WASHINGTON — American spy agencies have concluded in a new intelligence assessment that Al Qaeda has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal last August and that only a handful of longtime Qaeda members remain in the country.
The terror group does not have the ability to launch attacks from the country against the United States, the assessment said. Instead, it said, Al Qaeda will rely on, at least for now, an array of loyal affiliates outside the region to carry out potential terrorist plots against the West.
But several counterterrorism analysts said the spy agencies’ judgments represented an optimistic snapshot of a complex and fast-moving terrorist landscape. The assessment, a declassified summary of which was provided to The New York Times, represents the consensus views of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
“The assessment is substantially accurate, but it’s also the most positive outlook on a threat picture that is still quite fluid,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former top U.N. counterterrorism official.
The assessment was prepared after Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s top leader, was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike in Kabul last month. The death of al-Zawahri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders, after a decades-long manhunt was a major victory for President Biden, but it raised immediate questions about al-Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan a year after Mr. Biden withdrew all American forces, clearing the way for the Taliban to regain control of the country.
Republicans have said that the president’s pullout has endangered the United States. The fact the Qaeda leader felt safe enough to return to the Afghan capital, they argue, was a sign of a failed policy that they predicted would allow Al Qaeda to rebuild training camps and plot attacks despite the Taliban’s pledge to deny the group a safe haven. Last October, a top Pentagon official said Al Qaeda could be able to regroup in Afghanistan and attack the United States in one to two years.
Administration officials have pushed back on the most recent criticisms, noting a pledge Mr. Biden made when he announced al-Zawahri’s death.
“As President Biden has said, we will continue to remain vigilant, along with our partners, to defend our nation and ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorism,” Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, said in an email on Saturday.
Yet some outside counterterrorism specialists saw the new intelligence assessment as overly hopeful.
A U.N. report warned this spring that Al Qaeda had found “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power. The report noted that a number of Qaeda leaders were possibly living in Kabul and that the uptick in public statements by al-Zawahri suggested that he was able to lead more effectively after the Taliban seized power.
“This seems like an overly rosy assessment to the point of being slightly myopic,” Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York, said of the intelligence analysis. He added that the summary said “little about the longer-term prospects of Al Qaeda.”
Al-Zawahri’s death has once again cast a spotlight on Al Qaeda, which after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 has largely been overshadowed by an upstart rival, the Islamic State. Many terrorism analysts said Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda leader wanted by the F.B.I. in the bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa in 1998, was likely to succeed al-Zawahri. He is believed to be living in Iran.
“Basically, I find the I.C. assessment convincing,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University, referring to the U.S. intelligence community and its new analysis of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr. Byman has in the past voiced skepticism about a resurgent Qaeda threat.
But other counterterrorism experts disagreed. One point of dispute involved claims in the intelligence summary that Al Qaeda had not reconstituted its threat network in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the only major figure who sought to reestablish Al Qaeda’s presence in the country when he and his family settled in Kabul this year.
“Zawahri was THE leader of Al Qaeda, so his being protected by the Taliban while he provided more active guidance to the group was in of itself reconstitution,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote in an email.
“This approach fails to account for the group Al Qaeda is today and the fact that even a small number of core leaders can leverage Afghanistan to politically direct the group’s affiliate network,” Mr. Mir wrote. “Al Qaeda doesn’t need large training camps to be dangerous.”
Some counterterrorism experts also took issue with the government analysts’ judgment that fewer than a dozen Qaeda members with longtime ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and that most of those members were likely there before the fall of the Afghan government last summer.
“Their numbers of active, hard-core Al Qaeda in AfPak make no sense,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “At least three dozen senior Qaeda commanders were freed from Afghan jails a year ago. I very much doubt they have turned to farming or accounting as their post-prison vocations.”
Mr. Hoffman said that Qaeda operatives or their affiliates had been given important administrative responsibilities in at least eight Afghan provinces. He suggested the timing of the government assessment was “to deflect attention from the disastrous consequences of last year’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
The intelligence summary also said that members of the Qaeda affiliate in Afghanistan, formerly known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, were largely inactive and focused mainly on activities like media production.
But a U.N. report in July estimated that the Qaeda affiliate had between 180 to 400 fighters — “primarily from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan” — who were in several Taliban combat units.
“We know from a range of sources that AQIS participated in the Taliban’s insurgency against the U.S. as well as operations against ISIS-K,” Mr. Mir said, referring to the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, a bitter rival of Al Qaeda.
There was broad agreement on at least two main points in the intelligence summary, including that Al Qaeda does not yet have the ability to attack the United States or American interests aboard from Afghan soil.
The U.N. report in July concurred with that judgment, explaining that Al Qaeda “is not viewed as posing an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.”
And government analysts as well as outside terrorism experts agreed that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would, in the short term, most likely call upon a range of affiliates outside the region to carry out plots.
None of these affiliates pose the same kind of threat to the American homeland that Al Qaeda did on Sept. 11, 2001. But they are deadly and resilient. The Qaeda affiliate in East Africa killed three Americans at a U.S. base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi Air Force officer training in Florida killed three sailors and wounded eight other people in 2019. The officer acted on his own but was in contact with the Qaeda branch in Yemen as he completed his attack plans.
(With inputs from NYTimes)
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