U.S. Says Al Qaeda Has Not Regrouped in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON — US espionage agencies have concluded in a new intelligence assessment that al-Qaeda has not reestablished its presence in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal last August and that only a handful of old Qaeda members remain in the country.
The terror group does not have the capability to launch attacks on the United States from within the country, the assessment said. Instead, it said, Al Qaeda will, at least for now, rely on a series of loyal affiliates outside the region to carry out potential terrorist plots against the West.
But several counterterrorism analysts said the spy agencies’ statements were an optimistic snapshot of a complex and fast-moving terrorism landscape. The assessment, a declassified summary of which was provided to The New York Times, represents the consensus views of US intelligence agencies.
“The estimate is essentially correct, but it’s also the most positive take on a threat picture that’s still pretty fluid,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former top UN counter-terrorism official.
The assessment was drawn up after Ayman al-Zawahri, the top leader of Al Qaeda, was killed in a CIA drone attack in Kabul last month. The death of al-Zawahri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders, after a decades-long manhunt was a major victory for President Biden, but it immediately raised questions about al-Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan a year after Mr. Biden withdrew all US troops, paving the way for the Taliban to regain control of the country.
Republicans have said the president’s withdrawal has put the United States at risk. The fact that the Qaeda leader felt safe enough to return to the Afghan capital, they say, was a sign of a failed policy that they predicted would allow Al Qaeda to rebuild training camps and carry out attacks. despite the Taliban’s promise to deny the group a safe haven. last October, a top Pentagon official said Al Qaeda could be able to regroup in Afghanistan and attack the United States within one to two years.
Government officials have pushed back the most recent criticism, noting a promise Mr Biden made when he announced al-Zawahri’s death.
“As President Biden has said, we will remain vigilant with our partners to defend our nation and ensure that Afghanistan never becomes a safe haven for terrorism again,” said Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council. said in an email on Saturday.
Still, some outside counterterrorism specialists saw the new intelligence assessment as too promising.
A UN report warned this spring that Al Qaeda had found “more freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. The report noted that a number of Qaeda leaders may have lived in Kabul and that the proliferation of public statements by al-Zawahri suggested he was able to lead more effectively after the Taliban took power.
“This seems like an overly rosy assessment that is even somewhat myopic,” Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst with the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York, said of the intelligence analysis. He added that the summary “did not say much about Al Qaeda’s longer-term prospects.”
Al-Zawahri’s death has once again put Al Qaeda in the spotlight, which after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was largely overshadowed by a fledgling rival, the Islamic State. Many terrorism analysts said: Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda leader wanted by the FBI in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, was likely to succeed al-Zawahri. He would live in Iran.
“Basically, I find the IC assessment compelling,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University, referring to the US intelligence community and its new analysis of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr Byman has expressed skepticism in the past about a resurgent Qaeda threat.
But other counter-terrorism experts disagreed. One point of contention involved claims in the intelligence summary that Al-Qaeda had failed to restore its threat network in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the only major figure attempting to re-establish Al-Qaeda’s presence in the country when he and his family withdrew. settled in Kabul this year. year.
“Zawahri was THE leader of Al Qaeda, so his protection by the Taliban while he guided the group more actively was rebuilding in itself,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote in an email.
“This approach does not take into account the group that Al Qaeda is today and the fact that even a small number of core leaders can use Afghanistan to politically steer the group’s affiliate network,” Mr Mir wrote. “Al Qaeda doesn’t need big training camps to be dangerous.”
Some counter-terrorism experts also disagreed with government analysts’ assessment that fewer than a dozen core Qaeda members with long-standing ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and that most of those members were likely there before the fall of the Afghan government last summer.
“Their numbers of active, hard-core Al Qaeda in AfPak make no sense,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scientist at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “A year ago, at least three dozen senior Qaeda commanders were released from Afghan prisons. I very much doubt that they have turned to farming or accounting as their post-prison calling.”
Mr Hoffman said Qaeda agents or their affiliates had been given significant administrative responsibilities in at least eight Afghan provinces. He suggested the timing of the government’s assessment was “to divert attention from the disastrous consequences of last year’s disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
The intelligence summary also said members of the Qaeda affiliate in Afghanistan, formerly known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, were largely inactive, focusing mainly on activities such as media production.
But a UN report in July estimated that the Qaeda affiliate had between 180 and 400 fighters – “mainly from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan” – who were in various Taliban fighting units.
“We know from various sources that AQIS has participated in the Taliban insurgency against the US and in operations against ISIS-K,” said Mr Mir, referring to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, a bitter rival of Al Qaeda. .
There was broad agreement on at least two main points in the intelligence summary, including that Al Qaeda does not yet have the capability to attack the United States or American interests on board from Afghan soil.
The United Nations report of July echoed that judgment, stating that Al Qaeda “is not viewed as an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it has no external operational capability and currently the Taliban does not face international difficulties or embarrassment.” .”
And both government analysts and outside terrorism experts agreed that in the near term, al-Qaida in Afghanistan would most likely call on a series of affiliates outside the region to carry out plots.
None of these affiliates pose the same kind of threat to the American homeland as Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. But they are deadly and resilient. The Qaeda affiliate in East Africa killed three Americans at a US base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi Air Force officer training in Florida killed three sailors in 2019 and injured eight other people. The officer acted alone, but was in contact with the Qaeda branch in Yemen as he completed his attack plans.