Taliban denies knowing of al-Qaeda presence after Zawahiri killed in Kabul

KABUL — The Taliban regime said Thursday it was not aware that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was staying in the Afghan capital, four days after President Biden announced that a U.S. drone strike killed Zawahiri early Sunday at a house he was occupying in central Kabul.

In their first formal response to the attack, issued on WhatsApp and Twitter, Taliban officials strongly condemned the U.S. strike. The United States “invaded our territory” and violated international principles, the Taliban said in a statement. It warned that “if such action is repeated, the responsibility for any consequences will be on the United States.”

At the same time, the Taliban insisted that there is “no threat to any country, including America, from the soil of Afghanistan.” It said the Afghan government wants to “implement the Doha pact,” a peace agreement in 2020 between U.S. and Taliban officials that included a Taliban pledge not to harbor extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.

The statement also said that Taliban leaders have ordered several investigative agencies to “conduct a comprehensive and serious investigation” into the incident.

The statement was issued after senior Taliban figures reportedly held high-level meetings to decide how to respond to the drone strike. By saying it was unaware of Zawahiri’s “arrival or stay” in the capital, the Taliban seemed to be issuing a broader denial of its ties with al-Qaeda in general. U.S. and U.N. intelligence assessments have said those ties are strong and ongoing.

The Taliban’s claim that it had no knowledge of Zawahiri’s presence drew immediate skepticism. “It beggars belief that Zawahiri could live where he did for as long as he did and without the Taliban knowing,” said Michael Kugelman, an expert on the region at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Perhaps not all Taliban knew, but some Taliban must have known.”

Administration officials in Washington have described a painstaking, months-long surveillance effort that preceded the drone strike, in part to ensure that the target was correct and in part to prevent civilian casualties. The house where Zawahiri was reported killed is in an upscale urban district with large mansions built close to each other.

The official denial of Zawahiri’s presence seemed aimed in part at saving face after the humiliation of being unable to protect a senior guest and at lowering tensions with the United States despite the statement’s pro forma condemnation.

The Taliban, facing a humanitarian and economic crisis across the country, is desperate to win international recognition and gain access to some $7 billion in Afghan funds frozen by the Biden administration.

In addition, Zawahiri’s death raises an awkward internal religious issue for the Taliban because of Muslim customs requiring quick burials and large formal funerals for dignitaries. Although Zawahiri did not wield as much authority in al-Qaeda as his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, his relations with the Taliban were old and deep.

In the past several days, many experts have said the embarrassment of the drone strike might drive the Taliban toward a more hard-line posture and even a closer relationship with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, despite its pledge in the Doha agreement to renounce them.

“The Zawahiri killing, perpetrated by a unilateral U.S. military action, has embarrassed the Taliban and exploded their myth that they don’t have ties to al-Qaeda,” said Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Asia program.

“If they stay quiet about the raid and don’t take a confrontational position toward the U.S., they risk antagonizing their rank and file and alienating militant allies,” Kugelman said. “The Taliban can’t afford those outcomes at a moment when they’re already struggling to consolidate domestic legitimacy and manage an acute economic crisis.”

Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.
Taliban denies knowing of al-Qaeda presence after Zawahiri killed in Kabul