The terrorist group is using Afghanistan for cover
Rumours of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s demise in late 2020 proved wrong on that occasion, but there is no doubt this time. Al-Qaeda’s emir stepped out onto the balcony of his safe house in Kabul on Sunday morning, a stone’s throw from the old U.S. Embassy, and was promptly obliterated, leaving his family alive inside the house.
Zawahiri’s death does not in itself affect events much, but it does highlight certain aspects of the current security situation for the West. For a start, the discovery of al-Qaeda’s emir in the capital city of the Taliban’s police state underlines what I wrote on these pages a year ago: there is no separation between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
All notions that the Taliban would in any way hinder al-Qaeda were the purest fantasy. Where the Taliban goes, by definition it brings al-Qaeda with it. After all, these are component parts of a single jihadist network run by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which illustrates Pakistan’s level of involvement too.
The house in which Zawahiri was hiding was protected by senior members of the so-called Haqqani Network, an elite cadre within the ISI infrastructure whose officials hold ‘formal’ roles within both the Taliban and al-Qaeda-flagged parts of the network. If the Haqqanis knew where Zawahiri was, the ISI knew too. That should be no surprise considering that Osama bin Laden was found within Pakistan, half-a-mile from the military’s premier academy.
What this means is that al-Qaeda once again has a state. No doubt it was helped by Joe Biden’s rushed decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which created a power vacuum in Kabul. The U.N. might be correct that with al-Qaeda’s current capabilities and strategic priorities, it is “not viewed as posing an immediate international threat”, but quite a lot hinges on how long “immediate” turns out to be.
The Biden administration is claiming Zawahiri’s elimination as a vindication of their “over-the-horizon” (airstrikes from afar) counterterrorism concept. There is no reason to accept this. It is unclear what the information chain leading to Zawahiri looks like — it could, for example, be a fluke circumstance in which someone close to Zawahiri gave him up. But more importantly, a one-off strike changes nothing about the broader situation, where the U.S. has very poor intelligence inside Afghanistan and thus cannot carry out sustained counterterrorism operations, as Nato did when it was in the country.
The U.N. makes this clear with regard to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, which is going from strength to strength and does have a more immediate focus on the West. As was predictable, the Taliban-Qaeda regime has been unable to contain the Islamic State, and the West is not positioned to do anything about it.
Zawahiri’s most likely successor is Muhammad Saladin Zaydan (Sayf al-Adel), who is in Iran. Other than drawing attention again to al-Qaeda’s longstanding relationship with the Iranian regime, this does not change a great deal: Zaydan has always run al-Qaeda’s military operations and been free to coordinate its global affiliates since Tehran first began sheltering him 20 years ago.
Western counterterrorism actions undermined the jihadist cause over the last few years, but we have been through this cycle numerous times: the lower immediate threat leads to a loss of interest, and the jihadists — even when on the run and working in the shadows — use the breathing space to revive. This time the jihadists have the wide open physical space of an entire state to rebuild their training camps and plan their operations against us. They may not strike this year or even the next, but it is a matter of when — not if. It is essential that our security forces are prepared for this eventuality.