghan Interior Ministry. Other allies have been placed in charge of the country’s intelligence and refugee services and given important administrative tasks in Afghan provinces, Hoffman said.
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Counterterrorism experts warn that the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda is likely to go beyond simply holding their leaders accountable. Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, said the Taliban may again allow al-Qaeda to set up training camps in the country and use the Afghanistan as a home base, plotting terror attacks from there as well as managing its fighters in insurgencies in Yemen, Syria and across Africa. “The fact that he was killed there shows that al-Qaeda believes Afghanistan is safe enough for its leaders to regroup there. They rest, they have access to the whole Taliban state,” Roggio says.
Even before the Taliban retook Kabul last summer, there was evidence they previously allowed al-Qaeda to train fighters in areas of Afghanistan under its control. In 2015, while the US military was still operating inside the country, the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to hold training camps in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, Roggio said. The US military raided the camp in October of that year, killing dozens of al-Qaeda trainees, Roggio said, citing public State Department documents. He described conditions in Afghanistan as ripe for the establishment of similar training camps. “Al-Qaeda now has the time and the space to reorganize, regroup and resume attacks on the West,” he said.
A UN Security Council report released on July 15 assessed that al-Qaeda has a “safe haven” in Afghanistan and has the ambition “to once again be recognized as the leader of the world’s jihadists.” The group, the report says, “is not considered to pose an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan, as it has no external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause any difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban.” .
White House officials say Biden sent a deadly signal with the killing of Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda leaders shouldn’t feel safe operating in Afghanistan. “I think if you were to ask some members of al-Qaeda – ask them how safe they feel in Afghanistan right now, I think we proved at a goodbye this weekend that this is not It’s not a safe haven and it’s ‘it won’t be, in the future,’ Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.
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