Several officials from various intelligence agencies have warned that Al Qaeda will return to Afghanistan with the resurgence of the Taliban regime, having been significantly displaced from the country with the invasion of NATO forces and the eventual occupation.
“The current assessment probably conservatively is one to two years for Al Qaeda to build some capability to at least threaten the homeland,” Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Tuesday during the annual meeting of Intelligence and National Security Agencies.
David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA, commented that “We are already beginning to see some of the indications of some potential movement of al Qaeda to Afghanistan […]But it’s early days and we will obviously keep a very close eye on that.”
The Director of National Intelligence, Avril D. Haines, last Monday dismissed that Afghanistan was the greatest terrorist threat to the United States, and assured that countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq represent a greater threat to Americans.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in a hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, asserted that “Al Qaeda, in terms of its capacity to conduct attacks on the homeland from Afghanistan, is vastly degraded, to the point where it is currently assessed that it does not have that capacity.”
Like their American counterparts, British intelligence also believes the terrorist group’s return is imminent. In August, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said, “This was not the right time or decision to make because, of course, Al Qaeda will probably come back,” referring to the withdrawal of NATO forces.
No border controls
Although the Taliban maintained that they would no longer support Al Qaeda during the DOHA negotiations, and reaffirmed this after the takeover, there are serious doubts about the veracity of their words, as within the government cabinet they included members of the Haqqani Clan, known for their direct links with Al Qaeda, as recently as 2020.
Among those who have met with the Taliban is also Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahideen leader and founder of the Hezbi Islami movement. Hekmatyar is infamous for being the most brutal Afghan warlord during the civil war of the ’90s, where he became known as the Butcher of Kabul. In addition, Hekmatyar’s group is known for its links to Al Qaeda. Hekmatyar remained in exile for more than 20 years, until he was granted a pardon in 2016 by the Ashraf Ghani government.
Even if there is a genuine interest within the Taliban leadership to stay away from Al Qaeda, there are doubts about the ability of the Islamic Emirate to prevent members of this terrorist group from entering Afghanistan.
During the anniversary of 9/11, one of Al Qaeda’s leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a video commemorating the date and praising the martyrs who harassed Russian troops in Syria. The Egyptian doctor, who was rumored to be dead, reportedly returned to Afghanistan a few days after the fall of Ashraf Ghani‘s government.
Al-Zawahiri was the founder of the Egyptian Jihadist Movement, which later merged with al-Qaeda, a terrorist group alleged to have masterminded the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The FBI is offering up to $25 million for information leading to the whereabouts of al-Zawahiri.
Although it is still unclear how much capacity Al Qaeda has to unleash a new surge of attacks in the West as it has done in the past, the inability of the Taliban to exercise effective control within its territory, as well as the past links of several of its officials with the terrorist group, Afghanistan is once again becoming fertile ground for transnational Islamic terrorism to flourish within its borders.