ISLAMABAD — The U.S. drone attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri on the balcony of a safe house in Kabul on Tuesday heightened global scrutiny of Afghan Taliban leaders and further undermined their efforts to gain international recognition and desperately needed help.
The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha agreement on the terms of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbor members of al-Qaeda. Nearly a year after the US military’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, al-Zawahri’s killing raises questions about the Taliban leadership’s involvement in protecting a mastermind from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the one of America’s most wanted fugitives.
The safe house is in Kabul’s upscale Shirpur neighborhood, home to several Taliban leaders who had moved into the homes of former senior Afghan officials from the toppled Western-backed government.
The Taliban initially sought to portray the strike as America’s violation of the Doha agreement, which also includes the Taliban’s pledge not to harbor those who seek to attack the United States – which al-Zawahri had done for years in internet videos and online screeds. The Taliban have not yet said who was killed in the attack.
Meanwhile, rumors persist of unease within the ranks of the Taliban, particularly between the powerful group known as the Haqqani Network, which is believed to have harbored al-Zawahri, and other Taliban figures.
“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri has raised many questions,” said a Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because he was not authorized to speak publicly to journalists. Al-Zawahri took over the leadership of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, during an operation carried out by US Navy SEALs.
“The Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul, and if they were unaware, they must explain their position,” the official said.
The early Sunday strike rocked Shirpur, which once housed historic buildings bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials from the Western-backed Afghan government and international aid organisations. After the US withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban elite began taking over some of the abandoned homes there.
The house where al-Zawahri stayed was the home of a senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior US intelligence official. Taliban officials on Tuesday blocked PA journalists in Kabul from accessing the damaged house.
The UN Security Council was told in July by observers from militant groups that al-Qaeda enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but is limited to advising and supporting the country’s new leadership .
A report by observers says the two groups remain close and that al-Qaeda fighters, estimated to number between 180 and 400, are represented “at the individual level” among Taliban combat units.
The monitors said al-Qaeda is unlikely to seek to mount direct attacks outside of Afghanistan, “due to a lack of capacity and restraint on the part of the Taliban, as well as a reluctance to jeopardize their recent gains”, such as having a safe haven. and improved resources.
During the first half of 2022, al-Zawahri increasingly reached out to his followers with video and audio messages, including assurances that al-Qaeda can rival the Islamic State group for the leadership of a global movement, according to the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring report the team said.
IS militants have emerged as a major threat to the Taliban over the past year, carrying out a series of deadly attacks on Taliban targets and civilians.
The Haqqani Network is an Afghan Islamic insurgent group, built around the family of the same name. In the 1980s it fought Soviet forces and for the past 20 years it has fought US-led NATO troops and the former Afghan government.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is also the first deputy leader of the Taliban movement since 2016. Since last August, he has also served as the appointed Interior Ministry of the Taliban government. The U.S. government is keeping a $10 million bounty on him for “numerous significant kidnappings and attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government, and civilian targets.”
But the Haqqanis, from Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, are at odds with other Taliban leaders, mainly from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Some think Sirajuddin Haqqani wants more power. Other Taliban figures have opposed violent Haqqani attacks on civilians in Kabul and elsewhere.
“It seems to me that the balance of power within the Taliban is general. It is not necessarily the United States or the international community. It’s about the new regime, how to share power in the new regime, who gets what position, who can control what ministries, decide general policies and so on,” said Jerome Drevon, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group which studies Islamist militants. groups.
“It is not surprising that the building belongs to the Haqqani family. … It creates a tension between what the Taliban movement is, especially in terms of how it tries to reach out to the international community, normalize, and so on. “, did he declare.
Nor could the timing of the strike fall at a worse political time for the Taliban. Activists are facing international condemnation for refusing to reopen schools for girls beyond year six, despite earlier promises. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has also criticized the Taliban for human rights abuses under their rule.
The United States and its allies cut billions in development funds that kept the government afloat in part because of the abuses, as well as froze billions in Afghan national assets.
It sent the already shattered economy into a tailspin, dramatically increasing poverty and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Millions of people, struggling to feed their families, are being kept alive by a massive relief effort led by the UN.
The Taliban tried to reopen the taps of this aid and their reserves. However, al-Zawahri’s killing has already been seized upon by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a sign that the Taliban “flagrantly violated the Doha agreement and repeated assurances…that they would not allow that Afghan territory is used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed the United States violated the Doha agreement by launching the strike. Afghan state television – now controlled by the Taliban – reported that President Joe Biden said al-Zawahri had been killed.
“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri closes an al-Qaeda chapter,” said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Security Studies and Research.
In the Middle East, al-Zawahri’s killing coincided with the 32nd anniversary of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which sparked a US military presence in Saudi Arabia – the same presence bin Laden pointed to during the launch of the September 11 attacks. Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, noted the moment.
It is “a chance for the region to contemplate and reflect on the absurdity of extremism, terrorism and reckless military adventures and how it has all frayed the fabric (of the region),” wrote Gargash on Twitter. The “lessons and teachings are present, and the hope rests on the countries of the region which unite to guarantee security and shared development”.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.