Ten years after killing Osama bin Laden, US tests risk of Al Qaeda revival

Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will show how far ties with Taliban have been severed

An official White House photograph taken on May 1, 2011 shows then US president Barack Obama, second from left, with his vice president Joe Biden, left, secretary of defence Robert Gates, right,  secretary of state Hillary Clinton, second right, and members of the national security team as they receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room. The White House / AFP
An official White House photograph taken on May 1, 2011 shows then US president Barack Obama, second from left, with his vice president Joe Biden, left, secretary of defence Robert Gates, right,  secretary of state Hillary Clinton, second right, and members of the national security team as they receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room. The White House / AFP

Ten years ago this weekend, Barack Obama looked around a tense White House situation room and told his expectant team: “Looks like we got him."

After tense minutes awaiting reports from a three-storey house 11,000 kilometres away in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, word had finally come through that the target named Geronimo had been killed by Navy Seals.

That simple, coded confirmation that Osama bin Laden was dead marked a watershed in America's vengeful pursuit of Al Qaeda and one of the high points Mr Obama's presidency.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden holds a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998. AP Photo
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden holds a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998. AP Photo

At the time, American officials might also have hoped it would mark the beginning of the end of the terrorist network in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet a decade on, the status in the region of the network responsible for the 9/11 attacks is still a foreign policy headache for Washington and remains one of the key national security issues in America's withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In the intervening years, Al Qaeda has taken on new leadership and diversified around the world. But the regional branch, called Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), maintains a stubborn if small presence in the area where it first came to international notoriety, intelligence officials say, and the spectre of that presence now weighs heavily on American plans to leave.

Moreover, some expect the movement to try to capitalise on the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in the coming months, analysts and diplomats told The National.

In the short term, their goal appears to be to support the Taliban's return to power, to do whatever they can to help the Taliban form a government

Asfandyar Mir, Stanford University centre for international security and co-operation

“In the short term, their goal appears to be to support the Taliban's return to power, to do whatever they can to help the Taliban form a government,” said Asfandyar Mir, a fellow at Stanford University's centre for international security and co-operation. “That will automatically have benefits for Al Qaeda, that will improve their security.”

The compound where Bin Laden hid from the world's largest manhunt for at least five years has long been razed and is today nothing more than a patch of waste ground where local children play.

Likewise the movement's footprint in Pakistan has also withered, under an onslaught of drones and military offensives, security officials say.

“The footprint of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has almost entirely shifted to Afghanistan,” said Mr Mir. “It was in Pakistan.”

Relations between the Taliban and Al Qaeda and fears the group will again use Afghanistan as a launch pad for attacks have been at the heart of America's deal with the Taliban. Under the agreement signed in Doha, Qatar in February 2020, America would only pull its troops out if the Taliban ensures terrorist groups like Al Qaeda cannot raise funds, train or recruit in Afghanistan.

The issue is so sensitive for the Taliban that officials in its Doha political office are reluctant to even mention the organisation's name. A Taliban spokesman told The National that they had no intention of allowing anyone to use Afghan soil against America.

“We have conveyed this message to all through our official statements, that those who are intending to carry out sabotage activities in other countries have no place in Afghanistan," Sohail Shaheen said. "We just want to focus on reconstruction of our country after the end of occupation.”

Taliban commanders contacted by The National downplayed both the presence of Al Qaeda and the insurgents' links with the group.

“Al Qaeda and the Taliban don’t need each other now for support and survival, but the two remain in great mutual respect of each other,” said a commander in eastern Afghanistan called Mullah Jamal Haqqani. Another militant source said most Al Qaeda fighters had moved to the Middle East during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Afghan security forces escort suspected Taliban fighters as they are presented to the media at the National Directorate of Security headquarters in Herat province on February 2, 2021. AFP
Afghan security forces escort suspected Taliban fighters as they are presented to the media at the National Directorate of Security headquarters in Herat province on February 2, 2021. AFP

Both Western and Afghan intelligence assessments are more sceptical. Last year the United Nations Security Council reported concerns that Al Qaeda advisers were still closely embedded within the Taliban. Its latest update in February this year reported little had changed and said there were estimated to be between 200 and 500 Al Qaeda members in 11 Afghan provinces. “Al Qaeda assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country,” the report said.

A string of senior Al Qaeda figures have been reported killed in the country in the past two years. Afghan special forces last October killed Hossam Abdul Al Raouf, a senior propagandist also known as Abu Muhsin Al Masri. He had been living in the Taliban-controlled province of Ghazni. In November, a Pakistani bomb-maker linked with the group, Mohammad Hanif, was killed in Farah province.

Al Qaeda suffered its biggest recent loss in September 2019, when Asim Umar, the head of AQIS, was killed in a raid on a compound in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province.

That killing briefly inflamed tensions with the local Taliban, one commander told The National. After the killing, Al Qaeda complained to a local Taliban leader, called Haji Mubrak, that Asim had not been given enough protection.

“Mubrak got angry and said: 'Get lost, who told you to hide here? We once sacrificed our whole regime for you guys and you still have complaints and doubts about the Taliban?'." The commander said he had not seen any Al Qaeda presence in the province since then.

“After the US and Taliban deal, Taliban leaders assured [American envoy] Zalmay Khalilzad that we have strongly told our fighters to keep in mind, no one from Al Qaeda will be tolerated,” he said.

US President Joe Biden walks through Arlington National cemetery in Virginia to honour fallen veterans of the Afghan conflict on April 14, 2021. AFP
US President Joe Biden walks through Arlington National cemetery in Virginia to honour fallen veterans of the Afghan conflict on April 14, 2021. AFP

Seated next to Mr Obama on that day a decade ago was his vice president Joe Biden. Mr Biden, now president, has committed to pulling troops out of Afghanistan by September, despite US intelligence assessments that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still close.

Mr Biden argues that the troops first sent to Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago to topple the Taliban and pursue Bin Laden are no longer needed there. The threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been cut and there are greater terrorist threats elsewhere, particularly from domestic white supremacists, he told Congress this week. What Al Qaeda threat does remain can be watched and managed from afar, he said.

Afghan politicians have warned of the threat for years, although Western officials suspect they often exaggerate to ensure continued funding and military support. “This withdrawal will be a mistake,” one Afghan diplomat said. “Al Qaeda will come back quickly.”

Mr Biden will now see if they have been crying wolf.

Published: May 2, 2021 04:20 AM

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