The Taliban have claimed they were unaware that Ayman al-Zawahiri was living in central Kabul, days after a US drone strike in the Afghan capital killed al-Qaida’s leader.
The killing of Zawahiri on the balcony of a Kabul safehouse on Sunday has further strained relations between the Taliban and the west, at a time when the rulers of Afghanistan are urgently seeking cash to handle an economic catastrophe after the US withdrawal from the country a year ago.
“The government and the leadership weren’t aware of what is being claimed, nor any trace there,” said Suhail Shaheen, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar.
That claim directly conflicts with what US officials have said about the strike. They say Zawahiri was staying at the home of a top aide to the senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Haqqani is the deputy head of the Taliban, serves as interior minister in its government and heads the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the movement.
The Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha agreement with the US that they would not harbour al-Qaida members or those seeking to attack the US.
Shaheen said an “investigation is under way now to find out about veracity of the claim. The leadership is in constant meeting in this regard. Findings will be shared with all.”
The strike early on Sunday shook Sherpur awake. The district was once known for its historic buildings, but they were bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials in Afghanistan’s western-backed government and international aid organisations. After the US withdrawal in August 2021, senior Taliban moved into some of the abandoned homes there.
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 US-led Nato troops and the former Afghanistan government. The US government maintains a $10m 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, Zawahiri increasingly reached out to supporters with video and audio messages, including assurances that al-Qaida could 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.