The Taliban continues to work closely with al Qaeda’s branch in South Asia. Afghan Commandos and a unit from the National Directorate of Security raided a Taliban warehouse that was used to store explosives that would be used by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to conduct attacks in the Afghan capital and other “major cities.”
The news comes only one week after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that al Qaeda is “a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan” and the Taliban “would break from al Qaeda publicly and permanently” to sign a so-called peace deal, which was canceled by President Trump.
“Commandos and NDS special Unit 703 with support from the Air Force” attacked a Taliban “stronghold and warehouse of explosive materials” in Ghazni’s Muqur district, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on Sept. 14. Muqur is a contested district, and Ghazni is a known haven for al Qaeda. Afghan forces attacked two bases, killed 26 “terrorists,” and destroyed 120 barrels of explosives and “2000 kilograms of primary explosive substances.”
The explosive materials “were transported to Ghazni from the neighboring country.” Although not named, that country is certainly Pakistan, which is close to Ghazni province. The Taliban is supported by Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and maintains an extensive support network there.
The MoD also noted that “skilled explosive experts” from AQIS “were to use the materials to prepare explosives for attacks in the Capital and major cities across Afghanistan.”
The raid against the explosives warehouse in Ghazni highlights the enduring relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda operatives have provided key support for the Taliban, including explosives experts, military trainers and advisors, and they even fight alongside the Taliban on the front lines.
In exchange, the Taliban shelters and supports al Qaeda leaders and operative in areas they control or contest. General Austin Miller, the commander of Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, confirmed earlier this year that al Qaeda is operating “across the country” and not confirmed to one region. In late 2018, a Taliban commander confirmed that “thousands” of foreign fighters are currently embedded in the group in Afghanistan. In a report released by the United Nations in March 2019, the UN described al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban as “long-standing” and “strong,” finding that the international terrorist organization “continues to see Afghanistan as a safe haven for its leadership.”
However, this is not merely a transactional relationship. Al Qaeda’s leaders (first Osama bin Laden, then Ayman al Zawahiri) have sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s emirs, and view the Taliban’s supremo as the Amir al-Mu’minin or Leader of the Faithful. In turn, the Taliban has advertised its enduring relationship with al Qaeda and has feted some of its key leaders.
Al Qaeda in Ghazni
Ghazni has long been a strategic province for al Qaeda. In one of the letters seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the al Qaeda chief told his general manager, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, that Ghazni was one of four Afghan provinces where leaders and operatives could relocate to avoid the U.S. drone campaign in Paksitan’s tribal areas. [See LWJ report, Bin Laden advised relocation of some leaders to Afghanistan due to drone strikes in Waziristan.]
The United Nations, in 2018, identified Ghazni as one of four provinces where al Qaeda operates.
FDD’s Long War Journal can trace al Qaeda operations in Ghazni back to 2008. Aafia Siddiqui, who is better known as “Lady al Qaeda,” was among several leaders who operates captured and killed during raids that year. There have been multiple operations targeting al Qaeda in Ghazni since then. In Feb. 2017, Afghan troops killed Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a senior al Qaeda leader who also doubled as the emir for Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), a Pakistan-based terror group. Later that year, in Dec. 2017, the US killed Omar Khetab (a.k.a. Omar Mansour), the “second senior leader” in AQIS, al Qaeda’s regional branch. In March of this year, the Afghan military killed 31 AQIS fighters in the district of Giro.
The Afghan government said that al Qaeda played an important role in the Taliban’s Aug. 2018 assault on Ghazni City, the provincial capital. At the time, the Afghan Minister of Defense said that Pakistani, Chechen and Arab foreign fighters were fighting alongside the Taliban and some were killed.
Ghazni is merely one of 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces where FDD’s Long War Journal has detected an overt al Qaeda presence. However, based on past history, al Qaeda is likely to operate in a dozen more provinces.
Given Taliban’s deep ties with the al Qaeda, and its strong military position in Afghanistan, it is highly unlikely that the Taliban would have publicly denounced al Qaeda, as Secretary Pompeo claimed.
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