WASHINGTON – US spy agencies have concluded in a new intelligence assessment that al-Qaeda has not restructured its presence in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal last August and that only a small number of long-term Qaeda members remain in the country. .
The assessment states that the terrorist group does not have the capability to launch attacks against the US from the country. Instead, it said, al Qaeda would rely on a range of loyal allies outside the region to carry out potential terrorist plots against the West, at least for now.
But many counter-terrorism analysts said the spy agencies’ decisions represent an optimistic snapshot of a complex and rapidly growing terrorist landscape. The assessment, an unclassified summary of which was provided to The New York Times, represents the consensus views of US intelligence agencies.
“The assessment is largely accurate, but it is also the most positive outlook on the threat picture that is still fairly fluid,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former top UN counter-terrorism official.
The assessment was modeled after Ayman al-Zawahari, the top al Qaeda leader. Killed in CIA drone attack Last month in Kabul. The death of al-Zawahri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders, was a major victory for President Biden after a decades-long search, but it marked al-Zawahari’s presence in Afghanistan a year after Mr Biden withdrew. raised immediate questions about All US forces cleared the way for the Taliban to gain control of the country.
Republicans have said that the withdrawal of the president threatens the United States. The fact that the Qaeda leader felt safe enough to return to the Afghan capital, he argues, was a sign of a failed policy that he predicted would require al Qaeda to rebuild training camps and deny the group a safe haven. despite the Taliban’s pledge to commit attacks. , last October, a top Pentagon official He said al-Qaeda could regroup in Afghanistan and attack the US in one to two years.
Administration officials have pushed back on the most recent criticism Mr Biden made when announcing al-Zawahari’s death.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said, “As President Biden has said, we, along with our allies, will continue to remain vigilant to defend our nation and ensure that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorism.” Be.” Said in an email on Saturday.
Yet some outside counter-terrorism experts viewed the new intelligence assessment as highly optimistic.
a UN report warned this spring That Al Qaeda had gained “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power. The report said several Qaeda leaders were likely living in Kabul and that al-Zawahari’s uptick in public statements suggested he was able to lead more effectively after the Taliban seized power.
Clarke, a counter-terrorism analyst at Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York, said of the intelligence analysis, “It seems like an overly rosy assessment to the point of being a little short-sighted.” He said the summary said “little about the long-term prospects of al Qaeda”.
Al-Zawahari’s death has once again brought the spotlight to al Qaeda, which has been largely overshadowed by an upstart rival, the Islamic State, following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Many terrorism analysts said Saif Al-Adele, likely to be the successor to al-Zawahari, a senior Qaeda leader wanted by the FBI in the 1998 bombings on two United States embassies in East Africa. He is believed to be living in Iran.
“Basically, I find the IC assessment credible,” said Georgetown University professor Daniel Bierman, referring to his new analysis of the US intelligence community and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr Byman have expressed doubts in the past about The threat of a revivalist Qaida,
But other counter-terrorism experts disagreed. One point of contention included claims in intelligence summaries that al-Qaeda had not restructured its threat network in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the only key figure who sought to reestablish al Qaeda’s presence in the country. When he and his family had settled in Kabul. year.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote in an email, “Zawahari was the leader of al Qaeda, so he was being protected by the Taliban, while he provided more active guidance to the group.” ,
“This approach is not attributable to al Qaeda’s group today and the fact that some prominent leaders may also take advantage of Afghanistan to politically direct the group’s affiliated network,” Mr. Mir wrote. “Al Qaeda doesn’t need large training camps to be dangerous.”
Some counter-terrorism experts also took issue with government analysts’ decision that fewer than a dozen Qaeda core members with long-standing ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and most of them were members of the Afghan government last summer. was likely to happen before.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying, “their numbers of hardline al Qaeda operating in the Afpak make no sense.” “At least three dozen senior Qaeda commanders were freed from Afghan prisons a year ago. I highly doubt they have turned to farming or accounting as a post-prison occupation. ,
Mr Hoffman said Qaida operatives or their allies have been given important administrative responsibilities in at least eight Afghan provinces. He suggested the time for the government’s assessment was “to divert attention from the disastrous consequences of last year’s shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan”.
The intelligence summary also stated that members of Qaeda affiliated in Afghanistan, formerly known as Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, or AQIS, were largely passive and focused primarily on activities such as media production.
But a UN report in July estimated that there were 180 to 400 fighters linked to Qaeda – “mainly from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan” – who were in several Taliban combat units.
“We know from multiple sources that AQIS participated in the Taliban insurgency against the US as well as operations against ISIS-K,” Mr Mir said, referring to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, an al Qaeda affiliate. bitter rival.
There was broad agreement on at least two main points in the intelligence summary, including that al Qaeda does not yet have the ability to attack the United States or American interests from Afghan soil.
UN report in July agree with that decisionExplaining that al Qaeda “is not seen as an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks external operational capability and the Taliban does not currently want to cause international hardship or embarrassment.”
And government analysts as well as outside terrorism experts agreed that al Qaeda in Afghanistan would, in the short term, call on several allies outside the region to carry out the plots.
Neither of these allies poses the same threat to the American homeland as Al Qaeda did on September 11, 2001. But they are lethal and resilient. A Qaeda affiliate in East Africa killed three Americans at a US base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi Air Force Officer Training in Florida Killed three sailors and injured eight others in 2019, The officer acted on his own but was in contact with the Qaeda branch in Yemen as he carried out his plan of attack.