KABUL – On the eve of the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials are making controversial claims about the current status of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. American intelligence agencies are downplaying the terror group’s presence in the region, suggesting that Al Qaeda is at its lowest point historically and poses little threat to the United States. However, their assessment contradicts recent reports from the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.
According to unnamed U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters on September 8, Al Qaeda is now at its “historical nadir” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They argue that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has deprived the group of a “proving ground” to confront American troops. Furthermore, they claim that Al Qaeda’s leadership has been severely crippled, particularly after the U.S. drone strike that killed Al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in the summer of 2022.
In an interesting twist, these intelligence officials dismiss the UN Monitoring Team’s report as an “outlier” within the UN system and insist that it is inconsistent with the intelligence gathered by the U.S. and its allies.
However, the UN Monitoring Team’s report aligns closely with information collected by FDD’s Long War Journal. The report reveals that Al Qaeda maintains a significant presence in Afghanistan, with training camps in multiple provinces, including Helmand, Zabul, Badghis, Nangarhar, Nuristan, and Kunar. Additionally, the terror group has established safe houses in various locations, such as Farah, Helmand, Herat, and Kabul, and has even set up a media operations center in Herat.
Contrary to the claims of U.S. officials, Al Qaeda’s presence in these provinces was well-documented before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and there is no indication that the group has abandoned these areas. The UN Monitoring Team asserts that the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda remains strong, a concern that has persisted for years.
Helmand province, in particular, has been a stronghold for Al Qaeda, with reports dating back to 2015 about training camps operating in the region. Similarly, Zabul, Kunar, and Nuristan have been historically favored by Al Qaeda leaders due to their strategic value.
Recent reports also indicate that Al Qaeda leader Abu Ikhlas al-Masri has reestablished his military unit in Kunar province, where he previously ran training camps and served as Al Qaeda’s chief of operations. Additionally, the presence of a suicide bomber training camp in Nuristan raises concerns about the group’s continued activity.
Nangarhar, with its proximity to both the Afghan capital and Pakistan, remains a key location for Al Qaeda’s operations. The battle of Tora Bora in late 2001 saw Al Qaeda fighters holding out against U.S. forces in the mountains of Nangarhar.