We should not be lulled into solemn complacency. A week after the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the one-time leader and mastermind of al-Qaeda, the group is likely to prove a more immediate threat than at any time in his decade in office.
Much attention is focused on Saif al-Adl, al-Zawahiri’s likely successor and current al-Qaeda military chief. He is a younger, bolder and more operationally oriented terrorist whose experience as an intelligence and security leader will make him an extremely dangerous emir.
Wanted by the US government in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, al-Adl has been in Iran since at least 2003 and is near the Afghan border.
Far more insidious than the threat of a new leader, however, is the buried trail in the many articles that have been written cheering al-Zawahiri’s death. He was not spotted hiding in a remote and operationally isolated region of the Middle East, as one would expect for a man with a $25 million bounty on his head. He was killed in broad daylight on a balcony in central Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
This is the clearest evidence yet of the close ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It suggests that operationally Al Qaeda is in a stronger position than many expected and from this position of power it is likely to continue to build and consolidate its resources in the coming months and years. At the same time, it highlights the Taliban’s continued ties to terrorist groups.
Al Qaeda is being offered a base of operations by the Taliban that more than makes up for the loss of al-Zawahiri to their leadership
A full year has passed next week since the Taliban toppled Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government. In the weeks following the fall of Kabul, the Taliban launched a public relations offensive, claiming to be a different government from the tyrants who ruled on their behalf 20 years earlier. They would continue to be uncompromising in enforcing a native Islamist theocracy, but their days of harboring al-Qaeda leaders were over.
Now the realities of the two groups’ continued relationship have been revealed. Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul at a house owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s current interior minister and head of the Haqqani Network, an independent terrorist organization that has long acted as an intermediary between the Taliban and al-Qa’ida agents.
After decades of planning indiscriminate attacks from various locations around the world, the Taliban are offering al-Qaeda a base of operations that more than makes up for the loss of al-Zawahiri for their leadership. And this is in direct contradiction to a US-Taliban deal negotiated in Qatar in 2020, in which the US agreed to withdraw its troops on condition that the Taliban sever all ties with al-Qaeda or other extremist groups.
Operations like the one that killed al-Zawahiri require a great deal of time, careful planning, sophisticated information and resources to carry out. That’s why they’re so rare. Therefore, while they deserve to be celebrated when they are effective, we cannot count on them to undermine the influence of a group as well organized as al-Qaeda.
From the safe haven afforded to them in Taliban-led Afghanistan, al-Qaeda will soon follow in al-Zawahiri’s footsteps and continue the process of rebuilding to their former strength. A robust, structured international response is needed to fundamentally undermine this process.
Now that the semblance of a new, reformed, “moderate” Taliban has been widely exposed – just ask any would-be schoolgirl or previously educated woman in Afghanistan if you have any doubts – international sanctions against Afghanistan must at least be strengthened to prevent al-Qaeda from being taken over by benefited from the financial windfall that the Taliban would reap from a renewed flow of international trade. Of course, humanitarian aid to the desperate, beleaguered people of Afghanistan must continue and be targeted at the victims of the Taliban, not the oppressors.
Al-Zawahiri, with the skillful support of Taliban Interior Minister Haqqani, left behind an extensive worldwide network of dangerous jihadists dedicated to attacking European and Western targets. To prevent his successor from settling in Afghanistan with the rest of senior al Qaeda leadership, the West must coordinate a robust response to prevent the terrorist group’s return through rigorous surveillance of Afghan borders.
Doing so today is the best opportunity we have to prevent Saif al-Adl and his cohorts from picking up where al-Zawahiri left off.
Ivor Roberts is Senior Adviser to the Counter Extremism Project, former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy and former Head of Counter-Terrorism at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/as-the-dust-settles-on-ayman-al-zawahiris-killing-in-kabul-al-qaida-are-more-dangerous-than-ever-41894771.html As the dust settles over the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, al-Qaeda is more dangerous than ever