Days after retaking power in Afghanistan last August, the Taliban pledged that the country would never again become a haven for international jihadis.
“We assure the international community, and especially the US and neighbouring countries, that Afghanistan will not be used against them,” said the group’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid at a press conference after toppling the western-backed government.
Those assurances have been upended by the revelation that a US drone strike killed al-Qaeda’s veteran leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a safe house in the heart of Kabul over the weekend.
The US alleges the 71-year-old Egyptian, who was believed to be sick, lived in the capital with the knowledge of the Haqqani network, a militant Taliban faction that holds senior posts in the Afghan government and has longstanding ties to al-Qaeda.
The assassination marked a significant blow to the Taliban, shattering the isolated regime’s efforts to build trust with foreign powers and gain international legitimacy. Washington’s ability to strike only blocks away from the Taliban’s new ministries has made its leadership look weak in front of their militant base, said analysts.
Zawahiri’s death also revealed the endurance and longevity of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Though diminished after a relentless 20-year war, the group remains a bigger long-term threat than Isis’s more-active Afghan offshoot, according to the UN.
“The conventional wisdom was that al-Qaeda was done and dusted . . . But we’ve all gotten a rude shock. The Taliban were hosting al-Qaeda’s top leadership much like the pre-9/11 years,” said Asfandyar Mir, an expert at the US Institute of Peace. This suggests that the Taliban “were very committed to al-Qaeda and wanted to protect and shield this organisation.”
It was from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that al-Qaeda, then led by Osama bin Laden, orchestrated the September 11 attacks on the US, triggering the American-led invasion in 2001. Many of its senior leadership and members continued moving in and out of Afghanistan as the Taliban fought against Washington’s relentless counterinsurgency campaign.
Among them was Zawahiri, who helped found al-Qaeda in the late 1980s after Arabs joined the battle to fight Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan.
He took over after the US killed bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan in 2011. But while remaining the group’s figurehead, experts said Zawahiri appeared to have less involvement in operations in recent years as al-Qaeda became more of an umbrella organisation, with largely autonomous affiliates spread across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East focusing on local goals rather than global jihad.
As part of a 2020 peace deal that paved the way for the US withdrawal, the Taliban agreed that al-Qaeda and “those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan”.
Yet international monitors have repeatedly uncovered evidence that al-Qaeda remained in the country, as the Taliban appeared to try to provide the group sanctuary while keeping a lid on its activities.
A report submitted to the UN Security Council last month alleged that hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives were in the country and even noted Zawahiri’s “increased comfort and ability to communicate” to members since the Taliban’s takeover.
The US knew of Zawahiri’s safe house in the Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpur as early as April, according to American officials, confirming his location through several sources and even spotting him on the balcony multiple times. He was killed by two Hellfire missiles on Sunday.
The operation revealed Washington’s ability to conduct extensive surveillance and attack the centre of the Taliban’s new capital, in a blow to the Islamist regime’s security apparatus.
“The Americans can find Zawahiri, watch him for a few months in central Kabul, then do a drone strike,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said. “That speaks to a fragmented organisation where there’s no coherent protection.”
The Taliban, who deny knowing the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leadership, confirmed the drone strike, but have not commented on casualties.
Mujahid, its spokesperson, condemned the strike as “repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and against the interests of the US, Afghanistan and the region”.
It also dealt a significant setback to the Taliban’s hopes of gaining international legitimacy. Since taking power, the Taliban have said they want to engage with foreign powers, including the west, in order to end crippling international sanctions and revive the economy.
These efforts, already complicated by policies such as the closure of girls’ secondary schools, have been severely undermined, according to analysts.
“This makes any kind of engagement with the Taliban on any issue extremely complicated,” Mir said. “It would be impossible for anyone to take the Taliban’s word on anything from this point onwards.”
Al-Qaeda faces a succession crisis after Zawahiri’s death, with little information about who might replace him.
Antonio Giustozzi, senior research fellow at Rusi, the London-based think-tank, said with Isis weakened by counter-insurgency operations, there was the potential for al-Qaeda to “stage a comeback”. But that would depend on who replaces Zawahiri in what is expected to be a difficult succession process, he added.
Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London, said Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian al-Qaeda veteran, has often been mentioned as a potential successor. But he is believed to be in Iran under some degree of state surveillance.
“If you go beyond Adel, it’s not entirely clear to me who would be who would be the next in line,” Neumann said. “It can’t be someone who is 25 or 30 years old, because it has to be someone who has a sort of certain seniority that is being accepted by some of the very accomplished other regional leaders.”
“For the time being they [the affiliates] are very much not focusing on the west,” Neumann said. “But if conditions change, it could very well, again, become a threat to the west.”