Al-Qaida’s former leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had freedom in the Taliban-controlled Afghan capital before he was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
“He was unquestionably a threat to the United States and he had greater freedom to operate in Kabul than from wherever he came from,” Thomas West, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, said at an event at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Al-Zawahiri was targeted on July 31 at a house in downtown Kabul. Taliban authorities have not confirmed his death.
In the aftermath of the drone strike in Kabul, both the U.S. and Taliban have accused each other of violating the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, widely known as the Doha Agreement, that commits the Taliban to prevent terror threats to the U.S. and its allies from territories under Taliban control.
West said the U.S. is deeply concerned about a number of other terrorist groups active in Afghanistan.
“We have concerns about al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Laskhar-e-Toiba, Ansarullah and a range of terrorist groups that still have an active presence in Afghanistan that we are exceedingly concerned about,” he said.
Last week at the U.N. General Assembly, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, voiced similar concerns about the presence of terrorist groups in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The Taliban swiftly rejected Sharif’s remarks, saying in a statement that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used against any country.
Despite concerns about their counterterrorism commitments, the U.S. has opted to remain engaged with the Taliban.
“We have been in touch with Taliban leaders since the strike and, to be clear, even in the wake of this event, we are prepared to engage pragmatically with the Taliban regarding terrorism concerns,” West said.
2,000 ISIS fighters
On Tuesday, the U.N. warned that the Taliban are failing to bringing security to Afghanistan as terror groups like IS-KB increasingly kill Afghans across the country.
At least 700 Afghans have died in armed conflict, mostly in attacks by IS-KB (Islamic State Khorasan Branch), since Taliban seized power last year, the U.N. has reported.
Amid the mayhem following the rapid collapse of the former Afghan government last year, jails were opened and thousands of inmates, including IS-KB fighters, were set free across the country.
“There was a big prison break,” West said, adding that it was unclear who within the Taliban released the prisoners and whether they knew who the inmates were.
“But some of the most concerning best-trained ISIS-K fighters they let out, it was about 2,000 individuals. Some of those individuals are folks we’re truly worried about.”
The Taliban call IS-KB fighters “Khawarij,” a reference to a group of Muslims who allegedly deviated from mainstream Islam in the 7th century, and claim to have killed dozens over the last year.
While U.S. officials have called IS-KB a common enemy, the Taliban have reportedly refused direct counterterror collaboration with the U.S. and insist they can address the terror group independently.