Taliban claim they didn’t know al-Qaeda leader was in Afghanistan

The Taliban said Thursday they are investigating what they described as “claims” that al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital on the weekend.

The group insisted in a statement that it “has no knowledge of the arrival and residence” of al-Zawahri in Afghanistan.

The statement marked the first time the Taliban addressed Sunday’s drone strike that killed the head of the al-Qaeda network on the balcony of a Kabul safe house that U.S. officials said was linked to a Taliban leader.

The killing of al-Zawahri has further strained relations between the Taliban and the West, particularly as they seek an urgent infusion of cash to handle an economic catastrophe there following the U.S. withdrawal from the country a year ago.

The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement with the U.S. that they would not harbour al-Qaeda members or those seeking to attack the U.S.

In Thursday’s statement, the Taliban appeared to address those concerns.

They said they “ordered the detection and intelligence agencies to conduct serious and comprehensive investigations on various aspects of the mentioned event.”

‘No danger’

The statement also contained assurances to the West, saying that “there is no danger from the territory of Afghanistan to any country, including America.” It said that the Taliban want the implementation of the Doha Agreement.

The strike early Sunday shook awake Shirpur, once a district of historic buildings that were bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials in Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and international aid organizations. After the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, senior Taliban moved into some of the abandoned homes there.

U.S. officials have said al-Zawahri was staying at the home of a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Haqqani is the deputy head of the Taliban, serves as interior minister in their government and heads the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the Taliban movement.

Leadership rivals

The Haqqani network is an Afghan Islamic insurgent group built around the family of the same name. In the 1980s, it fought Soviet forces and over the past 20 years, it battled U.S.-led NATO troops and the former Afghanistan government.

The U.S. government maintains a $10 million US bounty on Sirajuddin Haqqani for attacks on American troops and Afghan civilians.

But the Haqqanis, from Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, have rivals within the Taliban leadership, mostly from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Some believe Sirajuddin Haqqani wants more power. Other Taliban figures have opposed the Haqqanis’ attacks against civilians in Kabul and elsewhere during the insurgency.

During the first half of 2022, Ayman al-Zawahri increasingly reached out to supporters with video and audio messages, including assurances that al-Qaeda can compete with the Islamic State group for leadership of a global movement, a report by the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said.

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