Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan sparks new fears of al-Qaida resurgence

In early July, as the Pentagon was accelerating the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, U.S. counterterror analysts circulated a confidential report highlighting a worrisome development thousands of miles away. The al-Qaida offshoot in Saudi Arabia and Yemen had just published a new edition of its online magazine, Inspire — the first time it had done so in four years. The issue praised a mass shooting that killed 10 people in Boulder, Colo. (although there was no obvious connection to terrorism), and instructed future perpetrators to exploit lax U.S. gun laws by purchasing ready-made gun parts for easy at-home assembly.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula “additionally encourages attackers to use incendiary/explosive devices — either Molotov cocktails or improvised explosive devices” in order to “maximize the economic and psychological impact of the attack,” the magazine proclaimed, according to a joint FBI-Department of Homeland Security bulletin distributed to federal and state law enforcement agencies about the new issue of Inspire.

Labeled “for official use only,” a copy of the bulletin was obtained exclusively by Yahoo News.

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The bulletin was a stark reminder that, even while President Biden was telling the American public that al-Qaida was “degraded,” the terror group and its affiliates remain very much alive and still quite active trying to figure out ways to cause death and destruction in the U.S. homeland. And as disturbing as the new edition of Inspire was when it surfaced more than a month ago, U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts say the threats from al-Qaida — and similar jihadi groups — are only likely to grow in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.

A Taliban fighter holding an M16 assault rifle stands outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. (Reuters)
A Taliban fighter holding an M16 assault rifle outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul on Monday. (Reuters)

“For al-Qaida, this is a dream come true,” said Charles Lister, the director of counterterrorism programs at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, about the Taliban victory. “This breathes new life into al-Qaida for the first time in many years — if not since before 9/11.”

To be sure, the al-Qaida of today is a shadow of the terror organization that was ensconced on Afghan soil under Taliban protection as it plotted mass casualty attacks on the United States in the days prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan put the group on its heels. Osama bin Laden fled to the remote mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and later to a compound in Pakistan before U.S. Special Forces tracked him down and killed him 10 years ago. Other al-Qaida leaders have been picked off one by one by U.S. drone strikes, leaving a weakened leadership with an Egyptian confederate of bin Laden’s, Ayman al-Zawahiri — reportedly frail and ailing — still nominally in charge and in hiding somewhere in Afghanistan.

But the group has decentralized and remains a formidable presence — in Somalia, Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere around the globe. “And all these affiliates operate ultimately under the instructions of al-Qaida central,” said Ali Soufan, a celebrated former FBI counterterrorism agent who heads the Soufan Center, a New York-based national security research organization.

Osama bin Laden is seen in this video footage recorded
Osama bin Laden in video footage at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in October 2001. (Al Jazeera/AFP via Getty Images)

What makes this moment especially dangerous is that the Taliban and al-Qaida have, according to a United Nations report, retained close ties, raising the prospect that the group will once again be offered safe sanctuary on Afghan soil with foreign fighters flocking to the newly proclaimed Islamic emirate.

A February 2020 peace deal that the Trump administration reached with the Taliban called for the U.S. to withdraw all troops by May of this year in exchange for a Taliban pledge to cut all ties to al-Qaida and other terror groups, such as the Islamic State. Yet the U.N. report, released in June, noted multiple links between the two groups, commenting that the Taliban and al-Qaida “show no indication of breaking ties.” There were, the report asserted, as many as 500 al-Qaida fighters still in 15 Afghan provinces.

Asked about those concerns at a White House press briefing Tuesday, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said: “Our position is that we are going to have to deal with the potential threat from Afghanistan going forward — just as we have to deal with the potential threat of terrorism in dozens of countries in multiple continents around the world.”

The wife of the former leader of al-Qaida on the Indian subcontinent was among 5,000 Taliban prisoners freed last year under a peace agreement signed by the Trump administration. Another al-Qaida leader of the Indian affiliate, Mohammad Hanif, who was killed last November, had been previously providing bomb-making training to Taliban insurgents, the U.N. report stated.

Biden, in his speech to the American public on Monday, vowed that if the Taliban or al-Qaida resumes attacks on the U.S., they will be met by a forceful response. But that threat from Washington is somewhat muted given that the U.S. military will have no boots on the ground and limited, if any, intelligence assets in country to direct drone strikes, or U.S. Special Forces who might seek to return to Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Now there are fears that Afghanistan will once again became a magnet for jihadi fighters around the world in much the same way that Iraq and Syria did with the rise of ISIS after the U.S. withdrew troops there. Already, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that there was intercepted "chatter" among Islamic extremists that the Taliban victory had become a "rallying cry" that, according to an intelligence official from an Arab nation, was "encouraging many jihadis to think about traveling to Afghanistan now instead of Syria and Iraq."

Even more disturbing, the Taliban on Sunday released up to 5,000 prisoners held at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, including a number of "high value" al-Qaida operatives who had "been charged, tried and convicted," said Doug London, a retired CIA veteran who served most recently as the agency's chief of counterterrorism for South and South Central Asia. He said he also expects a number of high-ranking al-Qaida leaders in Iran, possibly including Saif al-Adel — who is rumored to be in line to be the terror group's next emir and has been indicted in the U.S. for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa — to return to Afghanistan.

“The idea that things are somewhat under control, therefore we can pack up our bags and leave, is extraordinarily shortsighted,” said Lister. Al-Qaida hasn’t “chosen to relocate elsewhere,” he added. “One plus one equals two. Al-Qaida will thrive and at least recover.”

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