US says al-Qaeda has not regrouped in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — U.S. spy agencies have concluded in a new intelligence assessment that al-Qaeda has not rebuilt its presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. pullout last August and that only a handful of operatives remain. longtime al-Qaeda presence in the country.

The terror group lacks the capability to launch attacks from within the country against the United States, according to the assessment. Instead, he said, al-Qaeda will rely, at least for now, on an array of loyal affiliates outside the region to carry out possible terrorist plots against the West.

But several counterterrorism analysts said the spy agency judgments represented an optimistic snapshot of a complex and rapidly changing terrorist landscape. The assessment, a declassified summary of which was provided to The New York Times, represents the consensus of US intelligence agencies.

“The assessment is substantially accurate, but it’s also the most positive outlook on a threat picture that’s still quite fluid,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former top counterterrorism official with the United States. ‘UN.

The assessment was prepared after Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda’s top leader, was killed in a CIA drone strike in Kabul last month. The death of al-Zawahri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders, after a decades-long manhunt was a major victory for President Biden, but it raised immediate questions about the presence of al-Zawahri in Afghanistan a year after Mr Biden withdrew all US forces, paving the way for the Taliban to regain control of the country.

Republicans said the president’s withdrawal put the United States at risk. The fact that the leader of al-Qaeda felt safe enough to return to the Afghan capital, they claim, was a sign of a failed policy which they say would allow al-Qaeda to rebuild camps. training and planning attacks despite the Taliban’s promise to deny the group safe haven. . Last October, a senior Pentagon official said al-Qaeda might be able to regroup in Afghanistan and attack the United States within one to two years.

Administration officials pushed back on the most recent criticism, noting a promise Mr Biden made when he announced al-Zawahri’s death.

“As President Biden has said, we will continue to remain vigilant, with our partners, to defend our nation and ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for terrorism,” said Adrienne Watson, door-to-door word of the White House National Security Council. said in an email Saturday.

Still, some outside counterterrorism experts viewed the new intelligence assessment as overly optimistic.

A UN report warned this spring that al-Qaeda had found “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power. The report noted that a number of al-Qaeda leaders may have been living in Kabul and that the rise in al-Zawahri’s public statements suggested he was able to lead more effectively after the seizure of power by the Taliban.

“That seems like too rosy an assessment to the point of being slightly myopic,” Colin P. Clarke, counterterrorism analyst at Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, said of the incident. intelligence analysis. He added that the summary said “little about al-Qaeda’s longer-term prospects”.

Al-Zawahri’s death has once again shone a spotlight on al-Qaeda which, following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, has been largely eclipsed by upstart rival Islamic State. Many terrorism analysts have said that Saif al-Adel, a senior al-Qaeda official wanted by the FBI in the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, was likely to succeed al-Zawahri. It is believed that he lives in Iran.

“Fundamentally, I find IC’s assessment compelling,” said Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman, referring to the US intelligence community and its new analysis of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr. Byman has in the past expressed skepticism of a resurgent threat from al-Qaeda.

But other counterterrorism experts disagreed. One of the points of contention concerned claims in the intelligence summary that Al-Qaeda had not reconstituted its threat network in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the only major figure seeking to re-establish the presence of Al-Qaeda in the country when he and his family moved to Kabul this year.

“Zawahri was THE leader of al-Qaeda, so his protection by the Taliban while he provided more active advice to the group was in itself a reenactment,” wrote Asfandyar Mir, senior expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. , in an email. .

“This approach ignores the group that is al-Qaeda today and the fact that even a small number of top leaders can leverage Afghanistan to politically direct the group’s affiliate network,” wrote Mr Mir. “Al-Qaeda doesn’t need big training camps to be dangerous.”

Some counterterrorism experts have also challenged government analysts’ judgment that fewer than a dozen al-Qaeda members with long-standing ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and that most of these members were probably there before the fall of the Afghan government last summer.

“Their number of active and hardline al-Qaeda in the AfPak makes no sense,” said Council on Foreign Relations terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “At least three dozen senior al-Qaeda commanders were released from Afghan prisons a year ago. I highly doubt they turned to farming or accounting as their vocations after prison.

Mr. Hoffman said that al-Qaeda operatives or their affiliates had been given important administrative responsibilities in at least eight Afghan provinces. He suggested the timing of the government’s assessment was “to divert attention from the disastrous consequences of last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan”.

The intelligence summary also indicates that members of the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Afghanistan, formerly known as Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, were largely inactive and focused primarily on activities such as media production.

But a UN report in July estimated the al-Qaeda affiliate had between 180 and 400 fighters – ‘mainly from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan’ – who were part of several combat units Taliban.

“We know from various sources that AQIS participated in the Taliban insurgency against the United States as well as operations against ISIL-K,” Mir said, referring to the branch of the IS. Islamic State in Afghanistan, a bitter rival of Al-Qaeda.

There was broad agreement on at least two main points in the intelligence summary, including that al-Qaeda does not yet have the capability to attack the United States or US interests aboard from Afghan soil.

The July UN report agreed with this judgment, explaining that al-Qaeda “is not considered to pose an immediate international threat from its refuge in Afghanistan because it does not have an operational capability. externally and does not currently wish to cause any difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban internationally.” .”

And government analysts as well as outside terrorism experts agreed that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan would most likely, in the short term, draw on a series of affiliates outside the region to carry out plots.

None of these affiliates pose the same kind of threat to the American homeland as Al-Qaeda did on September 11, 2001. But they are deadly and resilient. Al-Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate 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 people in 2019. The officer acted on his own but was in contact with al-Qaeda. branch in Yemen as it completed its attack plans.

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