World · August 6, 2022

Despite al-Zawahiri attack, US officials are concerned about counterterrorism threats in Afghanistan


Shortly before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Defense Department created a task force responsible for handling counterterrorism attacks inside the country after US troops left – a so-called “beyond the horizon” strategy. that officials had promised would prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for the growth of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.

More than a year after that task force was created, sources say it hasn’t sent a single proposed target to the Pentagon for approval, mostly because without a field presence it hasn’t been able to build enough information on the targets to meet the targets. administration standards to avoid civilian casualties.

The White House hailed the CIA operation that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on Saturday as evidence of the effectiveness of the use of counterterrorism capabilities on the horizon in Afghanistan. Current and former officials say the success of Zawahiri’s attack certainly demonstrates that with the right intelligence, the US is perfectly capable of tackling a specific target from afar, but those same sources also said that Zawahiri, a single target of long-time high value in the CIA crosshairs, it was a special case that not alone demonstrates the effectiveness of the strategy.

“There is a difference between charting a high-value, high-level goal and addressing the resurgence of these terrorist groups within Afghanistan,” said Beth Sanner, a former presidential intelligence briefer under President Donald Trump and Senior South Asian analyst at the CIA. “It’s just a completely different ball of wax.”

Some intelligence officials have publicly raised concerns that the terrorist activity incubated in Afghanistan will spread beyond the country’s borders and pose a threat to the United States – and that the United States will be blind to it.

Asked directly by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham if he was concerned about an attack on his homeland “from places like Afghanistan,” FBI Director Chris Wray said Thursday, “We are. Especially now that we are. we are out I am concerned about the potential loss of sources and collection over there. ”

“I am concerned about the possibility that we will see al Qaeda reconstituted,” he added.

Suggesting how high the obstacles have become, some intelligence and military officials who were not involved in the tightly kept planning details of Operation Zawahiri were pleasantly surprised that the United States was still able to successfully carry out a attack of such precision, according to a former intelligence official still in contact with former colleagues.

Administration officials say, by contrast, the Zawahiri attack is proof that the United States is successfully monitoring and countering the American bootless threat on the ground in Afghanistan. Sources familiar with the intelligence behind the attack say the US has integrated many different nuggets of data from multiple intelligence streams to locate and target Zawahiri.

“I think I’m more satisfied and more confident [in US intelligence in Afghanistan] than I was even just a week ago because of what that collection just allowed, which was a pretty remarkable and pretty neat action, ”a senior administration official told CNN on Friday.

“The fact that there have been no other uses of force of that kind in the past year means that we are monitoring and being judicious – and where we think it reaches the point of having to act, we are acting,” the official said. “But I think it’s a pretty powerful demonstration of what this ability can deliver.”

The United States now relies largely on drone flights and human networks in the field to gather information on what is happening inside Afghanistan, according to a former intelligence official and source familiar with intelligence. .

But drone flights from the Gulf are logistically complicated and have a limited stopover time in Afghanistan thanks to the long flight, which makes them expensive to use and limits their usefulness. And without a US presence on the ground, intelligence professionals expect human networks to degrade over time.

“I think we don’t know what we don’t know,” a former official said.

For now, there is broad consensus within the intelligence community that the immediate threat that al Qaeda could use Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan attacks on the US homeland or US interests remains low. . But the questions remain as to whether this risk will increase over time.

Much depends on the current unknowns, in particular on how the Taliban respond to the killing of Zawahiri. “Will the Taliban really allow AQ to use Afghanistan?” said a source familiar with intelligence.

“There are a lot of factors that play into this debate,” this person said. “It’s all complicated.”

The intelligence community in its annual threat assessment published this year assesses the threat from al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and West Africa as a greater risk to US interests abroad than its weakened leadership in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is still evaluating its ability to operate under Taliban rule, according to officials and will likely remain focused on maintaining its safe harbor rather than planning external operations, at least for now.

And although al Qaeda leaders enjoyed “greater freedom of action” under the Taliban, according to a recent UN report, there has not been a large influx of new fighters into Afghanistan since the US withdrawal, a reflection how al Qaeda has evolved away from centrally planned attacks, according to some analysts.

But as for what will happen next, a US source described the intelligence agency’s analysis as “everywhere”.

“What we don’t think we have is some sort of regrowth [or] regeneration of an operational presence of al Qaeda, even with less famous names [than Zawahiri]”said the senior administration official.

There is a school of thought that while some elements of the Taliban may feel obligated to honor their oath to protect members of the al Qaeda old guard like Zawahiri, they have no obligation or incentive to welcome a new generation of fighters. And according to intelligence officials, there are very few members of the original al Qaeda leadership remaining in Afghanistan, none of whom will replace Zawahiri.

Meanwhile, the recent strike, some analysts argue, could dissuade terrorist leaders from traveling to the country from elsewhere. They argue that by far the greatest risk is posed by al Qaeda affiliates in Africa and elsewhere who are only loosely connected to top leaders in Afghanistan.

“There are some people who are very worried,” said Sanner, who is now a collaborator on CNN. “Personally, I think the AQ core in Afghanistan doesn’t do a lot of operational planning.”

Others estimate that the Taliban, consumed by trying to legitimize its government amid a financial implosion and ongoing conflict with ISIS-K, is more likely to simply lack the bandwidth to prevent Afghanistan. is used by al Qaeda or its affiliates to plan attacks on the United States. There are also fears that the remnants of al Qaeda may simply be absorbed by the Taliban.

The UN report found a “close relationship” between al Qaeda and the Taliban.

How the Taliban will respond to Zawahiri’s death remains an open question, and one that the intelligence and military are watching closely, several officials said.

According to an intelligence source, it is not clear to US intelligence how many people among the Taliban knew that Zawahiri was being held in Kabul in a house owned by the powerful Haqqani faction, a militant group that is part of the Taliban government. The Taliban have publicly denied knowing he was there before the strike and analysts are watching closely to see if his denunciation introduces some kind of rift between the Taliban and the Haqqan.

“The Islamic emirate of Afghanistan has no information on the arrival and stay of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul”, reads a statement from the Taliban.

White House officials said on Monday that senior Haqqani Taliban officials were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in the area and even took steps to hide his presence following Saturday’s successful strike, limiting access to the shelter and quickly relocating. his family members, including his daughter and here children.

“As far as we know, many people among the Taliban did not know that the Haqqani were protecting Zawahiri in Kabul. “Does this create a rift between the Taliban and the Haqqani?” the source familiar with intelligence said.

The senior administration official said on Friday that the Taliban “are scrambling a bit to figure out who knew what and who didn’t – and also, to clarify their story about what happened.”

Some U.S. military officials hope, meanwhile, that the attack will help push the Taliban into some sort of limited cooperation with the U.S. to target ISIS-K, a common enemy and a separate terrorist group in Afghanistan. which the US military is far more concerned with than al Qaeda, according to two sources familiar with the dynamic.

“I think this was a symbolic strike that removed an inspiring leader,” Sanner said. “Complete the task of removing the two people who were in the center of 9/11. But it is the end of an era, it is not a current threat “.