A new report by a U.N. monitoring team casts further doubt on the supposed counterterrorism assurances made by the Taliban in its Feb. 29 withdrawal agreement with the U.S.
The Taliban “regularly consulted with Al Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties,” according to the monitoring team. The analysis contains numerous allegations of ongoing collusion between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The report is dated May 27, or nearly two months after the U.S. and Taliban entered into their accord in Doha. In exchange for a withdrawal timetable and various other concessions made by the U.S., the Taliban supposedly agreed to prevent groups such as Al Qaeda from operating inside its territory and wouldn’t allow Al Qaeda to threaten the U.S. and its allies. However, the language of the deal is vague and the Taliban has repeatedly lied about Al Qaeda’s presence, as well as the group’s threat to the U.S., since the 1990s. The text of the agreement released to the public also doesn’t include any verification or enforcement mechanisms, though the State Department claims compliance is being monitored behind the scenes.
The monitoring team’s report discusses key aspects of the ongoing Taliban-Al Qaeda relationship that would need to be addressed. Many of the details cannot be independently corroborated, as the sources listed are “Member States,” which do not typically make their intelligence public.
Kim Dozier of Time first reported on the analysis.
Al Qaeda’s “senior leadership…remains present in Afghanistan,” as do “hundreds of armed operatives,” the monitoring team writes. These jihadists include members of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and other “groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban.”
Moreover, a “number of significant Al Qaeda figures were killed in Afghanistan during the reporting period.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad have made assurances that the Taliban would “break” with and even work with the U.S. to “destroy” Al Qaeda. But the U.N.’s analysts find that relations between the Taliban, including “especially the Haqqani Network,” and Al Qaeda “remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.”
High-level meetings between the Taliban and Al Qaeda reported.
Member States told the U.N.’s monitoring team that the Taliban and Al Qaeda “held meetings over the course of 2019 and in early 2020 to discuss cooperation related to operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for Al Qaeda members inside Afghanistan.”
There were six reported high-level “meetings between Al Qaeda and [the] Taliban senior leadership held over the past 12 months.”
The U.N. monitoring team provides an intriguing detail concerning one such meeting. And if this detail is confirmed, then it adds a new wrinkle to the biography of Osama bin Laden’s ideological and biological heir: Hamza bin Laden.
In the Spring of 2019, Hamza bin Laden reportedly met with several Taliban representatives in the Sarwan Qal’ah District of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province. The Taliban’s liaisons were Sadr Ibrahim, Mullah Mohammadzai and Gul Agha Ishakzai. The last figure — Gul Agha Ishakzai — was close to Taliban founder Mullah Omar since their childhood and became one of his most trusted advisers, as well as the head of the Taliban’s financial commission. The trio of Taliban men met with Hamza bin Laden “to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al Qaeda for any price.”
U.S. officials reported Hamza’s death in the summer of 2019. The White House confirmed in September 2019 that Hamza had been killed in a counterterrorism operation. However, most of the details surrounding Hamza’s demise remain murky. As FDD’s Long War Journal reported at the time, the Trump administration didn’t explain when or precisely where Hamza was targeted. The White House also said Hamza “was responsible for planning and dealing with various terrorist groups,” but didn’t name those specific organizations. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: Key questions concerning Hamza bin Laden’s life remain unanswered.]
The monitoring team cites unnamed “interlocutors” as saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri himself “met with members of the Haqqani Network in February 2020.” The Haqqani delegation included Hafiz Azizuddin Haqqani and Yahya Haqqani. The latter jihadist is the brother-in-law of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy emir of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and overall leader of the eponymous network. The Haqqani team “consulted” with Zawahiri “over the agreement with the United States and the peace process.” It is not clear where the reported meeting was held or what else was discussed.
Yahya Haqqani has worked with Al Qaeda for more than decade, if not longer. The U.N.’s terrorist designation page for Yahya notes that he has served as a “liaison between the” Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda, while maintaining ties with Zawahiri’s organization “since at least mid-2009.” Yahya has “provided money to [Al Qaeda] members in the region for their personal expenses,” and acted as the Haqqani Network’s “primary liaison with foreign fighters, including Arabs, Uzbeks, and Chechens.”
Several other Al Qaeda leaders also met with the Taliban during the last year or so, according to the U.N. monitoring team. They are Ahmad al-Qatari, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, Hassan Mesri (al-Masri, also known as Abdul Rauf), and Abu Osman (whom the analysts describe as a “Saudi Arabian member of Al Qaeda.”) Interestingly, the Islamic State has consistently criticized Abdul Rauf, including for his close ties to the Taliban.
Al Qaeda continues to fight under the Taliban’s banner.
It is unsurprising that Al Qaeda would seek to guarantee its safe havens in the event of Western withdrawal. There are significant epistemological issues when it comes to documenting the group’s presence inside the country, mainly because Al Qaeda’s leadership decided years ago to work clandestinely underneath the Taliban’s banner. But there is plenty of evidence showing that the group has survived in Afghanistan after all these years of war.
The U.N. monitoring team notes that information “provided to the Monitoring Team since its previous report has indicated that Al Qaeda is quietly gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under their protection.” (emphasis added)
Al Qaeda is “covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces: Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.” It is likely that the group continues to operate elsewhere as well. And “although it is difficult to be certain of the exact number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan,” the U.N. monitoring team’s “estimate is between 400 and 600 armed operatives.”
The U.N. team points to the joint U.S.-Afghan raid in Musa Qala, Helmand in Sept. 2019 as evidence of Al Qaeda’s persistent presence. Asim Umar, the first emir of AQIS and a senior Al Qaeda figure, was killed alongside “several foreign nationals, including the [AQIS] deputy, its ‘courier’ to al-Zawahiri and several foreign female members.” They “were being sheltered by local Taliban forces, some of whom” were also “killed in the raid.”
There are indications that the Taliban sought to protect Al Qaeda figures after the raid in Musa Qala.
“Possibly prompted by the killing of Asim Umar,” the U.N. monitoring team reports, the Taliban’s “head of intelligence, Mawlawi Hamidullah Akhundzada…reportedly instructed Taliban fighters to facilitate the movement of Al-Qaida fighters under the command of Mufti Mahmood..from the south to the eastern region of Afghanistan.”
FDD’s Long War Journal continues to caution that the true extent of Al Qaeda’s presence is unknown and a full accounting would have to reflect the group’s relationships with various ethnic jihadist outfits, as well as its ties to other organizations throughout the region. In addition, Al Qaeda continues to operate under the banner of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, meaning that it usually doesn’t claim attacks on its own. The U.N. team points to one possible example of this in Bagram last year, when Al Qaeda operatives carried out an attack claimed by the Taliban.
A new joint Al Qaeda-Haqqani fighting force?
The U.N. team reports that Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network may be forming a new fighting force based in eastern Afghanistan. Citing unspecified “information,” the analysts write that there have been discussions “among senior Haqqani Network figures” about establishing “a new joint unit of 2,000 armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by Al Qaeda.”
The “newly established unit would be split into two operational zones with Hafiz Azizuddin Haqqani in overall command and leading forces” across the Khost, Logar, Paktika and Paktiya provinces. The “remaining force would be deployed to Kunar and Nuristan under Shir Khan Manga,” who is the “head of intelligence for the Haqqani Network.” Additionally, a Member State reported that Al Qaeda is “establishing new
training camps in the east of the country.”
It is not clear what came of this proposal, or if it is still being worked out. Al Qaeda has previously operated as a “Shadow Army” in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan. This fighting force has been reorganized several times since 2001 and the reporting picked up by the U.N. may pertain to the latest reshuffling.
Despite reported divisions within the Taliban, the group’s relationship with Al Qaeda may have even grown stronger.
The monitoring team’s report references possible divisions within the Taliban, but it isn’t clear what, if anything, they amount to.
For instance, the Taliban’s Political Office supposedly has a split between Abdul Ghani Baradar Abdul Ahmad Turk and a “more hard-line group close to Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai.” The political delegation in Doha reportedly “understood the need for the Taliban to interact with the international community and show moderation, while rank-and-file fighters were reported not to share that view.” As a consequence, some unidentifed “interlocutors believed that the Taliban leadership had not fully disclosed the details of the agreement, particularly any commitment to cut ties with Al Qaeda and foreign terrorist fighters, for fear of a backlash – a matter that had surfaced repeatedly as a topic of acrimonious internal debate.”
Given the other reports cited, however, there are no indications that the deal in Doha was intended to lead to a real break between the two.
“Al-Qaida has been operating covertly in Afghanistan while still maintaining close relations with the Taliban,” the monitoring team reports. And should the “agreement with the United States” become “binding for the Taliban, it may prompt a split between pro- and anti-Al-Qaeda camps.” The monitoring team points to a group known as Hizb-i Vilayet Islami, which consists of Taliban figures who are opposed “to any possible peace agreement.” But this outfit is “composed mainly of dissident senior Taliban members residing outside Afghanistan,” so it isn’t clear how important they are.
Even so, some “Member States” told the U.N. that the “Taliban appear to have strengthened their relationship with Al Qaeda rather than the opposite.” One Member State said the regular meetings between senior Al Qaeda leaders and the Taliban “made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction.” This same undisclosed source explained that the relationship between the two is “one of deep personal ties (including through marriage) and long-term sense of brotherhood.”
Al Qaeda has a “network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance and financial support.” The Taliban “offensive against Ghazni City in August 2018 was a prime example of the effective deployment of Al-Qaida support,” the report reads.
To date, the U.S. State Department hasn’t provided any evidence of a break between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has celebrated the Feb. 29 deal in Doha as a “great victory” for the jihadists’ cause.
U.N. monitoring teams have repeatedly reported on the close relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. For analyses of these reports by FDD’s Long War Journal, see:
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