Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S withdrawal in Aug. 2021, Al Qaeda has established training camps in five Afghan provinces, as well as safe houses and other infrastructure across the country. Al Qaeda’s resurgence since the Taliban takeover should put to rest the notion that U.S. so-called ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism operations have restrained the group, that its ties with the Taliban have diminished, and more importantly, once and for all that the terror group has been decimated, defeated, degraded, diminished, and declined, destroyed, or dead.
The presence of Al Qaeda training camps inside Afghanistan was disclosed by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which issued its latest report on Afghanistan on June 9. Several former officials of the now-defunct Government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have previously told FDD’s Long War Journal that Al Qaeda was running training camps in Afghanistan, but were unable to provide the locations of the camps.
According to the UN, the Al Qaeda camps are located in five provinces in five different regions of Afghanistan: Helmand in the south, Zabul in the southeast, Nangarhar in the east, Nuristan in the northeast, as well as Badghis in the west. Additionally, the UN reported Al Qaeda has established “safe houses in Farah, Helmand, Herat and Kabul,” the Afghan capital, and opened a media operations center in Herat.
The presence of Al Qaeda camps in Helmand, Zabul, Nuristan, and Nangarhar should come as no surprise. Helmand province has long been fertile ground for Al Qaeda. In 2015, FDD’s Long War Journal reported that Al Qaeda was operating a training camp in Baramcha in Helmand (the camp in Baramcha was known to be in operation as recently as 2020).
Zabul and Nuristan were identified by Osama bin Laden as critical, friendly terrain for Al Qaeda back in 2010. Seven months before his death in May 2011 in a U.S. special operations raid at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden instructed some of Al Qaeda’s leaders to relocate to Zabul, Nuristan, Kunar, and Ghazni provinces in eastern Afghanistan to avoid the U.S. drone campaign in North and South Waziristan.
The training camp in Nuristan is “specifically for the training of suicide bombers,” the Sanctions and Monitoring Team reported. The Taliban’s current governor of Nuristan, Hafiz Muhammad Agha Hakeem, has been identified by the Sanctions and Monitoring Team as an Al Qaeda leader [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda leaders are prominently serving in Taliban government.]
Nangarhar has also been key terrain for Al Qaeda given it close proximity to both the Afghan capital and Pakistan. At the end of 2001, Al Qaeda held out in mountain fortifications against U.S. forces during the battle of Tora Bora in late 2001.
Although not stated in the UN report, it is also likely that Al Qaeda is operating a training camp in Kunar province. A previous Sanctions and Monitoring Team report noted that Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, a veteran Al Qaeda leader, has reestablished his unit in Kunar province. Prior to his capture in 2010, al-Masri ran training camps in Kunar, where he served as Al Qaeda’s chief of operations.
One member state claimed that Al Qaeda is also training the Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban-supported Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan at its camps.
At least one Al Qaeda safe house in Kabul was exposed in July 2022, when the U.S. killed Ayman al Zawahiri, the co-founder and previous emir of Al Qaeda. Zawahiri was killed in a drone strike as he sheltered in a safe house that was run by a lieutenant of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is one of the Taliban’s two deputy emirs as well as the current interior minister. Sirajuddin’s powerful Haqqani Network is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for its close ties to Al Qaeda. Sirajuddin and many of his top lieutenants are also labeled as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the U.S.
Al Qaeda is known to have operated a safe house in Farah as recently as late 2020. In Nov. 2020, the now-disbanded National Directorate of Security killed Mohammad Hanif, a veteran Pakistani jihadist who rose to the highest levels of leadership within Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Al Qaeda’s regional branch.
Al Qaeda’s numbers in Afghanistan
Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan has routinely been underestimated by U.S. officials, and resoundingly disputed by FDD’s Long War Journal in the past. Between 2010 to 2015, the U.S estimate of Al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan was static at between 50 to 100. This estimate was blown away when the U.S. killed 150 Al Qaeda operatives during raids on two camps alone in Helmand province in late 2015. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Don’t trust estimates of Al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan.]
Today, the Sanctions and Monitoring Team estimates that “30 to 60 … mainly senior figures” are “located in Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand and Kunar,” while an additional 400 Al Qaeda fighters and perhaps 1,600 family members and supporters are “operating in the south (Helmand, Zabul and Kandahar Provinces), centre (Ghazni, Kabul and Parwan) and east (Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan).”
While the current estimate is likely to be on the low end given Al Qaeda’s historical operations in the past and the opportunity that safe haven in Afghanistan has presented to the terror group, the UN’s count is at least far more robust than previous stale estimates by U.S. officials.
Despited Al Qaeda’s extensive network in Afghanistan, which includes training camps, safe houses, a media operations center, and Al Qaeda leaders serving in the Talibans government, the U.S. has conducted only one strike in the country since its withdrawal. That strike, which killed Zawahiri, was conducted by the CIA. The Biden administration touted the ability to hit at Al Qaeda and other terror groups if their presence is discovered using over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities of the U.S. military. However, the U.S. military has conducted zero counterterrorism strikes since the withdrawal.
Al Qaeda most certainly could not shelter top leaders in Afghanistan, run training camps and safe houses, and embed leaders within the Taliban’s government without the express support and approval of the Taliban’s leadership. Al Qaeda has most certainly not declined, nor has it been decimated or defeated. Instead, Al Qaeda’s ties to the Taliban, as the Sanctions and Monitoring Team puts it, remain “close and symbiotic,” and Al Qaeda is thriving with the benefit of “safe haven” in Afghanistan.