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

More than a year after the task force was created, sources say it hasn’t sent any proposed targets to the Pentagon for approval, largely because without a presence on the ground, it hasn’t been able to gather enough intelligence. goals to meet the administration’s standards for preventing civilian casualties.

The White House welcomed The CIA operation that killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on Saturday as proof that using counterterrorism capabilities beyond the horizon in Afghanistan has been effective. Current and former officials say that Zawahiri’s successful strike certainly proves that, with proper intelligence, the US is quite capable of hitting a specific target from afar, but the same sources also said that Zawahiri, the only important target, has been on the radar for a long time. The CIA sight was a special case, which in itself does not prove the effectiveness of the strategy.

“There is a difference between tracking down one high-profile, important target and resurrecting these terrorist groups inside Afghanistan,” said Beth Sanner, a former presidential intelligence official under President Donald Trump and a senior CIA South Asia analyst. “It’s just a very different ball of wax.”

Some intelligence officials have publicly expressed concern that terrorist activities originating in Afghanistan will spread outside the country and pose a threat to the United States without the US noticing.

Asked directly by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, if he was worried about an attack on his homeland “coming from places like Afghanistan,” FBI Director Chris Wray said Thursday: “We’re worried. Especially now that we’re gone, I’m worried about the potential loss of sources and collections there.”

“I’m worried about the possibility that we’ll see a re-creation of al-Qaeda,” he added.

Hinting at just how high the hurdles have become, some intelligence and military officials who were not involved in the closely guarded planning details of Operation Zawahiri were pleasantly surprised that the U.S. could still successfully launch such a precise strike, according to a former intelligence official so far. still keeping in touch with former colleagues.

By contrast, administration officials say Zawahiri’s strike is proof that the US is successfully tracking and countering the threat without US boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Sources familiar with the intelligence behind the strike say the US integrated many different bits of data from multiple intelligence streams to find and target Zawahiri.

“I think I’m more satisfied and more confident [in US intelligence in Afghanistan] than I was even a week ago, due to the fact that this collection just allowed, which was quite a remarkable, quite accurate action,” a senior administration official told CNN on Friday.

Al-Qaeda needs a new leader after Zawahiri's assassination.  His bench is thinner than ever.

“The fact that there has been no other use of this type of force over the past year means that we are watching and acting prudently – and when we think it reaches the point of needing to act, we act,” the official said. “But I I think it’s a pretty powerful demonstration of what this opportunity can bring.”

The U.S. currently relies heavily on drone flights and human ground networks to gather information about what is happening in Afghanistan, according to a former intelligence official and source familiar with intelligence.

But drone flights from the Persian Gulf are logistically difficult and have limited downtime in Afghanistan due to the long flight time, making them costly to use and limiting their usefulness. 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,” said one former official.

Difficult questions

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

Much depends on the current unknowns, in particular on how the Taliban will react to the killing of Zawahiri. “Will the Taliban really let the AK use Afghanistan?” said one source familiar with intelligence.

“There are a lot of factors influencing this debate,” the person said. “And it’s 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 US interests abroad than its weakened leadership in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is still assessing its ability to operate under the Taliban, officials say, and will likely continue to focus on maintaining its safe haven rather than planning outside operations—at least for now. moment.

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And while al-Qaeda leaders enjoyed “greater leeway” under the Taliban, according to a recent UN report, there has been no significant influx of new fighters since the U.S. withdrawal into Afghanistan—a reflection of how al-Qaeda has evolved from, according to some analysts , these are centrally planned attacks.

But as to what happens next, one U.S. source called the analysis by all intelligence agencies “all over the place.”

“We don’t think we have any kind of regrowth going on. [or] re-establishing an operational al-Qaeda presence – even with lesser-known names [than Zawahiri]”said a senior administration official.

There is one school of thought that while some elements of the Taliban may feel obligated to uphold their oath to protect al-Qaeda old guard members like Zawahiri, they have no obligation or incentive to welcome a new generation of fighters. And according to intelligence officials, there are vanishingly few members of the original al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, and it is unlikely that any of them will replace Zawahiri.

Meanwhile, the recent strike, some analysts say, could discourage terrorist leaders from traveling into the country from elsewhere. They argue that al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa and elsewhere that have little ties to key leaders in Afghanistan pose a far greater risk.

“Some people are very concerned,” said Sunner, who now works for CNN. “Personally, I think that the core of the AK in Afghanistan does little in terms of operational planning.”

Others think it’s more likely that the Taliban, preoccupied with trying to legitimize their government amid financial collapse and ongoing conflict with ISIS-K, simply lack the ability to prevent al-Qaeda or its affiliates from using Afghanistan. to plan attacks on the US. There are also fears that the remnants of al-Qaeda could simply be swallowed up by the Taliban.

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

How did the Taliban react?

How the Taliban will react to Zawahiri’s death remains an open question, one that many officials say is being closely monitored by the intelligence and military.

According to one source familiar with the intelligence, it is not clear to US intelligence how many people in the Taliban knew that Zawahiri was hiding 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 knowing of his presence prior to the strike, and analysts are watching closely to ensure his exposure does not lead to any split between the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

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

The footage shows the house in Kabul where the head of al-Qaeda was killed as a result of a US strike.

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

“As far as we know, many in the Taliban did not know that the Haqqanis were harboring Zawahiri in Kabul. “Does this cause a split between the Taliban and the Haqqanis?” said a source familiar with the intelligence.

A senior administration official said on Friday that the Taliban are “trying a little bit to figure out who knew what and who didn’t, and besides being direct about their version of what happened.”

Meanwhile, some U.S. military officials hope the strike could help push the Taliban into some sort of limited cooperation with the U.S. to strike at ISIS-K, a common enemy and separate terrorist group in Afghanistan that the U.S. military is far more worried about. than al-Qaeda, according to two sources familiar with the dynamics.

“I think it was a symbolic strike that took out an inspiring leader,” Sunner said. “This completes the task of eliminating the two people who were at the center of the 9/11 events. But this is the end of an era – we are not talking about the current threat.”