Nearly a year after the United States killed al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the country’s Taliban leaders continue to make conflicting claims about the circumstances around the death of the world’s most wanted man, raising doubts about their counterterrorism pledges.
“We had no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri, and we had nothing to do with his killing,” Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob told Saudi-based Al Arabia television channel on Friday.
On Saturday, the Taliban governor of Kabul was quoted by an Afghan mainstream television channel as outrightly denying the presence of the al-Qaida chief in the city. “There is no evidence to prove Zawahiri was killed in Kabul,” Mohammad Qassim Khalid told TOLO news.
The latest Taliban claims come days after U.S. President Joe Biden stated that Washington and the Taliban were cooperating to push out al-Qaida terrorists from the war-torn country.
“Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban,” Biden told reporters at the White House earlier this month without elaborating.
The Taliban Foreign Minister swiftly responded to Biden’s remarks by describing them as an “acknowledgment of reality” about non-existence of armed groups in Afghanistan, but it did not categorically refute Biden’s assertions about counterterrorism cooperation between the two former adversaries.
“The Islamic Emirate maintains the policy of not allowing anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan to harm others. Our actions in this regard are not due to the requests or support of anyone, including America,” the ministry said in its statement, using the official name of the Taliban government, which the world has not recognized yet.
The 71-year-old Egyptian jihadist leader was on the balcony of a three-story house in Kabul’s upscale Sherpur area when two Hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned aircraft struck al-Zawahiri on July 31, 2022, U.S. officials told reporters hours later.
“He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family. After carefully considering the clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized a precision strike,” Biden said while announcing the news of the death of the terror mastermind to the American nation a day after the missile attack.
Taliban authorities at the time claimed that they had “no knowledge” the al-Qaida leader was residing in Kabul. They said a “serious and comprehensive” investigation had been ordered into the incident. But the de facto Afghan rulers have since been silent about the probe’s outcome and continue to make contradictory statements or remain in denial.
Nearly two months after the deadly strike, chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA that their ongoing investigation into the incident was making progress.
“It will produce an outcome over time. But we still treat it as a claim (by the U.S.),” Mujahid said in the interview VOA conducted in his Kabul office last September.
“When security has newly returned to a country and the government is also new, taking advantage of the situation is entirely possible. But this does not mean that the Islamic Emirate was behind it. The Emirate did not know about it. America also knows that the Islamic Emirate will not do it,” Mujahid said.
U.S. officials said that al-Zawahiri was sheltered in the Kabul safe house by subordinates of Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and “acted quickly to remove Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter and her children to another location, consistent with a broader effort to cover up that they had been living in the safe house.”
The slain al-Qaida terror leader carried a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Taliban security forces swiftly blocked media access to the multi-story building and briefly detained some journalists who had attempted to go near the site. The restriction remains in place to date.
Critics say the Taliban’s refusal to admit al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul raises doubt about their commitments to combat terrorism on Afghan soil.
In recent days, neighboring Pakistan has repeatedly complained that a surge in terrorist attacks in the country is being orchestrated by Afghanistan-based fugitive leaders of the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which the U.S. also lists as a global terrorist organization.
Pakistani officials say the militants have enjoyed “greater operational freedom” since the Taliban took control of the neighboring country in August 2021, when all the U.S.-led NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan after two decades of involvement in the war.
The Taliban deny the allegations, saying neither TTP, nor any other foreign terrorist groups are operating inside Afghanistan. The Taliban confirmed early last year that they had hosted and mediated peace talks between Pakistani officials and TTP leaders. The dialogue produced a temporary cease-fire, which collapsed last November.
The militant group, an offshoot and close ally of the Afghan Taliban, has killed hundreds of Pakistanis in recent months, mostly security forces.
Last month, the United Nations Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team estimated in a new report that more than 4,000 TTP leaders, commanders and fighters are sheltering in Afghanistan under the protection of the country’s Taliban authorities.
The Taliban foreign ministry rejected the U.N. findings as baseless.
U.S.-led international forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, in line with the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban in return for assurances by the then-insurgent group that it would not allow transnational groups to use Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.