The US drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri on the balcony of a Kabul safe house on Tuesday intensified global scrutiny of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and further undermined their efforts to secure the international recognition and help they so badly need.
The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbor al Qaeda members. Nearly a year after the chaotic withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan, al-Zawahri’s killing raises questions about Taliban leadership’s involvement in harboring a mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks and one of its most wanted fugitives. from the United States.
The safe house is in the upscale Shirpur neighborhood of Kabul, home to a number of Taliban leaders who had moved into the mansions of former senior Afghan officials from the ousted Western-backed government.
The Taliban initially sought to portray the attack as a US violation of the Doha agreement, which also includes a Taliban pledge not to protect those seeking to attack the US, something al-Zawahri had done for years in videos. of the Internet and in his online tirades. The Taliban have not yet said who was killed in the attack.
Meanwhile, rumors of unrest persist within the Taliban ranks, particularly among the powerful group known as the Haqqani network, which has apparently protected al-Zawahri and other Taliban figures.
“The murder 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 with reporters. Al-Zawahri took over as leader of Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan in 2011 in a US Navy SEAL operation.
“The Taliban were aware of their presence in Kabul and if they did not know, they must explain their position,” the official said.
The strike early Sunday woke up Shirpur, once home to historic buildings demolished in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and international aid organisations. After the US withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban elite began to take over some of the abandoned houses there.
The house where al-Zawahri stayed was the home of a top aide to Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior US intelligence official. Taliban officials prevented AP journalists in Kabul from reaching the damaged house on Tuesday.
The UN Security Council was told by militant group monitors in July that al Qaeda enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but is limited to advising and supporting the country’s new rulers.
A monitor report said the two groups remain close and that al Qaeda fighters, estimated to number between 180 and 400, are represented “on an individual level” among Taliban combat units.
The monitors said al Qaeda is unlikely to attempt to mount direct attacks outside of Afghanistan, “due to a lack of capability and restraint on the part of the Taliban, as well as an unwillingness to jeopardize their recent gains,” as have 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 compete with the Islamic State group for leadership of a global movement, according to the report. Sanctions Monitoring and Analytical Support Team. he said.
IS militants have become 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, he fought against Soviet forces and for the past 20 years he has fought against US-led NATO troops and the former government of Afghanistan.
Sirajuddin Haqqani has also served as the first deputy leader of the Taliban movement since 2016. Since last August, he has also served in the Taliban government-appointed interior ministry. The US government maintains a $10 million reward for “numerous kidnappings and significant attacks against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government, and civilian targets.”
But the Haqqani, from Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, disagree with other Taliban leaders, mostly from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Some believe Sirajuddin Haqqani wants more power. Other Taliban figures have opposed Haqqanis’ violent attacks on civilians in Kabul and elsewhere.
“It seems to me that the power struggle within the Taliban is general. It is not necessarily about the United States or the international community. It is about the new regime, how to share power within the new regime, who gets what position, who it gets to control which ministries, decide overall policy and so on,” said Jerome Drevon, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who studies militant Islamist groups.
“It’s not that surprising that the building is owned by the Haqqani family… That creates a tension between what the Taliban movement is, especially in terms of how it’s trying to reach out to the international community, normalize and so on,” he said. .
Nor could the timing of the attack come at a worse political time for the Taliban. The militants face international condemnation for refusing to reopen schools for girls above sixth grade, despite earlier promises. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has also criticized the Taliban for human rights abuses under its rule.
The United States and its allies cut billions in development funds that kept the government afloat in part because of the abuses, and also froze billions in Afghan national assets.
This sent the already shattered economy into freefall, increasing poverty dramatically and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Millions, struggling to feed their families, are being kept alive by a massive UN-led relief effort.
The Taliban have been trying to turn on the taps of that aid and its reserves. However, al-Zawahri’s assassination has already been seized upon by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a sign that the Taliban “grossly violated the Doha Agreement and reiterated its assurances… that they would not allow terrorists to use Afghan territory to threaten the security of other countries.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid alleged that the United States violated the Doha Agreement by launching the attack. Afghanistan’s state television channel, now under the Taliban, reported that US President Joe Biden said al-Zawahri had been killed.
“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri closes a chapter for al Qaeda,” said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
In the Middle East, al-Zawahri’s assassination coincided with the 32nd anniversary of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which prompted a US military presence in Saudi Arabia, the same presence bin Laden claimed when launching the attacks. of September 11. Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat from the United Arab Emirates, noted the timing.
It is “an opportunity for the region to contemplate and reflect on the absurdity of extremism, terrorism and reckless military adventures and how all of this has frayed the fabric (of the region),” Gargash wrote on Twitter. The “lessons and teachings are present, and the hope rests on the countries of the region coming together to guarantee security and shared development.”
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.