Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy and one of the masterminds behind the September 11 attacks, was killed in a US drone strike.
The good news is that one of the world’s most notorious terrorists is dead. The bad news is that a year after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Zawahri’s presence in the capital Kabul confirms fears that the country could once again become a haven for international terrorists.
For more than 20 years, the US government unsuccessfully tracked Zawahri who, like Bin Laden, was believed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan.
Earlier this year, intelligence revealed that Zawahri’s family had moved to an upmarket area of Kabul once used by foreign diplomats. It was later confirmed that Zawahri was residing at the scene.
When an opportunity presented itself, the Biden administration approved a CIA operation to strike Zawahri on July 30, likely with two specialized drone-launched Hellfire missiles. A CIA team on the ground reportedly confirmed that Zawahri was the only person killed in the attack.
The Taliban denounced the strike, saying it violated the Doha agreement the terror group signed with the United States to set the terms for the US withdrawal.
Of course, in that same agreement, the Taliban pledged to “prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising, and won’t host them.” (Emphasis added.)
According to a White House briefing, senior Taliban officials were aware of Zawahri’s presence in Kabul.
Eliminating one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in an operation with no civilian casualties was a complete victory for the United States. But the operation – and Zawahri’s presence in Kabul – raises important questions.
The most interesting questions concern the logistics of the operation and intelligence sources: Who informed the CIA of Zawahri’s whereabouts? More interestingly, what airspace was transited to put the drone in position for a strike?
Islamabad insists the Pakistani government was not consulted. Has Pakistani airspace been used without government permission? Has a secret deal been struck? Or did the drone approach via one of the Central Asian countries with or without their permission?
The issues of most concern relate to Zawahri’s presence in Kabul and the link between al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani network. When the Taliban marched on Kabul last August, it quickly became apparent that the Haqqani Network – a hyperviolent terror group that predated and then merged with the Taliban – had emerged as the biggest winners in the Afghan war.
Thwarting the maneuvers of the traditional leadership of the Afghan Taliban, the head of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani (son of the group’s infamous founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani) took control of internal security in Afghanistan and appointed other heads of the network Haqqani to leadership positions in the new government.
It was bad news. Throughout the war in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network was implicated in the bloodiest and most publicized terrorist attacks against US and Afghan government targets.
The Haqqani network is also a privileged militant group of the Pakistani intelligence agency Inter-Services. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the Haqqani network “the real arm” of Pakistan’s intelligence services and former senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has publicly claimed that the Haqqanis received protection and medical care inside Pakistan. .
The Haqqani Network was the first Afghan militant group to embrace suicide bombing and was involved in the deadliest attack on the CIA in the organization’s history, as well as multiple attacks on U.S. and U.S. embassies. in Afghanistan and an international hotel in Kabul.
After assuming operational leadership of his ailing father’s Haqqani network in the mid-2000s, Sirajuddin issued a manifesto advocating global jihad outside the borders of Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network was apparently overseeing security in the Afghan capital in August 2021 when a suicide bomber killed 13 US military service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians at Kabul airport during the hasty US withdrawal.
Now guess where Ayman al-Zawahri resided in Kabul? He was in a guesthouse owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani.
It was predictable. In the 1980s, Jalaluddin Haqqani was a key figure in recruiting Arab militants from the Persian Gulf to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s first training camp was established on the territory of the Haqqani network in Pakistan.
This is why I was deeply concerned about the possibility of a resurgence of al-Qaeda after the Taliban and Haqqani takeover of Kabul last August.
In an article I published in November in War on the Rocks, I reviewed how virtually every independent assessment – including from the US government, the UN Security Council and independent researchers at Stanford – had all concluded that the Taliban, and in particular the Haqqani network, maintained strong and growing ties with al-Qaeda. It was, I wrote, “highly unlikely that they would cut ties.”
In 2020, the US Treasury Department concluded that al-Qaeda and the Haqqanis were discussing the formation of joint armed militant units. The following year, a UN report described the Haqqanis as “the main liaison between the Taliban and al-Qaeda”.
In August 2021, President Joe Biden specifically claimed that al-Qaeda had “departed” from Afghanistan. But two months later, a senior Biden administration official testified before Congress that not only was al-Qaeda still in Afghanistan, but it had the will and ability to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States. and its interests abroad.
Again, the good news is that the strike that killed Zawahri demonstrated that the United States – even after a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, even with Pakistani-American relations in a dysfunctional state, even without formal overflight agreements with neighboring countries – still enjoy the ability to strike high-value targets in Afghanistan, thanks in large part to the tireless work of the American intelligence community.
The bad news is that the Taliban faction that rules Afghanistan today is even more operationally and ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda than the former Afghan Taliban leadership.
The presence of the man who was arguably the world’s most notorious terrorist in a Haqqani-owned safehouse in Kabul only confirms fears that Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for international terrorists.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal