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3 August 2022

Death of al-Qaeda leader in Kabul puts the Taliban on notice

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri exposes tensions among Afghanistan’s rulers.

By Shiraz Maher

In the end it was the Taliban’s hubris that led American counter-terrorism agents to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, and his hideout in the Sherpur district of Kabul. The area is a secure redoubt in the Afghan capital for some of the Taliban’s most senior leadership, particularly members of the Haqqani network, which is easily the most powerful faction within the group and has close ties to al-Qaeda. The house itself is believed to have been owned and used by members of the Haqqani network before Zawahiri and members of his family were relocated there this year.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, October 2001. Photo by Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images

The drone strike which killed him on 31 July has brought the Taliban’s awkward position in the international system into sharp relief. Keen to be treated as a mature and serious broker, the group has called for the international community to recognise its return to power. The Taliban’s march on Kabul last August was an altogether more muted affair than the last time the group captured the capital, in 1996, when its members tortured, castrated and hanged the former president, Mohammad Najibullah, from a lamppost outside his old palace. This time the message has been meant to be one of peace, forgiveness and coexistence.

A year after the return of the Taliban, events in Sherpur suggest their “new” Afghanistan is a facade. The United States has insisted that Zawahiri was not there by accident but was consciously hosted by the Haqqani leadership. Moreover, US officials claim, members of his family were swiftly relocated to other safe houses after the strike, among them his daughter and grandchildren. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, called sheltering Zawahiri a “gross” violation of the Doha Agreement, which the Taliban and the US signed in 2020.

By contrast, the Taliban have claimed that it is the Americans who violated the agreement. “IEA [the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] strongly condemns this attack on any [sic] cause and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban government’s spokesman. 

[See also: How the war on terror led to the forever wars]

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The Doha Agreement – more formally known as the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan – is the peace deal brokered by Qatar between Taliban officials and the United States. There are two instructive passages for the present situation. The first states that “the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”. The second states that America will recognise Afghanistan’s territorial sovereignty.

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Joe Biden’s announcement of the killing of Zawahiri reveals the tensions surrounding this agreement. The US president did not once mention the Taliban or, indeed, the Haqqanis. This was probably a recognition of the factionalism within the Taliban, where the Haqqanis may be a significant power but they are not the only one. While the network has gained international notoriety, mostly for its brutality and fighting prowess, its representatives were not in Doha for the negotiations.

Those were instead led by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is among the more pragmatic members of the Taliban, consistently seeking diplomatic resolutions to the various crises in which the group found itself embroiled after 9/11, which Zawahiri helped to plan from his base in Afghanistan. Baradar and his fellow negotiators, dubbed the “Doha Taliban”, see themselves as having brought the Americans to heel through diplomacy. To understand the extent of the rapport between these figures and the Americans, it is worth remembering that the CIA director, William Burns, flew to Kabul last August to discuss the American withdrawal in person with Baradar. 

In this context, it is likely that when the Haqqanis brought Zawahiri to Kabul they were acting unilaterally or riding roughshod over other Taliban factions. They were never invested in the peace process anyway, and believe that negotiations only came about because of their dogged determination on the battlefield. A report published for a UK parliamentary committee argued that the network was “not interested in a pragmatic relationship with the US”.

The Haqqanis also believe the American withdrawal was the result of their sacrifices – and those of al-Qaeda. According to a United Nations report, Zawahiri was being briefed on proceedings until February 2020. This is unsurprising given that al-Qaeda and the Haqqanis have shared history, struggle, ideology and intermarriage. After all, Zawahiri has been involved with Afghan politics in one form or another since the 1980s.

While Biden did not criticise the Taliban directly, he issued a clear warning to their leadership. “I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond,” he said. “We’ve done just that.” The message is clear: the Taliban can have their state, but al-Qaeda remains off limits.

The killing of Zawahiri partly reveals the extent to which the Taliban can be considered a singular and cohesive movement. There had been some evidence of this already: shortly after they came to power last year, rumours swirled that Baradar had been seriously injured in skirmishes between the various factions, although he has consistently denied such rumours.

Zawahiri was a totemic stalwart of the global jihad movement; his entire life was dedicated to the cause in some form or another. From Egypt’s subterranean prisons to the mountains of the Hindu Kush, he spent a lifetime promoting the jihadist cause. More than Osama bin Laden, it was Zawahiri who had the vision of making jihad truly global. In that, he achieved his goal.

When George Bush addressed the world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he spoke of a singular group, al-Qaeda, as posing the most serious threat to international security. In the intervening decades, the Salafist-jihadi ideology espoused by Zawahiri spread and splintered, spawning countless radical offshoots from Indonesia and the Philippines, to the Indian subcontinent, to Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Syria, where an alphabet soup of different groups emerged during the most febrile phases of the civil war. Zawahiri has died as he lived, upsetting the status quo, exacerbating tensions and threatening once again to bring the whole thing crashing down.

[See also: Afghanistan after the fall]

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