The Biden administration is holding out the CIA operation that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as a monumental strike against the global terror network responsible for the September 11 attacks of 2001. But there’s a downside, too.
The drone strike also is putting into stark relief the mounting evidence that after 20 years of America’s military presence — and then sudden departure — Afghanistan has once again become an active staging ground for Islamic terror groups looking to attack the West.
The operation carried out over the weekend after at least six months spent monitoring movements by al-Zawahiri and his family, came just weeks before the one-year anniversary of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country.
The Biden administration is making the case that the operation shows Americans at home and allies abroad that the United States hasn’t lost focus — or the ability to strike terrorists in the region — and validates its decision to end two decades of fighting in Afghanistan with its withdrawal.
Announcing the strike from the White House, President Joe Biden said Monday night that “justice” had been exacted on a leader who in recent weeks had recorded videos calling for his followers to attack the United States and allies. And the White House on Tuesday framed the operation as an enormous counterterrorism win.
“The president has made good on his word when we left,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show. “After 20 years of war to keep this country safe, he said we would be able to continue to target and take out terrorists in Afghanistan without troops on the ground.”
But as details of the operation continue to emerge, the administration has also revealed troubling evidence of al-Qaida’s presence and of the Taliban once again offering refuge to the group that was behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
White House officials believe that senior members of the Haqqani Network, an Islamist terror group with strong ties to the Taliban, were aware that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul. Sullivan said that while al-Zawahiri wasn’t involved in day-to-day planning at the time of his killing, he continued to play an active role in directing al-Qaida and posed “a severe threat” against the U.S. and American citizens. On Tuesday, the State Department updated its Worldwide Caution, warning U.S. citizens traveling abroad that “there is a higher potential for anti-American violence given the death of Ayman al-Zawahri.”
Concerns about al-Qaida’s efforts to regroup inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are hardly new.
Before the strike, U.S. military officials, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said al-Qaida was trying to reconstitute in Afghanistan, where it faces limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still aspired to attack the United States.
Al-Qaida leadership has reportedly played an advisory role since the Taliban returned to power in the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal, according to a U.N. Security Council report last month.
The U.N. report also noted that Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) — the group that carried out a massive attack that killed 13 U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans near the Kabul International Airport just days before the U.S. completed its withdrawal last year — has become increasingly active in northern and eastern Afghanistan. That’s a worry for the West though ISKP and the Taliban espouse different ideologies and interests, with the Islamic State affiliate carrying out a bloody insurgency against the Taliban and religious minorities across Afghanistan.
“Zawahiri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaida – a group with which it has never broken,” said Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism during the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Frank McKenzie, the retired Marine general who until earlier this year was the top American military officer in the Middle East, said the U.S. has noted an effort by al-Qaida to restore training camps in Afghanistan.
“I see nothing happening in Afghanistan now that tells me that the Taliban are determined to prevent that from happening,” he said in an interview.
Since the American troop withdrawal, U.S. military leaders have said America’s ability to monitor and strike a target in the country would be difficult but not impossible.
The strike on Zawahiri proved both, said McKenzie, who is now executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida.
But he cautioned not to draw broad conclusions from this one drone strike.
“This was a unique circumstance,” he said. “You had a target that didn’t move, and they had the opportunity to get a good look at pattern of life. That’s not always going to be the case. In fact, typically, that is not the case.”
That al-Zawahiri was living in a Kabul neighborhood and not in rural Afghanistan as previously believed, “tells you that he got really comfortable” under the protection of the Taliban, said Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm.
“These entities work hand in glove,” Clarke said of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbor al-Qaida members or those seeking to attack the U.S.
The Taliban were quick to condemn the U.S. strike as “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” though they did not acknowledge that al-Zawahiri was killed. The U.S. gave no forewarning to the Taliban government, which the United States does not recognize, that it was carrying out the operation.
“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” the Taliban statement said.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on how, or if, the U.S. would hold the Taliban responsible for sheltering al-Zawahiri.
“The Taliban have a choice now,” Kirby said. “And that is they can comply with their agreement under the Doha agreement … or they can choose to be going down a different path. And if they go down a different path, it’s going to lead to consequences not just from the United States but from the international community.”
Kirby said the U.S. had already engaged with the Taliban about al-Zawahiri’s presence following Sunday’s strike.
The Taliban remain sanctioned by the U.S. government for their role in harboring al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks. After the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul last summer, the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank to prevent the assets from falling under Taliban control. Some of that money has since been freed for humanitarian aid to address the country’s dire hunger crisis.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to congratulate Biden on the operation, but also made the case that it “further indicates that Afghanistan is again becoming a major thicket of terrorist activity following the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.”
“Killing al-Zawahiri is a success, but the underlying resurgence of al-Qaida terrorists into Afghanistan is a growing threat that was foreseeable and avoidable,” McConnell said. “The administration needs a comprehensive plan to rebuild our capacity to combat it.”