As news settles about the United States drone attack that killed top Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, questions emerge about how he was sheltering in downtown Kabul, reunited with friends and family and whether his presence there signals the resurgence of the terror group in Afghanistan once again.
Zawahiri, 71, who once served as bin Laden’s physician, took over the original branch of Al-Qaeda several years after the U.S. killed its leader, Osama bin Laden, representing an international symbol of the group and dictating terrorist attacks against American interests.
In comments from the White House after the attack, President Biden explained that once officials identified Zawahiri’s location, the President, key advisers and Cabinet members agreed to strike, adding that no American personnel was on the ground in Kabul during the time. However, reports indicated that senior Haqqani Taliban leaders were aware of the Al-Qaeda leader’s presence in the area, revealing what many have described as a violation of the Doha Agreement.
The Doha Agreement, or the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, commonly known as the U.S.-Taliban Deal, was a peace agreement signed between the U.S. and the Taliban in February of 2020 in Doha, Qatar, signaling an end to the nearly 20 year war in Afghanistan between 2001-2020.
Not only was the Taliban aware of Zawahiri’s presence, but according to reports, they also concealed his presence after Saturday’s strike, restricting access to the safe house and relocating his family. On Twitter, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stated that an airstrike occurred in a residential home in the Sherpur area of Kabul City Sunday. The statement further explains that while Taliban officials were unaware of the nature of the attacks, investigations led the Taliban to conclude that an American drone struck Zawahiri.
The Taliban official condemned the attack stating that it “violated the international principles and the Doha Agreement.”
“The death of Al-Qaeda’s top official reveals a larger web of terror operatives in Afghanistan, given that their leader was found in the heart of Kabul, in a neighborhood where there are still embassies and is only a few kilometers away from the former presidential palace, Ali Nazary, foreign relations head for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF).
“There are thousands of terrorists in Afghanistan affiliated with Al Qaeda today. Many other prominent figures of Al Qaeda are freely living in Afghanistan,” Nazary said.
President Biden, in his statement, explained Zawahiri’s involvement in the planning of September 11, resulting in thousands of Americans dying. The President then stated that this strike had delivered justice and that the U.S. would continue to demonstrate resolve and the ability to defend Americans no matter the cost. He then praised the intelligence community and the military for locating Zawahiri earlier this year and devising a plan to strike him.
The statement that left many experts and lawmakers puzzled was when President Biden stated that this strike confirmed his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops and personnel from Afghanistan actually helped counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. On social media, many lawmakers and foreign policy experts pointed out that the strike against Zawahiri demonstrates that the President’s previous statements on Al-Qaeda not being present in Afghanistan were untrue. Instead, many point out that Zawahiri could not have operated in Kabul without the consent of the Taliban.
Additionally, this strike led many to conclude that the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance remains as strong as ever and will continue to grow so long as the radical Islamic government remains in power. With Zawahiri gone, many believe that Al-Qaeda will replace his leadership, remaining in Afghanistan with Taliban protection, plotting terrorist attacks against Americans, Europeans, and others, safe from harm. As a result of the President’s actions, many speculate that the Taliban will find new and more effective ways to hide their terrorist guests.
“Allowing a terrorist group to takeover a whole country and abandoning the Global War on Terror once again has turned Afghanistan into a sanctuary for international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda” stated Nazary.
Nazary further explained that the appeasement of the past year by the international community “did not prevent the Taliban from strengthening their relationship with other terrorist groups.”
The Taliban is now positioned to help Al Qaeda regain its former size and status by helping to supply arms and recruit younger fighters to their cause. Given the terrain of Afghanistan and its mountains, Al Qaeda will be able to travel from Afghanistan to countries like Pakistan and Iran, soliciting help from anti-American regimes to sponsor international terrorism.
When President Biden announced the withdrawal of American personnel in Afghanistan last August, the country became a haven for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, prompting concern for American national security and foreign policy. The quick pullout resulted in enormous amounts of American military equipment in the hands of radical Islamic Taliban fighters who have shared some of their spoils with anti-American regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran and members of different Al Qaeda cells. The Taliban has enacted harsh Sharia law on the Afghan population, forcing women to cover themselves and men to conform to Islamic law.