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Afghanistan, Again, Becomes a Cradle for Jihadism—and Al Qaeda

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Afghanistan, Again, Becomes a Cradle for Jihadism—and Al Qaeda

In March, I travelled to Afghanistan and the Heart East with General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., the Alabama-born marine who heads Central Command. He has been overseeing the frantic evacuation out of Kabul. All the way via one of several interviews aboard his plane, I asked him, “Carry out you really assume, given the intermarriage, the interweaving of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that the Taliban is really ever going to be able or prepared to restrain Al Qaeda from doing anything against us?” By then, the Taliban held roughly half of Afghanistan, a nation about the scale of Texas. McKenzie was chillingly candid. “I hang it’ll be very hard for the Taliban to act against Al Qaeda, to actually restrict their ability to attack outside the nation,” he answered. “It’s that you can hang, but I hang it’d be no longer easy.”

For extra than a year, both the Trump and Biden Administrations had reams of warnings—from the military and diplomats, congressional experiences and a commissioned look neighborhood, its hang inspector general, and the United Nations—that the collapse of the Afghan govt, an ever-growing chance, would also mean a resurgence of Al Qaeda. In April, a U.S. intelligence assessment warned Congress that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership “will continue to situation attacks and stare to take advantage of conflicts in various regions.” The jihadist neighborhood, which carried out the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Heart and the Pentagon, was active in fifteen of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces, primarily within the eastern and southern regions, the United Nations reported in June. The Taliban and Al Qaeda remained “closely aligned and present no indication of breaking ties,” it famed, as savor-minded militants celebrated traits in Afghanistan as a victory for “global radicalism.” In a haunting final file on the classes learned from America’s longest war, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, warned that the U.S. decision to pull out the last U.S. troops “left uncertain whether even the modest gains of the last two decades will reveal sustainable.” The choice to pull out was made by President Trump in February last year, with the timetable made up our minds by President Biden in April this year.

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With the Taliban takeover, the trillion-dollar investment in a campaign to contain Al Qaeda may have changed diminutive since 9/11. Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland safety at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Inner Terrorism,” was blunter. “The situation is extra dangerous in 2021 than it was in 1999 and 2000,” he instructed me. “We’re in a worthy weakened place now. We’ve learned so diminutive.” The Taliban takeover is the biggest boost to Al Qaeda since 9/11 and a global game changer for jihadism generally, Rita Katz, the govt. director of the Site Intelligence Neighborhood, a leading tracker of extremist activity worldwide, instructed me. There may be a “universal recognition” that Al Qaeda can now “reinvest” in Afghanistan as a safe haven, Katz said. Jihadism successfully has a calm homeland, the primary because the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in March, 2019. “It foreshadows a calm future that sadly couldn’t have been additional from what we would hope for after twenty years of war,” she said. It’s a boon for Al Qaeda and its franchises, which now stretch from Burkina Faso in West Africa to Bangladesh in South Asia. “Militants from across the arena—whether or not they be regionally focussed Islamists or globally focussed jihadists—will certainly stare to enter Afghanistan’s porous borders,” Katz added.

For the reason that U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, in 2011, Al Qaeda’s central core has usually been overshadowed by its extra visible franchises in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The neighborhood is now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a seventy-year-weak Egyptian physician who was indicted by the United States for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and was widely linked to the September 11th attacks, too. In a break from bin Laden’s model, Zawahiri has issued few audio messages over the past decade. As the core of the droop came beneath U.S. military stress, he and bin Laden advocated for the creation of Al Qaeda branches across the Islamic world as part of its survival strategy, according to Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. special agent for counterterrorism and the author of “The Black Banners: The Inner Sage of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.” Zawahiri’s extra patient strategy has worked, whereas the extra aggressive strategy of the rival Islamic State has flamed out, Soufan instructed me. ISIS had many instances extra contributors, but Al Qaeda warring parties were far extra experienced, extra strategic, and hardened in battle. Al Qaeda’s strategy—dubbed the “management of savagery”—has three phases. The first involves terrorist attacks to weaken the international and regional affirm. The second, as govt authority erodes or collapses, is to forestall various political forces from filling the vacuum, so as to allow Al Qaeda’s actions to “take pleasure of place,” Soufan said. The final stage is to establish a state and sew the various regions collectively into a caliphate.

Al Qaeda’s numbers in Afghanistan have a bit increased, from four hundred warring parties before 9/11 to around 600 before the Taliban takeover, specialists say. U.S. and Afghan operations eliminated senior leaders and largely shut down the training camps that as soon as operated within the nation, however the droop has adapted. In October, the Afghan military claimed that it had killed the crimson-bearded Egyptian Husam Abd al-Rauf, whose nom de guerre was Abu Muhsin al-Masri. He was on the F.B.I.’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” checklist. Regardless of Al Qaeda’s low public visibility, however, specialists said that the neighborhood was pivotal within the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan. It equipped “the élite backbone” within the Taliban campaign, Hoffman instructed me. “In latest years, Al Qaeda has been the force multiplier at the back of the Taliban” by enhancing intelligence, communication, and battling talents. Its warring parties were “extra cosmopolitan and better educated than the Taliban, who are coming down from the mountains. They carry a lot of talents to an army of nation bumpkins,” he added. “The number was no longer large, but it was outsized in its significance.”

There was no secret about the continuing Al Qaeda presence or its willingness to battle side by side with the Taliban, despite claims by successive U.S. Presidents. In December, the Afghan protection ministry announced that it had killed fifteen Al Qaeda operatives battling with the Taliban in southern Helmand Province. In latest weeks, the numbers of Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan, the franchise in Afghanistan, both grew after the Taliban released some 5 thousand prisoners from Pul-i-Charkhi Detention heart at the Bagram Airfield on August 15th. The U.S. abruptly abandoned Bagram, its largest military base of operations, last month. The doors to various prisons were unlocked as the Taliban swept across the nation. On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy—which is now working out of the Kabul airport—warned Americans tranquil in Afghanistan now to not pass to the airport except equipped explicit directions, because of a calm threat from ISIS. The Afghan fly of the Islamic State is a rival of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and an enemy of the United States. U.S. officials have been timorous that ISIS may attempt to ignite a confrontation at the airport, where Taliban and U.S. forces are glorious a few toes apart.

The U.S. abruptly abandoned Bagram Airfield, its largest base in Afghanistan, last month.Photograph by Sayed Zakeria / Sputnik / AP

For the reason that Taliban takeover, Al Qaeda has bragged that its calculus worked, not like ISIS’s, according to Soufan and the Site Intelligence Neighborhood. Al Qaeda within the Arabian Peninsula, based largely in Yemen, heralded the “starting of a pivotal transformation” worldwide. In North Africa, Al Qaeda within the Islamic Maghreb celebrated the rapid sweep of Taliban military victories as proof that violent jihadist battle is “the actual way to restore the Ummah’s glory.” (“Ummah” is the Arabic time frame for the global Muslim neighborhood.) The Taliban victory has also breathed calm lifestyles into teams far afield, including a few of Al Qaeda’s rivals. “The Taliban’s victory is a tale that can be twisted to energise and elaborate any jihad or Islamist uprising, no matter how many years of bloodshed it may carry,” Katz instructed me.

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Afghanistan, Again, Becomes a Cradle for Jihadism—and Al Qaeda