National Security

Zawahiri Strike Raises Questions About Potential Terror Haven

(Photo by Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images)

Nicholas Pope Contributor
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Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul and a leading Taliban official’s apparent efforts to hide him raise fresh questions about the extent to which the group is willing and able to counter the international jihadist presence that drew the U.S. into Afghanistan 21 years ago.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, Interior Minister of the Taliban government and formerly a leading jihadist insurgent during the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, sheltered al-Zawahiri in a Kabul safe house before a U.S. drone strike killed the Al-Qaida leader Sunday, according to New York Times reports. The Kabul neighborhood where al-Zawahiri was hiding is home to several top Taliban officials, according to the New York Times. The neighborhood formerly hosted diplomats before the U.S. withdrew from the country in 2021 and ceded control to the Taliban, according to Al Jazeera.

Members of the Haqqani network scrambled to conceal that the wanted Al-Qaida leader had been residing in the house, according to the New York Times reports. The Haqqani affiliates attempted to restrict access to the house, which belongs to Haqqani’s top aide, in the aftermath of the strike, according to the same New York Times reports. (RELATED: Afghanistan Withdrawal ‘Absolutely Inspired’ Jihadists, Obama CIA Chief Says)

President Joe Biden and his administration have stated that “over the horizon” strikes like the one that killed al-Zawahiri can effectively minimize the jihadist threat going forward. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said in August 2021 that jihadist groups could reestablish footholds in Afghanistan in less time than the initial estimate of two years, CNN reported at the time.

Haqqani is a specially designated global terrorist, and the U.S. designated his network as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. The Federal Bureau of Investigation currently offers $10 million to anyone who provides information that leads directly to Haqqani’s arrest.

Haqqani stated that a Taliban government would “make sure the new Afghanistan is a bastion of stability” and mitigate “the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security” in a 2020 New York Times op-ed. Haqqani also claimed that the Taliban “did not choose [their] war with the foreign coalition led by the United States” in the same piece. He did not address the Taliban’s rejection of a 2001 ultimatum to extradite Osama bin-Laden to the U.S. or face invasion in his opinion. The Guardian reported on the ultimatum and its rejection at the time. (RELATED: REPORT: Taliban Kills More Than 100 Former Afghan Officials And Troops Since Biden Withdrawal)

The Haqqani network earned a fierce reputation for its organizational capacity and brutality throughout the U.S.’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. The group launched major suicide bombings, kidnapped westerners and attempted to assassinate U.S.-backed Afghan government officials, becoming “perhaps the most ruthless and feared branch of the Afghan insurgency,” according to the Guardian.

The U.S. abandoned billions of dollars of military equipment in Afghanistan amid a chaotic final withdrawal in August 2021. An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans seeking to evacuate the country at Hamid Karzai International Airport in the final days of the evacuation. Biden and his administration had ceded control of security surrounding the airport to the Taliban in the lead-up to the attack.

Taliban personnel released thousands of Islamic State militants from prisons as American forces pulled out of the country. A spokesman for the Taliban called the strike that killed al-Zawahiri “a violation of international law” in a statement following his death, according to the Al Jazeera report.