WASHINGTON — American spy businesses have concluded in a brand new intelligence evaluation that Al Qaeda has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan because the U.S. withdrawal final August and that solely a handful of longtime Qaeda members stay within the nation.
The fear group doesn’t have the power to launch assaults from the nation in opposition to the USA, the evaluation mentioned. As a substitute, it mentioned, Al Qaeda will depend on, a minimum of for now, an array of loyal associates exterior the area to hold out potential terrorist plots in opposition to the West.
However a number of counterterrorism analysts mentioned the spy businesses’ judgments represented an optimistic snapshot of a posh and fast-moving terrorist panorama. The evaluation, a declassified abstract of which was offered to The New York Occasions, represents the consensus views of the U.S. intelligence businesses.
“The evaluation is considerably correct, nevertheless it’s additionally probably the most constructive outlook on a risk image that’s nonetheless fairly fluid,” mentioned Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former high U.N. counterterrorism official.
The evaluation was ready after Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s high chief, was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike in Kabul final month. The dying of al-Zawahri, one of many world’s most needed terrorist leaders, after a decades-long manhunt was a serious victory for President Biden, nevertheless it raised rapid questions on al-Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan a 12 months after Mr. Biden withdrew all American forces, clearing the way in which for the Taliban to regain management of the nation.
Republicans have mentioned that the president’s pullout has endangered the USA. The very fact the Qaeda chief felt protected sufficient to return to the Afghan capital, they argue, was an indication of a failed policy that they predicted would permit Al Qaeda to rebuild coaching camps and plot assaults regardless of the Taliban’s pledge to disclaim the group a protected haven. Final October, a top Pentagon official mentioned Al Qaeda might be capable to regroup in Afghanistan and assault the USA in a single to 2 years.
Administration officers have pushed again on the newest criticisms, noting a pledge Mr. Biden made when he introduced al-Zawahri’s dying.
“As President Biden has mentioned, we are going to proceed to stay vigilant, together with our companions, to defend our nation and be certain that Afghanistan by no means once more turns into a protected haven for terrorism,” Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White Home’s Nationwide Safety Council, mentioned in an electronic mail on Saturday.
But some exterior counterterrorism specialists noticed the brand new intelligence evaluation as overly hopeful.
A U.N. report warned this spring that Al Qaeda had discovered “elevated freedom of motion” in Afghanistan because the Taliban seized energy. The report famous that plenty of Qaeda leaders had been probably dwelling in Kabul and that the uptick in public statements by al-Zawahri recommended that he was capable of lead extra successfully after the Taliban seized energy.
“This looks as if a very rosy evaluation to the purpose of being barely myopic,” Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst on the Soufan Group, a safety consulting agency based mostly in New York, mentioned of the intelligence evaluation. He added that the abstract mentioned “little concerning the longer-term prospects of Al Qaeda.”
Al-Zawahri’s dying has as soon as once more forged a highlight on Al Qaeda, which after Osama bin Laden’s dying in 2011 has largely been overshadowed by an upstart rival, the Islamic State. Many terrorism analysts mentioned Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda chief needed by the F.B.I. within the bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa in 1998, was prone to succeed al-Zawahri. He’s believed to be dwelling in Iran.
“Mainly, I discover the I.C. evaluation convincing,” mentioned Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown College, referring to the U.S. intelligence group and its new evaluation of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Mr. Byman has in the past voiced skepticism about a resurgent Qaeda threat.
However different counterterrorism specialists disagreed. One level of dispute concerned claims within the intelligence abstract that Al Qaeda had not reconstituted its risk community in Afghanistan and that al-Zawahri was the one main determine who sought to reestablish Al Qaeda’s presence within the nation when he and his household settled in Kabul this 12 months.
“Zawahri was THE chief of Al Qaeda, so his being protected by the Taliban whereas he offered extra energetic steerage to the group was in of itself reconstitution,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior knowledgeable at the USA Institute of Peace, wrote in an electronic mail.
“This method fails to account for the group Al Qaeda is immediately and the truth that even a small variety of core leaders can leverage Afghanistan to politically direct the group’s affiliate community,” Mr. Mir wrote. “Al Qaeda doesn’t want giant coaching camps to be harmful.”
Some counterterrorism specialists additionally took situation with the federal government analysts’ judgment that fewer than a dozen Qaeda members with longtime ties to the group are in Afghanistan, and that the majority of these members had been doubtless there earlier than the autumn of the Afghan authorities final summer season.
“Their numbers of energetic, hard-core Al Qaeda in AfPak make no sense,” mentioned Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar on the Council on International Relations, referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “At the least three dozen senior Qaeda commanders had been free of Afghan jails a 12 months in the past. I very a lot doubt they’ve turned to farming or accounting as their post-prison vocations.”
Mr. Hoffman mentioned that Qaeda operatives or their associates had been given essential administrative obligations in a minimum of eight Afghan provinces. He recommended the timing of the federal government evaluation was “to deflect consideration from the disastrous penalties of final 12 months’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
The intelligence abstract additionally mentioned that members of the Qaeda affiliate in Afghanistan, previously often called Al Qaeda within the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, had been largely inactive and centered primarily on actions like media manufacturing.
However 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 had been in a number of Taliban fight models.
“We all know from a variety of sources that AQIS participated within the Taliban’s insurgency in opposition to the U.S. in addition to operations in opposition to ISIS-Okay,” Mr. Mir mentioned, referring to the Islamic State’s department in Afghanistan, a bitter rival of Al Qaeda.
There was broad settlement on a minimum of two details within the intelligence abstract, together with that Al Qaeda doesn’t but have the power to assault the USA or American pursuits aboard from Afghan soil.
The U.N. report in July concurred with that judgment, explaining that Al Qaeda “just isn’t considered as posing an instantaneous worldwide risk from its protected haven in Afghanistan as a result of it lacks an exterior operational functionality and doesn’t at present want to trigger the Taliban worldwide issue or embarrassment.”
And authorities analysts in addition to exterior terrorism specialists agreed that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would, within the quick time period, most certainly name upon a variety of associates exterior the area to hold out plots.
None of those associates pose the identical sort of risk to the American homeland that Al Qaeda did on Sept. 11, 2001. However they’re lethal and resilient. The Qaeda affiliate in East Africa killed three Individuals at a U.S. base in Kenya in 2020. A Saudi Air Drive officer coaching in Florida killed three sailors and wounded eight other people in 2019. The officer acted on his personal however was involved with the Qaeda department in Yemen as he accomplished his assault plans.