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Regardless of al-Zawahiri strike, US officers are involved about monitoring terrorism threats in Afghanistan

Washington CNN  — 

Shortly earlier than the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Protection Division created a process power accountable for dealing with counterterrorism strikes contained in the nation after American troops had left – a so-called “over the horizon” technique that officers promised would maintain Afghanistan from as soon as once more changing into a secure haven for terror teams like al Qaeda and ISIS to flourish.

Greater than a yr after the creation of that process power, sources say it hasn’t despatched a single proposed goal to the Pentagon for approval – largely as a result of and not using a presence on the bottom, it hasn’t been capable of construct sufficient intelligence on targets to satisfy the administration’s requirements for avoiding civilian casualties.

The White Home has hailed the CIA operation that killed al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on Saturday as proof that utilizing over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan has been efficient. Present and former officers say the profitable Zawahiri strike actually proves that with the suitable intelligence, the US is completely able to tackling a particular goal from afar – however those self same sources additionally mentioned that Zawahiri, a single, high-value goal lengthy within the CIA’s crosshairs, was a particular case that doesn’t alone show the effectiveness of the technique.

“There’s a distinction between monitoring one senior excessive worth goal and coping with the resurgence of those terrorist teams inside Afghanistan,” mentioned Beth Sanner, a former presidential intelligence briefer beneath President Donald Trump and senior South Asia analyst on the CIA. “It’s a only a complete totally different ball of wax.”

Some intelligence officers have publicly raised considerations that terrorist exercise incubated in Afghanistan will unfold outdoors the nation’s borders and pose a risk to america – and that the US can be blind to it.

Requested straight by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, if he was fearful about an assault on the homeland “emanating from locations like Afghanistan,” FBI Director Chris Wray on Thursday mentioned, “We’re. Particularly now that we’re out I’m fearful in regards to the potential lack of sources and assortment over there.”

“I’m fearful in regards to the chance that we’ll see al Qaeda reconstitute,” he added.

Hinting at how excessive the hurdles have develop into, some intelligence and navy officers who weren’t concerned within the closely-held planning particulars of the Zawahiri operation had been pleasantly shocked that the US was nonetheless capable of efficiently perform such a precision strike, in line with a former intelligence official nonetheless in touch with former colleagues.

Administration officers say that quite the opposite, the Zawahiri strike is proof that the US is efficiently monitoring and countering the risk with out American boots on the bottom in Afghanistan. Sources aware of the intelligence behind the strike say the US built-in a number of totally different nuggets of information from a number of streams of intelligence to find and goal Zawahiri.

“I feel I’m extra happy and extra assured [in US intelligence in Afghanistan] than I used to be even every week in the past due to what that assortment simply enabled, which was a reasonably exceptional, fairly exact motion,” a senior administration official advised CNN on Friday.

“The truth that there haven’t been different makes use of of power of that kind previously yr signifies that we’re monitoring and we’re being even handed – and the place we expect it reaches the purpose of needing to behave, we’re appearing,” the official mentioned. “However I feel it’s a fairly highly effective demonstration of what that functionality can present.”

The US now largely depends on drone flights and human networks on the bottom to assemble details about what’s going on inside Afghanistan, in line with a former intelligence official and the supply aware of the intelligence.

However drone flights from the Gulf are logistically sophisticated and have restricted loiter time in Afghanistan due to the lengthy flight, making them costly to make use of and limiting their usefulness. And and not using a US presence on the bottom, intelligence professionals count on human networks could degrade over time.

“I feel we don’t know what we don’t know,” one former official mentioned.

Troublesome questions

For now, there may be broad consensus contained in the intelligence group that the speedy risk that al Qaeda will be capable of use Afghanistan as a secure haven to plan assaults on the US homeland or US pursuits stays low. However troublesome questions stay about whether or not that threat will develop over time.

A lot will depend on present unknowns – particularly, how the Taliban responds to the killing of Zawahiri. “Will the Taliban really let AQ use Afghanistan?” mentioned one supply aware of the intelligence.

“There are a ton of things that play into this debate,” this individual mentioned. “And all sophisticated.”

The intelligence group in its annual risk evaluation launched this yr charges the risk from al Qaeda associates in Yemen, Somalia and West Africa as a larger threat to US pursuits overseas than its weakened management in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, officers consider, continues to be gauging its potential to function beneath Taliban rule and can seemingly stay targeted on sustaining its secure haven relatively than planning exterior operations – not less than for now.

And though al Qaeda leaders have loved “elevated freedom of motion” beneath the Taliban, in line with a latest UN report, there was no main inflow of latest fighters to Afghanistan for the reason that US withdrawal — a mirrored image of how al Qaeda has advanced away from centrally-planned assaults, in line with some analysts.

However as for what occurs subsequent, one US supply described the evaluation throughout intelligence businesses as “everywhere.”

“What we don’t assume now we have occurring is a few kind of regrowth [or] regeneration of an al Qaeda operational presence — even with much less well-known names [than Zawahiri],” the senior administration official mentioned.

There’s one college of thought that whereas some components of the Taliban could really feel honor-bound to uphold its oath to defend outdated guard members of al Qaeda like Zawahiri, it has no obligation or incentive to make welcome a brand new technology of fighters. And in line with intelligence officers, there are vanishingly few members of the unique al Qaeda management who stay in Afghanistan, none of whom are prone to exchange Zawahiri.

In the meantime, the latest strike, some analysts argue, could dissuade terrorist leaders from touring to the nation from elsewhere. They argue that the far larger threat is al Qaeda associates in Africa and elsewhere which can be solely loosely related to core leaders in Afghanistan.

“There’s some people who find themselves very fearful,” mentioned Sanner, who’s now a contributor at CNN. “I personally assume that AQ core in Afghanistan doesn’t do a whole lot of operational planning.”

Others assess that it’s extra seemingly that the Taliban – consumed with making an attempt to legitimize its authorities amid a monetary implosion and an ongoing battle with ISIS-Ok – merely could not have the bandwidth to stop Afghanistan from being utilized by al Qaeda or its associates to plan assaults on america. There are additionally considerations that the remnants of al Qaeda could merely be absorbed into the Taliban.

The UN report discovered a “shut relationship” between al Qaeda and the Taliban.

How the Taliban reply

How the Taliban responds to the dying of Zawahiri stays an open query – and one which intelligence and navy officers are watching carefully, a number of officers mentioned.

In response to one supply aware of the intelligence, it’s not clear to US intelligence how many individuals within the Taliban knew that Zawahiri was holed up in Kabul in a home owned by the highly effective Haqqani faction – a militant group that’s a part of the Taliban authorities. The Taliban has publicly denied that they had been conscious of his presence previous to the strike and analysts are carefully watching to see if his publicity ushers in any type of rift between the Taliban and the Haqqani.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no details about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and keep in Kabul,” a press release by the Taliban mentioned.

White Home officers mentioned on Monday that senior Haqqani Taliban figures had been conscious of Zawahiri’s presence within the space and even took steps to hide his presence after Saturday’s profitable strike, proscribing entry to the secure home and quickly relocating members of his household, together with his daughter and her youngsters.

“So far as we all know, many individuals within the Taliban didn’t know the Haqqani had been sheltering Zawahiri in Kabul. “Does that create a cut up between the Taliban and the Haqqani?” the supply aware of the intelligence mentioned.

The senior administration official mentioned Friday that the Taliban “is scrambling a bit to determine who knew what and who didn’t – and furthermore, to get their story straight on what occurred.”

Some US navy officers are hopeful, in the meantime, that the strike could assist push the Taliban in the direction of some kind of restricted cooperation with the US to focus on ISIS-Ok, a standard enemy and separate terrorist group in Afghanistan that the US navy is way extra involved about than al Qaeda, in line with two sources aware of the dynamic.

“I feel this was a symbolic strike that eliminated an inspirational chief,” Sanner mentioned. “It completes the duty of eradicating the 2 individuals who had been on the middle of 9/11. However it’s the finish of an period – it isn’t a couple of present risk.”

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