Analysis: Taliban is caught in a lie by denying Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan

Screen shot from a Taliban video that celebrated the relationship with Al Qaeda. For more information, see FDD’s Long War Journal report, Taliban rejects peace talks, emphasizes alliance with al Qaeda in new video.

After General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. asserted that Al Qaeda and its emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, are operating in Afghanistan, the Taliban denied that Al Qaeda is in the country and said the terror group hasn’t been there since the days when the Taliban openly ruled Afghanistan.

By making such a claim, either the Taliban is lying or it is calling Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives – who have fought and died in Afghanistan – a pack of liars. Because Al Qaeda has documented its operations in Afghanistan for years.

McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, questioned the Taliban’s willingness to fight Al Qaeda during an online forum hosted by the Middle East Institute last week. The Taliban issued its denial of McKenzie’s statement over the weekend. Just days prior, the Taliban denied the presence of any foreign fighters. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, Taliban falsely claims al Qaeda doesn’t exist in Afghanistan and Taliban again denies presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.]

While it may seem absurd to have to provide evidence of Al Qaeda’s existence in Afghanistan, it is necessary. U.S. officials who have inked the withdrawal deal with the Taliban, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, somehow maintain that the Taliban will “destroy” Al Qaeda and the group will be an effective counterterrorism partner.

But how any of this can this be true if the Taliban denies the presence of Al Qaeda and all foreign fighters?

The evidence of Al Qaeda’s residence in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. is undeniable. Al Qaeda itself has admitted to being in Afghanistan. This is seen in its statements claiming attacks and the martyrdom of its leaders and fighters killed in country, documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as well as Al Qaeda leaders’ oaths of allegiance to the Taliban’s emir. The information provided below is merely a small sample the evidence that proves Al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden’s files discuss Al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan

Osama bin Laden, the cofounder of Al Qaeda and its first emir, and his deputies often discussed the group’s operations inside Afghanistan. In one document, written in June 2010 by Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who at the time was Al Qaeda’s general manager, to Osama bin Laden, Rahman said that the group had a very strong military presence in Afghanistan. [See See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: ‘Very strong military activity in Afghanistan’.]

“Our groups inside Afghanistan are the same for every season for many years now,” Rahman wrote. “We have groups in Bactria [likely Paktia], Bactica [Paktika], Khost, Zabul, Ghazni and [Wardak] in addition to the battalion in Nuristan and Kunz [Kunduz].”

“We have very strong military activity in Afghanistan, many special operations, and the Americans and NATO are being hit hard,” Rahman wrote.

Rahman discussed one of the “special operations:” the May 19, 2010 suicide assault at Bagram Air Base in the central province of Parwan. That attack was a joint operation with the Haqqani Network, the powerful Taliban subgroup whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also one of the Taliban’s two deputy emirs. Abu Talha al Almani, the German-Moroccan al Qaeda leader also known as Bekkay Harrach, was assigned to lead the suicide assault on Bagram. He was killed in the operation.

Ayman al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current emir, openly bragged about Al Qaeda operations in Dec. 2011. In one statement, Zawahiri took credit for attack on an “American base in [the central Afghan province of Wardak]” as well as shooting down a U.S. Chinook helicopter the Tangi Valley in the Saydabad district, a known haven for the Taliban in Wardak province. Thirty US troops, including 22 Navy SEALs, an interpreter, and seven Afghan special operations soldiers were killed.

And the sheikh [Osama bin Laden] has sent me a letter which he wrote before he was martyred by a few days, passing on to me good tidings on numerous [al-Qaeda] victories in Afghanistan, from it the attack of the American base in Wardek, where he told me that no less that 80 [A]mericans have been killed, and that Petrous [sic] was forced to come to Afghanistan to check upon the tragedy himself, also the destruction of the Chinook helicopter which left dead 30 [A]merican soldiers known to have participated in the assassination of sheikh Osama bin laden may Allah have mercy upon him, and other numerous operations that took place in Kabil [sic] and other territories around Afghanistan …

Ayman al Zawahiri, Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to our People in Egypt: Part 8, Dec. 1, 2011.

Additionally, in the past, Al Qaeda announced its strategy for victory in Afghanistan. In 2009, Abdullah Sa’id al Libi, who served as Al Qaeda’s military commander as well as a strategist, saw the Taliban as the key to defeating the Afghan governmAnt and the U.S. He noted that the Taliban has key allies in regional terror groups, as well as Al Qaeda:

“[I]t possesses significant regional cards, chiefly the Taliban Pakistan [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] and the Al-Qaeda Organization, and probably more important cards in Central Asia, Chinese Eastern Turkistan, and other regions in Iran,” he said.

Sa’id noted that Al Qaeda “employed its military expertise in Iraq in to serve Taliban’s project in Afghanistan and Pakistan, such roadside bombs which target the military convoys, and the suicide attacks which have never existed in Afghanistan before 11 September attack.” He also said that Al Qaeda has training camps in Northeastern Afghanistan, in Helmand province, and in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Bin Laden files identify up and coming Al Qaeda commanders who fought in Afghanistan

In one file recovered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, there was an evaluation of 19 up and coming Al Qaeda commanders. Many of them were identified as training and operating in Afghanistan.

This report was issued sometime after Dec. 2005 when Abu Hamza Rabia was killed (the report explicitly says “Hamza Rabi’, God rest his soul” when mentioning Yasin al Suri; Hamza was killed in Dec. 2005) and before October or November 2006, when Abu Nasser Al Qahtani was captured.

Abu Nasser Al Qahtani (also known as Mohammed Jaafar al Qahtani) was identified as a “field commander inside Khost,” the eastern Afghan province. He was arrested “by the apostates around Khost Airport” and imprisoned at Bagram. He escaped along with Abu Yahya al Libi, who later became Al Qaeda’s general manager; Omar al Faruq, a key military leader and lieutenant of bin Laden; and Abdullah Hashimi.

Abu Basir Al Urduni was identified as “the official responsible for Jalalabad Sector.” Jalalabad is the provincial capital of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda is known to have a strong presence. He “came to Afghanistan seven years ago and was trained and he loves military science.”

Abu Mohsen Al Masri was listed as “the administrative official of Janikhel and of the Pioneers [Vanguards] of Khorasan Magazine.” Janikhel is the name of a district in both Paktia and Paktika provinces.

Mansour Al Shami was identified as a “member of the Area’s Shura Council and head of the Sharia Committee,” and he “came to Afghanistan seven years ago and trained and participated in writing.”

Abdul Jalil Al Hijazi was named as the “assistant of Jaafar Al Tayyar in Paktika.” Jaafar Al Tayyar is Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, who was a member of Al Qaeda’s external operations council before he was killed by the U.S. in a drone strike in Pakistan. Hijazi “was jailed in Kabul at Sayyaf’s with Abdullah Azzam and Saif Omar Abdul Rahman for three and half years starting at the events of the downfall [U.S. invasion of Afghanistan].” Rahman, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in 2011, is a son Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, or the Blind Sheikh, died in 2017 while serving a life sentence in a US federal prison for his role in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 that killed six Americans. 

Ghazwan was “in the staff of the Sheikh Al Muhajir” and was “injured in his knee six months ago during an ambush on the Americans in Paktika” province in eastern Afghanistan.

Omar Saif was named as a “member of the media staff (As-Sahab) and a program presenter and commentator.” According to the report, “He killed an American and took a picture of himself during an operation in Paktika.”

Akrama Al-Ghamdi was identified as being “in the staff of Abdullah Khan.” ABC News identified Abdullah Khan as an al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. Khan is also known as Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, the senior Al Qaeda military commander who is currently being held at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, wrote a letter to Khan; that letter was later intercepted and published. Al Qaeda thought highly of Ghamdi and was considering “promoting him as general official for Paktika and Bactia [Paktia].

Two other operative who were listed: Abu Hafs al Shahri and Sufian al Maghrebi – were not explicitly noted to be in Afghanistan. However, they are very well known Al Qaeda leaders. Shahri later became Al Qaeda’s operations chief for Pakistan. The US killed him in a drone strike in Pakistan in Sept. 2011. Maghrebi rose to the rank of Al Qaeda’s paramilitary commander in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He was killed in a US drone strike in March 2014.

Martyrdom statements for Al Qaeda members killed in Afghanistan

Banner for “Winds of Paradise Part 5, Eulogizing 5 ‘Martyrs”

In the past, Al Qaeda has issued martyrdom statements for its fighters killed in Afghanistan. One such tape, “Winds of Paradise – Part 5, Eulogizing 5 ‘Martyrs,’” was released by As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, in late 2010.

Five commanders – Abu abd al Rahman al Madani, Abd al Wakil al Pakistani, Abu Salamah al Najdi, Luqman al Makki, and Abu al Walid al Jaza’iri – were eulogized by al Qaeda for dying while fighting in Afghanistan. 

Al Qaeda has also announced the death of key leaders, such as Faruq al Qahtani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2015. In its martyrdom statement that eulogized Qahtani, Al Qaeda said he “was a leader of a military brigade spread out in the Nuristan and Kunar provinces, and who had set an example with his mujahidin brothers for fighting and patience and steadfastness.”

According to a file recovered from bin Laden’s compound, Qahtani (called Farug al Qatari in the document) was tasked with relocating Al Qaeda leaders and their families to Afghanistan.

“As I have reported before, we have a good battalion over there led by brother Faruq al-Qatari. He is the best of a good crew. He recently sent us a message telling us that he has arranged everything to receive us; he said the locations are good, there are supporters and everything,” Atiyah Abd al Rahman wrote to Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda emirs give oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s emirs

Both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have sworn oaths of allegiance to the Taliban’s emir. In the most public display of fealty by Al Qaeda and acceptance by the Taliban, Zawahiri swore allegiance to Mullah Mansour after the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s first leader, was announced in 2015. Mansour publicly and enthusiastically accepted Zawahiri’s pledge.

“Among these respected brothers, I first and foremost accept the pledge of allegiance of the esteemed Dr. Ayman ad-Dhawahiri [al Zawahiri], the leader of international Jihadi organization (Qaedatul Jihad) and thank him for sending a message of condolence along with his pledge and pledge of all Mujahideen under him,” Mansour said.

Taliban denial amounts to calling Al Qaeda a liar

Again, the evidence presented above is a mere subset of what is publicly available to confirm Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan post-9/11. This does not even include information beyond what Al Qaeda has stated, such as U.S. military raids against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, which by the way, neatly match with Al Qaeda’s details of its operations in the country.

All of this leaves a series of important questions.

Why would the Taliban accept Al Qaeda’s pledge of allegiance if Al Qaeda was not operating there and supporting the Taliban? Jihadists take oaths seriously; false oaths would discredit all involved.

Why would Al Qaeda claim attacks and issue statements for its martyrs if it wasn’t in Afghanistan? These statements are not issued lightly; false martyrdom reports and claiming credit for operations that did not occur would discredit the group amongst jihadists.

Why would Al Qaeda take the time to write fitness reports on up and coming leaders in Afghanistan if they weren’t in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s denial of Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan means that one of the two groups are not telling the truth. Either, Al Qaeda has crafted an elaborate scheme to pretend it fights in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, or the Taliban is lying – and Al Qaeda has fought there for decades and remains to this day.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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