U.S. Says Al Qaeda Has Not Regrouped in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — American spy businesses have concluded in a brand new intelligence evaluation that Al Qaeda has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan because the U.S. withdrawal final August and that solely a handful of longtime Qaeda members stay within the nation.

The phobia group doesn’t have the power to launch assaults from the nation towards america, the evaluation mentioned. As a substitute, it mentioned, Al Qaeda will depend on, not less than for now, an array of loyal associates exterior the area to hold out potential terrorist plots towards the West.

However a number of counterterrorism analysts mentioned the spy businesses’ judgments represented an optimistic snapshot of a fancy and fast-moving terrorist panorama. The evaluation, a declassified abstract of which was supplied to The New York Occasions, represents the consensus views of the U.S. intelligence businesses.

“The evaluation is considerably correct, however it’s additionally probably the most optimistic outlook on a risk image that’s nonetheless fairly fluid,” mentioned Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former high U.N. counterterrorism official.

The evaluation was ready after Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s high chief, was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike in Kabul final month. The demise of al-Zawahri, one of many world’s most needed terrorist leaders, after a decades-long manhunt was a serious victory for President Biden, however it raised rapid questions on al-Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan a yr after Mr. Biden withdrew all American forces, clearing the best way for the Taliban to regain management of the nation.

Republicans have mentioned that the president’s pullout has endangered america. The very fact the Qaeda chief felt protected sufficient to return to the Afghan capital, they argue, was an indication of a failed coverage that they predicted would permit Al Qaeda to rebuild coaching camps and plot assaults regardless of the Taliban’s pledge to disclaim the group a protected haven. Final October, a top Pentagon official mentioned Al Qaeda might have the ability to regroup in Afghanistan and assault america in a single to 2 years.

Administration officers have pushed again on the newest criticisms, noting a pledge Mr. Biden made when he introduced al-Zawahri’s demise.

“As President Biden has mentioned, we are going to proceed to stay vigilant, together with our companions, to defend our nation and be sure that Afghanistan by no means once more turns into a protected haven for terrorism,” Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White Home’s Nationwide Safety Council, mentioned in an e mail on Saturday.

But some exterior counterterrorism specialists noticed the brand new intelligence evaluation as overly hopeful.

A U.N. report warned this spring that Al Qaeda had discovered “elevated freedom of motion” in Afghanistan because the Taliban seized energy. The report famous that numerous Qaeda leaders have been probably residing in Kabul and that the uptick in public statements by al-Zawahri recommended that he was in a position to lead extra successfully after the Taliban seized energy.

“This looks as if an excessively rosy evaluation to the purpose of being barely myopic,” Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst on the Soufan Group, a safety consulting agency primarily based in New York, mentioned of the intelligence evaluation. He added that the abstract mentioned “little concerning the longer-term prospects of Al Qaeda.”

Al-Zawahri’s demise has as soon as once more forged a highlight on Al Qaeda, which after Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011 has largely been overshadowed by an upstart rival, the Islamic State. Many terrorism analysts mentioned Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda chief needed by the F.B.I. within the bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa in 1998, was prone to succeed al-Zawahri. He’s believed to be residing in Iran.

“Mainly, I discover the I.C. evaluation convincing,” mentioned Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown College, referring to the U.S. intelligence group and its new evaluation of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr. Byman has in the past voiced skepticism about a resurgent Qaeda threat.

However different counterterrorism consultants disagreed. One level of dispute concerned claims within the intelligence abstract that Al Qaeda had not reconstituted its risk community in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the one main determine who sought to reestablish Al Qaeda’s presence within the nation when he and his household settled in Kabul this yr.

“Zawahri was THE chief of Al Qaeda, so his being protected by the Taliban whereas he supplied extra energetic steering to the group was in of itself reconstitution,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior skilled at america Institute of Peace, wrote in an e mail.

“This method fails to account for the group Al Qaeda is at the moment and the truth that even a small variety of core leaders can leverage Afghanistan to politically direct the group’s affiliate community,” Mr. Mir wrote. “Al Qaeda doesn’t want giant coaching camps to be harmful.”

Some counterterrorism consultants additionally took situation with the federal government analysts’ judgment that fewer than a dozen Qaeda members with longtime ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and that almost all of these members have been doubtless there earlier than the autumn of the Afghan authorities final summer time.

“Their numbers of energetic, hard-core Al Qaeda in AfPak make no sense,” mentioned Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar on the Council on Overseas Relations, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “At the very least three dozen senior Qaeda commanders have been free of Afghan jails a yr in the past. I very a lot doubt they’ve turned to farming or accounting as their post-prison vocations.”

Mr. Hoffman mentioned that Qaeda operatives or their associates had been given essential administrative tasks in not less than eight Afghan provinces. He recommended the timing of the federal government evaluation was “to deflect consideration from the disastrous penalties of final yr’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

The intelligence abstract additionally mentioned that members of the Qaeda affiliate in Afghanistan, previously generally known as Al Qaeda within the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, have been largely inactive and targeted primarily on actions like media manufacturing.

However a U.N. report in July estimated that the Qaeda affiliate had between 180 to 400 fighters — “primarily from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan” — who have been in a number of Taliban fight items.

“We all know from a spread of sources that AQIS participated within the Taliban’s insurgency towards the U.S. in addition to operations towards ISIS-Ok,” Mr. Mir mentioned, referring to the Islamic State’s department in Afghanistan, a bitter rival of Al Qaeda.

There was broad settlement on not less than two details within the intelligence abstract, together with that Al Qaeda doesn’t but have the power to assault america or American pursuits aboard from Afghan soil.

The U.N. report in July concurred with that judgment, explaining that Al Qaeda “will not be seen as posing a direct worldwide risk from its protected haven in Afghanistan as a result of it lacks an exterior operational functionality and doesn’t presently want to trigger the Taliban worldwide problem or embarrassment.”

And authorities analysts in addition to exterior terrorism consultants agreed that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would, within the quick time period, most definitely name upon a spread of associates exterior the area to hold out plots.

None of those associates pose the identical type of risk to the American homeland that Al Qaeda did on Sept. 11, 2001. However they’re lethal and resilient. The Qaeda affiliate in East Africa killed three Individuals at a U.S. base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi Air Drive officer coaching in Florida killed three sailors and wounded eight other people in 2019. The officer acted on his personal however was in touch with the Qaeda department in Yemen as he accomplished his assault plans.

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