August 20, 2021 | The Dispatch

No, Mr President. Al-Qaeda Is Not ‘Gone’ From Afghanistan.

The Taliban has freed many al-Qaeda fighters in jailbreaks. And then there’s the Haqqani Network.
August 20, 2021 | The Dispatch

No, Mr President. Al-Qaeda Is Not ‘Gone’ From Afghanistan.

The Taliban has freed many al-Qaeda fighters in jailbreaks. And then there’s the Haqqani Network.

Today, President Biden delivered his fourth speech on Afghanistan since April. As the fiasco surrounding his administration’s incompetent withdrawal from the country continues to unfold, the president conceded he could not “guarantee the outcome.” He added that there is a “risk of loss” in the days to come. And he praised the American military for carrying out an “incredibly dangerous and difficult mission.”

That mission was made only more difficult by his administration’s poor decision-making. It’s clear that Biden’s team did not foresee the collapse of Afghan forces over the past several months. If the president and his advisers had, the evacuation of American citizens would have happened sooner and in a more orderly fashion.

President Biden cited the threat posed by ISIS as his chief concern. And it’s true that ISIS has a lingering presence, which could strike Americans on the way. ISIS has claimed a string of attacks in Kabul in recent years.

But the president expressed no concern about al-Qaeda. “​​What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al-Qaeda gone?” he asked in response to a question. “We went and did the mission. You’ve known my position for a long, long time.” But he’s wrong: Al-Qaeda is not gone.

In fact, in recent days I’ve spoken with several U.S. officials who think “at least hundreds” of al-Qaeda’s men were released during the Taliban’s jailbreaks this year. Some of these terrorists are al-Qaeda bigwigs. Others are lower-level fighters and midlevel operatives.

Most alarming: Multiple “external operatives”—that is, al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for plotting against the West—have been freed.

The al-Qaeda men released by the Taliban will supplement the ranks of those who are already there.

Based on operational claims and other evidence, my FDD colleague Bill Roggio and I have tracked the presence of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups in at least 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces from November 2020 to April 2021.

This evidence is bolstered by official analyses published by the U.S. government and U.N. Security Council.

In June, the U.N.  Security Council reported that “[l]arge numbers of al-Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan.” In addition, a “significant part of the leadership of” al-Qaeda “resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region.” Some of those senior leaders have been killed inside Afghanistan during the past year.

In the spring, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), reported that the Taliban has “maintained close ties with al Qaeda.”

In January, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that al-Qaeda is “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” Al-Qaeda “capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”

There’s more.

Al-Qaeda is likely in Kabul right now, according to two U.S. counterterrorism officials. They point to the large footprint of the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban, inside the Afghan capital.

As I’ve stressed for years, the Haqqanis are so close to al-Qaeda that they are often indistinguishable. The Haqqanis incubated and groomed the first generation of al-Qaeda’s men for jihad in the late 1980s. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the group’s founder, was one of Osama bin Laden’s first benefactors. Jalaluddin’s son, Sirajuddin, is currently the deputy emir of the Taliban. Sirajuddin has worked with al-Qaeda for decades and the U.N. Security Council’s experts recently said there is even evidence that he is part of the “wider al-Qaeda leadership.”

Sirajuddin is, at a minimum, one of al-Qaeda’s closest allies. But if he is an al-Qaeda leader, then who won the war in Afghanistan? Sirajuddin has overseen the Taliban’s fighting forces for years.

The Haqqanis have thousands of fighters of their own within the Taliban’s army, and it is often difficult to tell them apart from al-Qaeda.

In recent hours, images from Kabul show Khalil Haqqani—another member of the notorious clan—attending prayers at mosque, meeting with bigwigs, and mixing with the public.

Khalil is wanted by the U.S. with a bounty of $5 million on head. You can probably guess who Khalil Haqqani has worked with for much of his career. When the U.S. Treasury Department designated Khalil as a terrorist in 2011 it noted that he has “also acted on behalf of al-Qaeda and has been linked to al-Qaeda military operations.” In 2002, Treasury continued, Khalil “was deploying men to reinforce al-Qaeda elements in Paktia Province, Afghanistan.”

As the U.N. has reported, the Haqqanis “remain close” with al-Qaeda, “based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.”

The Haqqanis and al-Qaeda now share their victory in the Afghan War as well.

President Biden may not know it, but the defeat of the U.S.-backed government wasn’t just a win for the Taliban.

It was a win for al-Qaeda.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues. 

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Issues:

Afghanistan Al Qaeda Jihadism Military and Political Power Pakistan The Long War U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy