U.S. killing of al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan heightens scrutiny of Taliban
American travellers warned of potential for retaliatory violence abroad
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 — yet a mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks, who has called for striking the United States in numerous video messages in recent years, lived for months apparently sheltered by senior Taliban figures.
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 safe house where al-Zawahri was staying in Kabul's upscale Shirpur neighbourhood was the home of a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. Haqqani is deputy head of the Taliban, serves as interior minister in its government and heads the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the movement.
Still, there have been persistent reports of unease among Taliban leadership, particularly tensions between the Haqqani network and rivals within the movement.
The Taliban initially sought to describe the strike as the U.S. violating the Doha deal, which also includes a Taliban pledge not to shelter those seeking to attack the United States. The Taliban have yet to say who was killed in the strike.
"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.
"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.
A senior Taliban official told Reuters that al-Zawahri was previously in Helmand province and had moved to Kabul after the Taliban took over the country in August last year.
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.
Taliban officials blocked AP journalists in Kabul from reaching the damaged house on Tuesday.
White House spokesperson John Kirby told CNN the United States did not have DNA confirmation of al-Zawahri's death, citing "visual confirmation" along with other sources.
The drone attack is the first known U.S. strike inside Afghanistan since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops and diplomats in 2021.
The killing may bolster the credibility of Washington's assurances that it can still address threats from Afghanistan without a military presence in the country.
Warning for American travellers
The State Department on Tuesday warned U.S. citizens travelling abroad that "there is a higher potential for anti-American violence" because of al-Zawahri's death, urging Americans to stay vigilant while in other countries.
Global Affairs Canada has not issued any new travel advice for Canadians.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC's Today show that while al-Zawahri wasn't involved in day-to-day planning at the time of his killing, he continued to play an active role in directing al-Qaeda and posed "a severe threat" to the U.S. and its citizens.
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.
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.
Tense U.S.-Taliban relations
The timing of the strike also couldn't come at a worse time politically for the Taliban. The militants face international condemnation for refusing to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade, despite earlier promises.
The United Nations mission to Afghanistan also criticized the Taliban for human rights abuses under their rule.
The U.S. and its allies have cut off billions in development funds that kept the government afloat in part over the abuses, as well as froze billions in Afghan national assets.
This sent the already shattered economy into free fall, increasing poverty dramatically and creating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Millions of people who struggle to feed their families are kept alive by a massive UN-led relief effort.
The Taliban have been trying to reopen the taps to that aid and their reserves.
However, al-Zawahri's killing already has been seized upon by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a sign that the Taliban "grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances … that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries."
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid alleged the U.S. violated the Doha Agreement by launching the strike. Afghanistan's state-run television channel — now under the Taliban — reported that U.S. President Joe Biden said al-Zawahri had been killed.
"The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri closes a chapter of al-Qaeda," said Imtiaz Gul, the executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
Al-Zawahri's death coincided with the 32nd anniversary of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait — creating a sort of a bookend to al-Qaeda's era of militancy.
Hussein's invasion prompted the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, which in turn was one factor that drove bin Laden to turn his guns on America, culminating in the 9/11 attacks.
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."
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," said Jerome Drevon, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst studying Islamist militant groups.
"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."
He said it's "not that surprising" that the building al-Zawahri lived in was 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."
With files from Reuters and CBC News