ISLAMABAD – The U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri on the balcony of a Kabul safe house intensified global scrutiny Tuesday of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and further undermined their efforts to secure international recognition and desperately needed aid.
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.
Yet a mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks, who has called for striking the United States in numerous video messages in recent years, lived for months apparently sheltered by senior Taliban figures.
The safe house where al-Zawahri was staying in Kabul’s upscale Shirpur neighborhood was the home of a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. Haqqani is deputy head of the Taliban, serves as interior minister in its government and heads the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the movement.
Still, there have been persistent reports of unease among Taliban leadership, particularly tensions between the Haqqani network and rivals within the movement.
The Taliban initially sought to describe the strike as America violating the Doha deal, in which the U.S. committed not to attack the group. The Taliban have yet to say who was killed in the strike.
“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri has raised many questions,” said one Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press as he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly to reporters. Al-Zawahri took over as al-Qaida’s leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, in an operation by U.S. Navy SEALs.
“The Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul, and if they were not aware of it, they need to explain their position,” the official said.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry issued a very carefully worded statement, which referred to a “counter-terrorism operation by the United States in Afghanistan" but did not mention al-Zawahri. “Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” it said. Pakistan has been lobbying for the world to give greater recognition and support to the Taliban government.
The strike early Sunday shook awake Shirpur, once a district of historic buildings that were bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials in Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and international aid organizations. After the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, senior Taliban moved into some of the abandoned homes there.
The targeted safe house is only a few blocks from the British Embassy, which has been closed since the Taliban takeover in August. Taliban officials blocked AP journalists in Kabul from reaching the damaged house on Tuesday.
The U.N. Security Council was informed by monitors of militant groups in July that al-Qaida enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban but confines itself to advising and supporting the country’s new rulers.
A report by the monitors said the two groups remain close and that al-Qaida fighters, estimated to number between 180 to 400, are represented “at the individual level” among Taliban combat units.
The monitors said it’s unlikely al-Qaida will seek to mount direct attacks outside Afghanistan, “owing to a lack of capability and restraint on the part of the Taliban, as well as an unwillingness to jeopardize their recent gains” such as having a safe haven and improved resources.
During the first half of 2022, al-Zawahri increasingly reached out to supporters with video and audio messages, including assurances that al-Qaida can compete with the Islamic State group for leadership of a global movement, the report by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said.
IS militants have emerged as a major threat to the Taliban over the past year, carrying out a series of deadly attacks against Taliban targets and civilians.
The Haqqani network is an Afghan Islamic insurgent group, built around the family of the same name. In the 1980s, it fought Soviet forces and over the past 20 years, it battled U.S.-led NATO troops and the former Afghanistan government. The U.S. government maintains a $10 million bounty on Serajjudin Haqqani for attacks on American troops and Afghan civilians.
But the Haqqanis, from Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, have rivals within the Taliban leadership, mostly from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Some believe Sirajuddin Haqqani wants more power. Other Taliban figures have opposed the Haqqanis’ attacks against civilians in Kabul and elsewhere during the insurgency.
Jerome Drevon, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst studying Islamist militant groups, said the tensions are focused on how to direct the new regime — “how to share power ... who gets what position, who gets to control what ministries, to decide the general policies and so on.”
The timing of the strike also couldn't come at a worse time politically for the Taliban. The militants face international condemnation for refusing to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade, despite earlier promises. The United Nations mission to Afghanistan also criticized the Taliban for human rights abuses under their rule.
The U.S. and its allies have cut off billions in development funds that kept the government afloat in part over the abuses, as well as froze billions in Afghan national assets.
This sent the already shattered economy into free fall, increasing poverty dramatically and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Millions, struggling to feed their families, are kept alive by a massive U.N.-led relief effort.
The Taliban have been trying to reopen the taps to that aid and their reserves. However, al-Zawahri’s killing already has been seized upon by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a sign that the Taliban “grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances ... that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid alleged the U.S. violated the Doha Agreement by launching the strike. Afghanistan’s state-run television channel — now under the Taliban — reported that President Joe Biden said al-Zawahri had been killed.
“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri closes a chapter of al-Qaida,” said Imtiaz Gul, the executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
Al-Zawahri’s death coincided with the 32nd anniversary of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait — creating a sort of a bookend to al-Qaida’s era of militancy. Saddam’s invasion prompted the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, which in turn was one factor that drove bin Laden to turn his guns on America, culminating in the 9/11 attacks.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.