U.S. killing of al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan heightens scrutiny of Taliban

The U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri on the balcony of a Kabul safe house on the weekend has intensified global scrutiny of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and further undermined their efforts to secure international recognition and desperately needed aid.

The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbour al-Qaeda members.

Nearly a year after the U.S. military’s chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, al-Zawahri’s killing raises questions about the involvement of Taliban leaders in sheltering a mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks and one of America’s most-wanted fugitives.

The safe house is in Kabul’s upscale Shirpur neighbourhood, home to several Taliban leaders who had moved into mansions of former top Afghan officials of the toppled Western-backed government.

The Taliban initially sought to describe the strike as America violating the Doha deal, which also includes a Taliban pledge not to shelter those seeking to attack the United States — something al-Zawahri had done for years in internet videos and online screeds. The Taliban have yet to say who was killed in the strike.

Meanwhile, rumours persist of unease in the Taliban ranks — particularly between the powerful group known as the Haqqani network, which apparently sheltered al-Zawahri, and other Taliban figures.

“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri has raised many questions,” said one Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press as he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly to reporters.

Al-Zawahri took over as al-Qaeda’s leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, in an operation by U.S. Navy SEALs.

“The Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul, and if they were not aware of it, they need to explain their position,” the official said.

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The strike early Sunday shook awake Shirpur, once home to historic buildings bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials in Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and international aid organizations. After the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban elite began taking some of the abandoned homes there.

The house where al-Zawahri stayed was the home of a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. Taliban officials blocked AP journalists in Kabul from reaching the damaged house on Tuesday.

The United Nations Security Council was informed by monitors of militant groups in July that al-Qaeda enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but confines itself to advising and supporting the country’s new rulers.

A report by the monitors said the two groups remain close and that al-Qaeda fighters, estimated to number between 180 to 400, are represented “at the individual level” among Taliban combat units.

The monitors said it’s unlikely al-Qaeda will seek to mount direct attacks outside Afghanistan, “owing to a lack of capability and restraint on the part of the Taliban, as well as an unwillingness to jeopardize their recent gains,” such as having a safe haven and improved resources.

A Taliban fighter stands guard near the site where al-Zawahri was killed in Kabul. (Reuters)

During the first half of 2022, al-Zawahri increasingly reached out to supporters with video and audio messages, including assurances that al-Qaeda can compete with the Islamic State group for leadership of a global movement, the report by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said.

Islamic State militants have emerged as a major threat to the Taliban over the past year, carrying out a series of deadly attacks against Taliban targets and civilians.

‘Power struggle’

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 over the past 20 years, it battled U.S.-led NATO troops and the former Afghanistan government.

Sirajuddin Haqqani has also served as the first deputy leader of the Taliban movement since 2016. The U.S. government maintains 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.”

Osama bin Laden, left, sits with Ayman al-Zawahri in this November 2001 image. (Hamid Mir/Daily Dawn/Reuters)

But the Haqqanis, from Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, have disagreed with others in the Taliban leadership, mostly from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Some believe Sirajuddin Haqqani wants more power. Other Taliban figures have opposed the Haqqanis’ violent attacks against civilians in Kabul and elsewhere.

“It seems to me that the power struggle within the Taliban is general. It’s not necessarily about the U.S. or about the international community. It’s about the new regime, how to share power within the new regime, who gets what position, who gets to control what ministries, to decide the general policies and so on,” said Jerome Drevon, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst studying Islamist militant groups.

“It’s not that surprising that the building [al-Zawahri lived in] would be owned by the Haqqani family. … That creates a tension [in] what the Taliban movement is, especially in terms of how it’s trying to reach out to the international community, to normalize itself and so on.”

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