Despite al-Zawahiri strike, US officials concerned about counterterrorism threats in Afghanistan

More than a year after that task force was established, sources say it hasn’t sent a single proposed target to the Pentagon for approval – largely because without a presence on the ground, it hasn’t. was able to build enough target intelligence to meet the administration’s standards to prevent civilian casualties.

The White House hailed the CIA operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on Saturday as evidence that the horizon’s use of counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan was effective. Current and former officials say Zawahiri’s successful strike certainly proves that with the right intelligence, the United States is fully capable of attacking a specific target from afar – but those same sources also said Zawahiri, a A single high-value target for a long time in the CIA’s crosshairs, was a special case that does not on its own prove the effectiveness of the strategy.

“There’s a difference between tracking a high-value target and dealing with the resurgence of these terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” said Beth Sanner, a former presidential intelligence official under President Donald Trump and a senior South Asia analyst. South to the CIA. “It’s just a whole other ball of wax.”

Some intelligence officials have publicly raised concerns that terrorist activity incubated in Afghanistan will spread outside the country’s borders and pose a threat to the United States — and that the United States will stay there. blind.

Asked directly by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, if he feared an attack on the homeland “from places like Afghanistan”, FBI Director Chris Wray said Thursday: “We are. now that we’re out I worry about the potential loss of sources and collection there.”

“I worry about the possibility of seeing al-Qaeda reconstituted,” he added.

Alluding to the height of the hurdles, some intelligence and military officials who were not involved in the tightly held planning details of Operation Zawahiri were pleasantly surprised that the United States was still able to conduct such a precise strike, according to a former intelligence official still in contact with former colleagues.

Administration officials say that on the contrary, Zawahiri’s strike is proof that the United States is successfully monitoring and countering the threat without American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Sources familiar with the intelligence behind the strike say the US integrated many different data nuggets from multiple intelligence streams to locate and target Zawahiri.

“I think I’m more satisfied and more confident [in US intelligence in Afghanistan] than I was even a week ago because of what this collection just enabled, which was quite a remarkable and quite accurate action,” a senior administration official told CNN on Friday.

“The fact that there have been no other such uses of force in the past year means that we are monitoring and being judicious – and when we believe it is necessary to act, we act,” the official said. “But I think it’s a pretty powerful demonstration of what this ability can do.”

The United States now relies heavily on drone flights and human networks on the ground to gather information about what is happening inside Afghanistan, according to a former intelligence official and the source close to the information.

But drone flights from the Gulf are logistically complicated and have limited dwell time in Afghanistan thanks to the long flight, making them expensive to operate and limiting their usefulness. And without a US presence on the ground, intelligence professionals expect human networks to deteriorate over time.

“I think we don’t know what we don’t know,” a former official said.

Difficult questions

For now, there is a broad consensus within the intelligence community that the immediate threat that al-Qaeda could use Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan attacks against US territory or US interests remains low. . But difficult questions remain about whether this risk will increase over time.

Much depends on the current unknowns, particularly how the Taliban reacts to Zawahiri’s killing. “Are the Taliban really going to let AQ use Afghanistan?” a source close to intelligence said.

“There are a ton of factors that play into this debate,” this person said. “And everything complicated.”

The intelligence community, in its annual threat assessment released this year, rates the threat from al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and West Africa as a greater risk to U.S. interests abroad. foreign than its weakened leadership in Afghanistan. According to officials, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is still evaluating its ability to operate under Taliban rule and is likely to remain focused on maintaining its haven rather than planning external operations – at least for now.

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And although al-Qaeda leaders enjoyed “increased freedom of action” under the Taliban, according to a recent UN report, there has been no major influx of new fighters in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal – a reflection of how al-Qaeda has moved away from centrally planned attacks, some analysts say.

But as to what happens next, a US source described intelligence agencies’ analysis as “everywhere”.

“What we don’t think we’ve produced is some kind of regrowth [or] regeneration of an operational al-Qaeda presence – even with less famous names [than Zawahiri]”said the senior administration official.

There is a school of thought that while some elements of the Taliban may feel honour-bound to uphold their oath to protect members of al-Qaeda’s old guard like Zawahiri, they have no obligation or incentive to welcome a new generation of fighters. And according to intelligence officials, there are very few members of al-Qaeda’s original leadership remaining in Afghanistan, none of them likely to replace Zawahiri.

Meanwhile, the recent strike, some analysts say, could deter terrorist leaders from visiting the country from elsewhere. They argue that the far greater risk is to al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa and elsewhere who are only loosely linked to key leaders in Afghanistan.

“There are people who are very worried,” said Sanner, who is now a CNN contributor. “I personally think the QA core in Afghanistan doesn’t do a lot of operational planning.”

Others say it’s more likely that the Taliban – engrossed in trying to legitimize their government amid a financial implosion and ongoing conflict with ISIS-K – simply doesn’t have the bandwidth. necessary to prevent Afghanistan from being used by al-Qaeda or its affiliates. planning attacks against the United States. There are also fears that remnants of al-Qaeda will simply be absorbed by the Taliban.

The UN report found a “close relationship” between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

How the Taliban react

The Taliban’s response to Zawahiri’s death remains an open question – and one intelligence and military officials are watching closely, several officials said.

According to a source close to intelligence, US intelligence does not know how many people among the Taliban knew that Zawahiri was locked up in Kabul in a house belonging to the powerful Haqqani faction, a militant group that is part of the Taliban government. . The Taliban have publicly denied they knew of his presence before the strike and analysts are watching closely to see if his exposure paves the way for any rift between the Taliban and the Haqqani.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul,” a Taliban statement said.

Footage shows Kabul home where al-Qaeda leader was killed by US strike

White House officials said on Monday that senior Taliban Haqqani officials were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in the area and had even taken steps to conceal his presence after Saturday’s successful strike, restricting access to the safe house and quickly relocating her family members, including her daughter and children.

“As far as we know, many Taliban did not know that the Haqqani were harboring Zawahiri in Kabul. ‘Does this create a split between the Taliban and the Haqqani?’ the source close to intelligence said.

The senior administration official said on Friday that the Taliban “are scrambling a bit to figure out who knew what and who didn’t — and moreover, to get their story straight about what happened.”

Some U.S. military officials, meanwhile, hope the strike could help push the Taliban toward some kind of limited cooperation with the U.S. to target ISIS-K, a common enemy and distinct terror group in Afghanistan whose military American is much more concerned. than al-Qaeda, according to two sources familiar with the dynamic.

“I think it was a token strike that took away an inspiring leader,” Sanner said. “It completes the job of eliminating the two people who were at the center of 9/11. But it’s the end of an era – it’s not a present threat.”

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