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U.S. Says Al Qaeda Has Not Regrouped in Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON — American spy agencies have concluded in a recent intelligence assessment that Al Qaeda has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan for the reason that U.S. withdrawal last August and that only a handful of longtime Qaeda members remain within the country.

The phobia group doesn’t have the power to launch attacks from the country against america, the assessment said. As an alternative, it said, Al Qaeda will depend on, a minimum of for now, an array of loyal affiliates outside the region to perform potential terrorist plots against the West.

But several counterterrorism analysts said the spy agencies’ judgments represented an optimistic snapshot of a posh and fast-moving terrorist landscape. The assessment, a declassified summary of which was provided to The Latest York Times, represents the consensus views of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

“The assessment is substantially accurate, however it’s also essentially the most positive outlook on a threat picture that continues to be 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, certainly one of the world’s most wanted terrorist leaders, after a decades-long manhunt was a significant victory for President Biden, however it raised immediate questions on al-Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan a yr after Mr. Biden withdrew all American forces, clearing the best way for the Taliban to regain control of the country.

Republicans have said that the president’s pullout has endangered america. The actual fact the Qaeda leader felt secure enough to return to the Afghan capital, they argue, was an indication of a failed policy that they predicted would allow Al Qaeda to rebuild training camps and plot attacks despite the Taliban’s pledge to disclaim the group a shelter. Last October, a top Pentagon official said Al Qaeda could give you the chance to regroup in Afghanistan and attack america in a single to 2 years.

Administration officials have pushed back on essentially the most recent criticisms, noting a pledge Mr. Biden made when he announced al-Zawahri’s death.

“As President Biden has said, we’ll proceed to stay vigilant, together with our partners, to defend our nation and make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a shelter 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 brand new intelligence assessment as overly hopeful.

A U.N. report warned this spring that Al Qaeda had found “increased freedom of motion” in Afghanistan for the reason that Taliban seized power. The report noted that quite a lot of Qaeda leaders were possibly living in Kabul and that the uptick in public statements by al-Zawahri suggested that he was in a position to lead more effectively after the Taliban seized power.

“This looks as if an excessively rosy assessment to the purpose of being barely myopic,” Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst on the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in Latest York, said of the intelligence evaluation. He added that the summary said “little in regards to the longer-term prospects of Al Qaeda.”

Al-Zawahri’s death has once more forged a highlight 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. within the bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa in 1998, was more likely to succeed al-Zawahri. He’s believed to be living in Iran.

“Mainly, I find the I.C. assessment convincing,” said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University, referring to the U.S. intelligence community and its recent evaluation of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr. Byman has prior to now voiced skepticism about a resurgent Qaeda threat.

But other counterterrorism experts disagreed. One point of dispute involved claims within the intelligence summary that Al Qaeda had not reconstituted its threat network in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the one major figure who sought to reestablish Al Qaeda’s presence within the country when he and his family settled in Kabul this yr.

“Zawahri was THE leader of Al Qaeda, so his being protected by the Taliban while he provided more energetic guidance to the group was in of itself reconstitution,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at america Institute of Peace, wrote in an email.

“This approach fails to account for the group Al Qaeda is today and the proven fact that even a small variety 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 federal government analysts’ judgment that fewer than a dozen Qaeda members with longtime ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and that almost all of those members were likely there before the autumn of the Afghan government last summer.

“Their numbers of energetic, hard-core Al Qaeda in AfPak make no sense,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar on the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Not less than three dozen senior Qaeda commanders were free of Afghan jails a yr ago. I very much doubt they’ve turned to farming or accounting as their post-prison vocations.”

Mr. Hoffman said that Qaeda operatives or their affiliates had been given essential administrative responsibilities in a minimum of eight Afghan provinces. He suggested the timing of the federal government assessment was “to deflect attention from the disastrous consequences of last yr’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.”

The intelligence summary also said that members of the Qaeda affiliate in Afghanistan, formerly generally known as Al Qaeda within 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 all know from a spread of sources that AQIS participated within the Taliban’s insurgency against the U.S. in addition to 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 a minimum of two predominant points within the intelligence summary, including that Al Qaeda doesn’t yet have the power to attack america or American interests aboard from Afghan soil.

The U.N. report in July concurred with that judgment, explaining that Al Qaeda “just isn’t viewed as posing a right away international threat from its shelter in Afghanistan since it lacks an external operational capability and doesn’t currently want to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.”

And government analysts in addition to outside terrorism experts agreed that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would, within the short term, most definitely call upon a spread of affiliates outside the region to perform plots.

None of those affiliates pose the identical sort of threat to the American homeland that Al Qaeda did on Sept. 11, 2001. But they’re 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 involved with the Qaeda branch in Yemen as he accomplished his attack plans.

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