National Security

Biden Said Al-Qaida Was ‘Gone’ From Afghanistan. The US Just Killed The Group’s Leader In Kabul

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • A U.S. drone strike killed the Al-Qaida terrorist organization’s top official in Kabul, Afghanistan, over the weekend.
  • The Biden administration claimed after the August 2021 withdrawal of U.S. troops that Al-Qaida was “gone” and could no longer threaten American security.
  • “Zawahiri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaeda—a group with which it has never broken,” Ambassador Nathan Sales told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

President Joe Biden claimed Al-Qaida, the notorious terrorist group, had no presence in Afghanistan after he pulled all U.S. troops from the embattled country in August 2021. Nearly a year later, the U.S. killed Al-Qaida’s highest ranking official in a drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital city.

Biden announced Monday evening that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks as second-in-command of the Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, Al-Qaida, and later took over its leadership, died in a CIA drone strike in Kabul on Sunday local time. However, he justified the decision fully withdraw U.S. troops from Aghanistan in 2021 with the claim that the U.S. had eliminated the major terrorist threat.

“What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with Al-Qaida gone?” Biden said on August 20, days after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

“We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan as well as getting Osama bin Laden, and we did,” he added, referencing the 2001 initial U.S. invasion that became a 20-year war against terrorism. (RELATED: REPORT: Biden Administration May Bury Review Of Afghan Withdrawal Fiasco Until After The Midterms)

Former Pentagon press secretary John Kirby contradicted Biden’s statement later that day, noting that “Al-Qaida is a presence, as well as ISIS, in Afghanistan, and we’ve talked about that for quite some time.” However, Kirby added that the number of fighters remaining did not constitute a security threat to the U.S.

“Zawahiri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaeda — a group with which it has never broken. Zawahiri was living in a safe house in the heart of Kabul, which only happens with the Taliban’s approval,” Ambassador Nathan Sales, Vandenberg Coalition Advisory Board member and former ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Biden’s announcement came after the Taliban emir promised in July that Afghanistan would not serve as a base for staging attacks against other countries. Taliban leader and Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani said Tuesday that “Al-Qaeda has no presence in Afghanistan” and is “already dead,” CNN affiliate News18 reported.

However, Taliban officials knew about Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul and took steps to protect him from U.S. detection, senior administration officials told CNN. Officials said U.S. intelligence tracked his move to a safe house in Afghanistan’s capital earlier this year and targeted Zawahiri as he relaxed on the balcony, possibly killing two individuals related to Haqqani in the strike, according to CBS News.

The Biden administration adopted a counterterrorism approach in 2021 of targeting terrorist threats at long range from bases in cooperative countries as an alternative to having forces stationed in Afghanistan. However, the strike against Zawahiri is the first known implementation of the strategy.

While the Taliban committed to a ceasefire and breaking off ties with Al-Qaida as part of the Doha Agreement in exchange for U.S. withdrawal, the terrorist group became more active throughout 2020 as the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban, Forbes reported.

The Pentagon said it needed to reassess a previous determination that Al-Qaeda reemergence was a medium risk in September, calling the group’s Afghanistan presence “a threat rising to the level of a possible attack on the homeland.”

U.S. officials estimated that the Taliban could restore its capacity to conduct external attacks within two years under Taliban rule in the absence of U.S. counterterrorism measures, according to a May 2022 report from the Congressional Research Service.

A June 2021 UN report found that “large numbers” of Al-Qaida fighters and high-level leaders “aligned with the Taliban” operated in at least 15 Afghan provinces, and the Taliban was using the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops to tighten its control of Al-Qaida.

“Al-Qaida and like-minded militants continue to celebrate developments in Afghanistan as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global radicalism,” the report said.

The White House, the Pentagon and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ministry of Interior did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

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