By Aamer Madhani, Zeke Miller, Nomaan Merchant And Lolita C. Baldor in Washington
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is holding out the CIA operation that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri as a monumental strike against the global terror network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001. But there’s a downside, too.
The drone strike also is putting into stark relief the mounting evidence that after 20 years of America’s military presence — and then sudden departure — Afghanistan has once again become an active staging ground for Islamic terror groups looking to attack the West.
The operation, carried out over the weekend after at least six months spent monitoring movements by al-Zawahri and his family, came just weeks before the one-year anniversary of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country.
The Biden administration is making the case that the operation shows Americans at home and allies abroad that the United States hasn’t lost focus — or the ability to strike terrorists in the region — and validates its decision to end two decades of fighting in Afghanistan with its withdrawal.
Announcing the strike from the White House, President Joe Biden said Monday night that “justice” had been exacted on a leader who in recent weeks had recorded videos calling for his followers to attack the United States and allies. And the White House on Tuesday framed the operation was an enormous counterterrorism win.
“The president has made good on his word when we left. He said the United States did not need to keep sending thousands of American men and women to fight and die in Afghanistan,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show. “After 20 years of war to keep this country safe, he said we would be able to continue to target and take out terrorists in Afghanistan without troops on the ground.”
But as details of the operation continue to emerge, the administration has also revealed troubling evidence of al-Qaida’s presence and of the Taliban once again offering refuge to the group that was behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
White House officials believe that senior members of the Haqqani Network, an Islamist terror group with strong ties to the Taliban, were aware that al-Zawahri was in Kabul. Sullivan said that while al-Zawahri wasn’t involved in day-to-day planning at the time of his killing, he continued to play an active role in directing al-Qaida and posed “a severe threat” against the U.S. and American citizens.
Concerns about al-Qaida efforts to regroup inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are hardly new.
Before the strike, U.S. military officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said al-Qaida was trying to reconstitute in Afghanistan, where it faces limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still aspired to attack the U.S.
Al-Qaida leadership has reportedly played an advisory role since the Taliban returned to power in the leadup up to the U.S. withdrawal, according to a U.N. Security Council report last month.
The U.N. report also noted that ISIS-K — the group that carried out a massive attack that killed 13 U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans near the Kabul International Airport just days before the U.S. completed its withdrawal last year — has become increasingly active in northern and eastern Afghanistan. That’s a worry for the West though ISIS-K and the Taliban espouse different ideologies and interests, with ISIS-K carrying out a bloody insurgency against the Taliban and religious minorities across Afghanistan.
“Zawahri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaida – a group with which it has never broken,” said Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism during the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Frank McKenzie, the retired Marine general who until earlier this year was the top American military officer in the Middle East, said the U.S. has seen an effort by al-Qaida to restore training camps in Afghanistan.
“I see nothing happening in Afghanistan now that tells me that the Taliban are determined to prevent that from happening,” he said in an interview.
Since the American troop withdrawal, U.S. military leaders have said America’s ability to monitor and strike a target in the country would be difficult but not impossible.
The strike on Zawahri proved both, said McKenzie, who is now executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida. “If it’s a national priority, we can certainly do that. It requires tremendous effort.”
He cautioned not to draw broad conclusions from this one drone strike.
“This was a unique circumstance,” he said. “You had a target that didn’t move, and they had the opportunity to get a good look at pattern of life. That’s not always going to be the case. In fact, typically, that is not the case.”
That al-Zawahri was living in a Kabul neighborhood and not in rural Afghanistan as previously believed, “tells you that he got really comfortable” under the protection of the Taliban, said Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm.
“These entities work hand in glove,” Clarke said of the Taliban and al-Qaida. “There’s not the separation that others would have you believe.”
The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbor al-Qaida members or those seeking to attack the U.S.
The Taliban were quick to condemn the U.S. strike as a “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” though they did not acknowledge that al-Zawahri was killed. The U.S. gave no forewarning to the Taliban government, which the United States does not recognize, that it was carrying out the operation.
“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” the Taliban statement said.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on how, or if, the U.S. would hold the Taliban responsible for sheltering al-Zawahri.
“The Taliban have a choice now,” Kirby said. “And that is they can comply with their agreement under the Doha agreement … or they can choose to be going down a different path. And if they go down a different path, it’s going to lead to consequences not just from the United States but from the international community.”
Kirby said the U.S. had already engaged with the Taliban about al-Zawahri’s presence following Sunday’s strike.
The Taliban remain sanctioned by the U.S. government for its role harboring al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks. After the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul last summer, the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank to prevent the assets from falling under Taliban control. Some of that money has since been freed for humanitarian aid to address the country’s dire hunger crisis.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to congratulate Biden on the operation, but also made the case that it “further indicates that Afghanistan is again becoming a major thicket of terrorist activity following the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.”
“Killing al-Zawahri is a success, but the underlying resurgence of al-Qaida terrorists into Afghanistan is a growing threat that was foreseeable and avoidable,” McConnell said. “The administration needs a comprehensive plan to rebuild our capacity to combat it.”
Iran parliament speaker says protests could weaken society
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s parliamentary speaker warned Sunday that protests over the death of a young woman in police custody could destabilize the country and urged security forces to deal harshly with those he claimed endanger public order.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf told lawmakers that unlike the current protests, which he said aim to topple the government, previous demonstrations by teachers and retirees over pay were aimed at reforms, according to the legislative body’s website.
“The important point of the (past) protests was that they were reform-seeking and not aimed at overthrowing” the system, said Qalibaf. “I ask all who have any (reasons to) protest not to allow their protest to turn into destabilizing and toppling” of institutions.
Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets over the last two weeks to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by Iran’s morality police in the capital of Tehran for allegedly not adhering to Iran’s strict Islamic dress code.
The protesters have vented their anger over the treatment of women and wider repression in the Islamic Republic. The nationwide demonstrations rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
The protests have drawn supporters from various ethnic groups, including Kurdish opposition movements in the northwest of Iran that operate along the border with neighboring Iraq. Amini was an Iranian Kurd and the protests first erupted in Kurdish areas.
Iranian state TV has reported that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the demonstrations began Sept. 17. An Associated Press count of official statements by authorities tallied at least 14 dead, with more than 1,500 demonstrators arrested.
Qalibaf, the parliamentary speaker, is a former influential commander in the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Along with the president and the head of the judiciary, he is one of three ranking officials who deal with all important issues of the nation.
The three meet regularly and sometimes meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.
Qalibaf said he believes many of those taking part in recent protests had no intention of seeking to overthrow the government in the beginning and claimed foreign-based opposition groups were fomenting protests aimed at tearing down the system. Iranian authorities have not presented evidence for their allegations of foreign involvement in the protests.
“Creating chaos in the streets will weaken social integrity, jeopardizing the economy while increasing pressure and sanctions by the enemy,” he said, referring to longstanding crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Qalibaf promised to “amend the structures and methods of the morality police” to prevent a recurrence of what happened to Amini. The young woman died in the custody of the morality police. Her family alleged she was beaten, while officials claim she died of a heart attack.
His remarks came after a closed meeting of Parliament and a brief rally by lawmakers to voice support for Khamenei and the police, chanting “death to hypocrites,” a reference to Iranian opposition groups.
The statement by Qalibaf is seen as an appeal to Iranians to stop their protests while supporting police and the security apparatus.
Meanwhile, the hard-line Kayhan daily said Sunday that knife-carrying protesters attacked the newspaper building Saturday and shattered windows with rocks. It said they left when Guard members were deployed to the site.
On Saturday, protests continued on the Tehran University campus and in nearby neighborhoods and witnesses said they saw many young girls waving their head scarves above their heads in a gesture of defiance. Social media carried videos purportedly showing similar protests at the Mashhad and Shiraz universities but The Associated Press could not independently verify their authenticity.
A protester near Tehran University, 19-year-old Fatemeh who only gave her first name for fear of repercussions, said she joined the demonstration “to stop this behavior by police against younger people especially girls.”
Abdolali, a 63-year-old teacher who also declined to give his last name, said he was shot twice in the foot by police. He said: “I am here to accompany and support my daughter. I once participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that promised justice and freedom; it is time to materialize them.”
There were no immediate official reports of Sunday demonstrations, though some on social media said protests had resumed at universities in Tehran and Mashhad.
On Sunday afternoon, witnesses said security was tight in the areas nearby Tehran University and its neighborhoods downtown as hundreds of anti-riot police and plain clothes with their cars and motorbikes were stationed on junctions and squares. Local shops and businesses appeared open as normal.
Also on Sunday, media outlets reported the death of another Revolutionary Guard member in the southeastern city of Zahedan. That brought to five the number of IRG members killed in an attack on a police station by gunmen that, according to state media, left 19 people dead.
It wasn’t clear if the attack, which Iran said was carried out by separatists, was related to the anti-government protests gripping Iran.
Nobel season is here: 5 things to know about the prizes
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — The beginning of October means Nobel Prize season. Six days, six prizes, new faces from around the globe added to the world’s most elite roster of scientists, writers, economists and human rights leaders.
This year’s Nobel season kicks off Monday with the medicine award, followed by daily announcements: physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on Oct. 10.
Here are five other things to know about the coveted prizes:
WHO CREATED THE NOBEL PRIZES?
The prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace were established by the will of Alfred Nobel, a wealthy Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite. The first awards were handed out in 1901, five years after Nobel’s death.
Each prize is worth 10 million kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out with a diploma and gold medal on Dec. 10 — the date of Nobel’s death in 1896.
The economics award — officially known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel — wasn’t created by Nobel, but by Sweden’s central bank in 1968.
Between 1901 and 2021, the Nobel Prizes and the prize in economic sciences have been awarded 609 times.
WHO KNOWS WHO WILL WIN AND WHY?
The Nobel statutes prohibit the judges from discussing their deliberations for 50 years. So it’s probably going to be a while before we know for sure how judges made their picks for 2022 and who was on their short lists.
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