Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri is dead, but Afghanistan terror threat remains a global concern
- The presence of Ayman al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul casts severe doubt on the Taliban’s pledge that the country will not be a haven for terrorists
- Whether the Taliban limits itself to austere Islamist domestic policies or involves itself in external jihadist politics may depend on the winners and losers of the Zawahiri affair
The Taliban government’s claim that it had “no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul” convinced few. It is impossible that he moved to Kabul and took up residence in a prestigious area that had been full of international embassies before the US withdrawal, without knowledge at the highest level.
However, some elements of the Taliban elite were seemingly fully aware but may have been keeping the information from rival Taliban leaders and their factions. If true, this means key elements of the current administration remain determined to reinvigorate and rebuild al-Qaeda, or its next iteration, even if the Taliban government formally opposes this.
Suspicion has therefore fallen on the Haqqani network – designated by the US as a terror group – and its leader, interior minister and public face of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
A senior US official briefing reporters before US President Joe Biden’s address confirming the killing said that “senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul”, had taken steps after the strike to remove evidence he had been at the safe house, and had then “acted quickly” to remove Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and her children, to cover up that they had been living there too.
Evidence that the Haqqani network might be actively working behind the backs of other Taliban leaders to help al-Qaeda leaders hide and operate in Kabul should set off alarm bells across the globe.
Whoever hosted Zawahiri, though, made a major miscalculation. Western officials have spoken to me of their satisfaction at seeing the overconfidence of the Haqqani Taliban in bringing the al-Qaeda leader into a heavily monitored area.
Sympathetic jihadists seem to agree, with conspiracy theories rampant on jihadist forums online accusing the Taliban of deliberately exposing Zawahiri to assassination, so eliminating a potential political liability while also satisfying the US that Afghanistan is no longer an external threat.
Such collusion between the Taliban and the US is extraordinarily unlikely, but the fact that many jihadists are promoting the theory – especially from rival groups like Islamic State – demonstrates what a dangerous moment this is for Afghanistan’s jihadist leaders.
What will be key in coming months is whether this has harmed the Haqqani network and weakened its position within the Taliban family and government. Whether the Taliban limits its ambitions to austere Islamist domestic policies alone, or again gets involved in external jihadist politics – and potentially terror networks – may depend on the eventual winners and losers from the Zawahiri affair.
Al-Zawahiri’s death leaves al-Qaeda – already weakened, “overtaken” over the past decade in jihadist circles by Islamic State – with a major leadership problem. But it is also an opportunity for a new order to emerge which can rebuild the network – and Afghanistan is again potentially a perfect base for such activity.
Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul does not, however, mean that the Taliban has returned to the days of supporting al-Qaeda in its war against the United States and other perceived “enemies of Islam”. The reality today is more complex.
However, the Taliban remains an extreme jihadist organisation, and any jihadist haven is a potential global security nightmare. Who knows what the next al-Qaeda or Islamic State will look like or be capable of?
The Zawahiri episode has dramatically highlighted the importance of the international community continuing to constantly monitor the Taliban and Afghanistan. Taking their eyes off the country before September 11 led to US intelligence blind spots that played a key role in the success of those attacks. Even with the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, and growing tensions between China and the US over Taiwan, we ignore Afghanistan at our peril.
Hagai M. Segal is a leading authority on geopolitical issues, counterterrorism and the Middle East