The Taliban government claimed in a statement it had “no information aboutarrival and stay in Kabul,” after the U.S. airstrike that killed the head of al Qaeda while he was on the balcony of a safehouse in central Kabul early Sunday morning.
The multi-factioned group, already struggling to secure diplomatic relations with the international community sincelast August, now faces insurmountable pressure to explain how the leader of al Qaeda could have been residing openly in Kabul’s notoriously wealthy Sherpur neighborhood. The area, formerly inhabited by Western diplomats and expats, is dotted with large houses locally known as “poppy palaces”, a nickname reflecting the drug money flowing under previous Afghan governments that helped build many of its garish homes.
Al-Zawahiri’s predecessor,, had also been located right under the nose of government authorities — next to Pakistan’s Military Academy, akin to West Point in the U.S. — before he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011.
The safehouse where Al-Zawahiri was found had been occupied by Haqqanis, Sunni Islamist militants allied with the Taliban who had seized it from officials of the former Afghan government. It’s now in the possession of the Taliban’s acting Interior Minister, Sirajuddin “Siraj” Haqqani, who is also the leader of the notorious Haqqani Network — designated a terror group by the U.S. — and has a bounty of $10 million on his head.
Briefing reporters ahead of President Biden’s address on Monday night, a senior administration official said “Senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul” and had taken steps after the strike to attempt to conceal Zawahiri’s presence at the safe house. Haqqani Taliban members had also “acted quickly to remove Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter, and her children to another location, consistent with a broader effort to cover up that they had been living in the safe house,” the administration official said.
A Taliban security director told CBS News on Thursday that Sirajuddin Haqqani is now “under tremendous pressure” as group members blame him for allowing al-Zawahiri to reside in Kabul, and they may use him as “a scapegoat to avoid any further consequences.” He added, “It is the Haqqanis’ responsibility to keep eyes on everyone in Kabul,” and he claimed that “many” of the group’s leaders are suggesting the interior minister’s actions “have severely damaged and ruined the Taliban” and that “they want to punish him.”
The same Taliban security director had told CBS News on Sunday after the drone attack that some “strange Arab guys” had been seen recently near the safehouse, and speculated that they may have been al Qaeda members.
However, a Taliban cabinet minister told CBS that the Taliban government is “unlikely to dismiss or change the role of interior minister Siraj Haqqani,” because he is “too heavy” for the increasingly fractured group to confront. The cabinet minister said the Taliban would do its own investigation in response to U.S. complaints, and that there is currently debate among the group as to whether it should remain committed to the Doha Agreement.
“Certainly some of the Taliban leaders have suggested that the termination of the Haqqanis will cause a split amongst the Taliban, and that would create an even worse scenario for the regime,” another senior Taliban security officer told CBS News.
“Given the adversarial relationship that has developed between different factions of the Taliban — some of the most notable being southern-based elements in opposition to the Haqqani Network — it’s not too surprising that one faction of the Taliban might try to pin the blame of hosting al Qaeda leaders, and the relationship with al Qaeda in general, on the Haqqani Network in order to score points in internal Taliban rivalries” Andrew Watkins, senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, told CBS.
The Taliban were quick to put their side of the strike on al-Zawahiri out first, with a spokesperson releasing a statement early Monday — before news of his identity was released — confirming the U.S. drone strike in Kabul and condemning it as a “clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement.”
A senior Taliban official then told CBS News on Monday that al-Zawahiri had arrived at the safe house “about three weeks back.” However, the senior administration official who had briefed reporters ahead of President Biden’s address on Monday night said the U.S. had located al-Zawahiri at the safehouse in Kabul months earlier, in April.
Another Taliban intelligence officer claimed to CBS News that the al Qaeda leader had been in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nuristan before coming to Kabul.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday accused the Taliban of breaking their word. “By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qaeda in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries,” he said.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen stated on Thursday that the “IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) reiterates its commitment once more that no threat to any country, including America, will be posed from the soil of Afghanistan. The IEA is adhering to full implementation of the Doha Agreement. Meanwhile, IEA wants violation of the Agreement by the USA to end.”
A Kabul police spokesman told CBS News on Saturday that no one else was injured in the drone strike, which was confirmed by the Biden administration on Monday.
Those likely to suffer the most from the fallout of al-Zawahiri’s killing are Afghan civilians. Only last week, U.S. officials led by the State Department held another round of talks with Taliban officials in Uzbekistan, which had included discussion about releasing some of the $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan central bank assets that might otherwise help relieve the acute humanitarian crisis spiraling in the country since last August, which has left millions starving.
Responding to CBS News’ request for comment on how the killing of al-Zawahiri now impacts future U.S.-Taliban talks and what will happen to those much-needed funds, a State Department spokesperson said, Thursday, “This egregious violation of the Taliban’s commitments in the Doha Agreement will have real and lasting consequences for the Taliban’s relationship with the rest of the world. At the same time, we recognize that engagement with the Taliban is practical and pertains to U.S. interests, including helping innocent Afghans through the humanitarian and economic crisis; pressing for the safe release of (Taliban-held American hostage) Mark Frerichs; promoting and protecting human rights advances made over the last 20 years; assisting American citizens, their families, and our Afghan partners.”
The spokesperson added “We are committed to the Afghan people and want them to stabilize their economy and live in a peaceful and stable country. We will continue to engage to support the Afghan people.”
Sirajuddin Haqqani had penned a New York Times op-ed back in February 2020, a few days before the Trump administration struck its peace agreement with the Taliban, in which he wrote, “We are aware of concerns about the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security. But these concerns are inflated.”
Olivia Gazis contributed reporting.