Al-Qaida enjoying a haven in Afghanistan under Taliban, UN warns

The Guardian

3 June 2022

Intelligence report raises fears country could again become base for international terrorists

Al-Qaida has a haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban and “increased freedom of action” with the potential of launching new long-distance attacks in coming years, a UN report based on intelligence supplied by member states says.

The assessment, by the UN committee charged with enforcing sanctions on the Taliban and others that may threaten the security of Afghanistan, will raise concerns that the country could once again become a base for international terrorist attacks after the withdrawal of US and Nato troops last year.

Critics of the US president, Joe Biden, will point to the report’s description of a “close relationship” between al-Qaida and the Taliban as evidence that his decision to pull out all US forces was an error.

However, a feared influx of foreign extremists to Afghanistan has not materialised, with only a small number of arrivals detected.

Though al-Qaida has been overshadowed by the violence of Islamic State in recent years, it remains a potential threat with a presence in parts of south Asia, the Middle East and the Sahel. Several dozen al-Qaida senior leaders are based in Afghanistan, as well as affiliated groups such as al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent.

The Taliban have repeatedly said they are adhering to an agreement they signed with the US in 2020, before taking power, in which they promised to fight terrorists, and they have insisted Afghanistan will not be used as a launching pad for attacks against other countries.

The report credits the Taliban with making efforts to restrain al-Qaida, but raises concerns that these may not last.

An undisclosed number of al-Qaida members are reported to be living in Kabul’s former diplomatic quarter, where they may have access to meetings at the foreign affairs ministry, the report’s authors say, although they say this information is not confirmed.

The report also says a sudden spate of statements and communications from al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, suggests “he may be able to lead more effectively than was possible before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan”.

A previous UN report said Zawahiri was seriously ill, and some officials have suggested the 70-year-old may be dead.

The Egyptian-born veteran militant has focused on expanding grassroots support and presence in the Islamic world since taking over al-Qaida in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in a US special forces raid in Pakistan.

Although the group is unlikely to mount or direct attacks outside Afghanistan for the next year or two, owing to a lack of capability and Taliban restraint, its long-term objective is still to return to “global jihad”, the report says.

It says the Taliban’s commitment to preventing al-Qaida from launching an international terrorism campaign “is uncertain in the medium to longer term”. This effort received a boost when the Taliban took over Kabul, it says, with al-Qaida able to use the apparent victory of the Islamist militia to attract new recruits and funding and inspire affiliates globally.

In April al-Qaida released a video in which Zawahiri praised an Indian Muslim woman who in February defied a ban on wearing the traditional headscarf, or hijab. The footage was the first evidence in more than a year that he was alive.

A previous video of Zawahiri, which circulated on the anniversary last year of 9/11, did not refer to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August. It did mention the attack on 1 January 2021 attack on Russian troops near the northern Syrian city of Raqqa.

In his most recent video, Zawahiri referred to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, blaming “US weakness” for the war. “Here [the US] is after its defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the economic disasters caused by the 9/11 invasions, after the corona pandemic, and after it left its ally Ukraine as prey for the Russians,” he said.

The UN report suggests most senior al-Qaida leaders are currently based in the eastern region of Afghanistan, from Zabul province north towards Kunar and along the border with Pakistan. The border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is lined with inhospitable hills that have served as strongholds for a number of militant groups.

The Taliban attempted to restrict the activities of Bin Laden when in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, but did not prevent a series of attacks on US targets that culminated in the 9/11 attacks.

Like al-Qaida, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan, which has been fighting the Taliban, is not thought capable of mounting international attacks before 2023 at the earliest, the UN report says. The group is thought to have 1,500-4,000 fighters, also concentrated in the east of Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida enjoying a haven in Afghanistan under Taliban, UN warns