A decade after Osama bin Laden’s killing, Is Al Qaeda set for a comeback in Afghanistan?

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Osama bin Laden was killed 10 years ago on this date by the US Special Forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan

Ten years ago on May 2, US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Osama’s body was given a “sea burial” as the Americans did not want a memorial to be raised for the arch international terrorist, which could become the “ground zero” to rally his cause of Global Jihad.  

The Obama administration in the saddle in Washington then, “sold” Osama’s death during a daring pre-dawn raid as closure to the 9/11 attacks, which triggered a Global War on Terror (GWOT).

The GWOT, began with the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. It also triggered a massive hunt for Osama and Al Qaeda affiliated individuals well beyond the Badlands of the AfPak. Many Al Qaeda leaders such as Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki  in Yemen and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi  were hunted down in a series of drone and aerial strikes.

But after two decades of bloodletting, GWOT is far from eradicating terror. In fact, the Taliban, the guardians of Osama and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, appear to be staging a comeback following President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all US forces from the country by September 11 this year.

Anticipating a power vacuum in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda has vowed to continue its war against the US on all fronts.

In an exclusive interview with CNN on Friday, conducted through intermediaries, two al Qaeda operatives announced that “war against the US will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world.”

CNN said that in the past, Al Qaeda rarely responded to questions, choosing instead to hide behind its own self-serving propaganda, dodging even the most distant scrutiny. It’s unclear why the group has chosen to open up now. Perhaps, “they feel buoyed by the Biden administration’s decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan, but they may also be seeking to deflect attention from the many recent losses,” the channel reported.

Unlike the Trump Administration, which made its troop withdrawal by May 1 conditional — on Taliban taking steps to prevent al-Qaeda or any other group from sheltering in Afghanistan, and agreeing to a dialogue on power sharing with the Afghan government — the Biden plan has no strings attached.

According to the various intelligence sources, Taliban has never broken with Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda fighters remain embedded in Taliban units. Furthermore, in addition to what can be described as Al-Qaeda “core” or “central” operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Qaeda also has branches elsewhere in South Asia, including India.  If Afghanistan descends once again into civil war, the Taliban could welcome foreign fighters to bolster its ranks, making South Asia a magnet for jihadists worldwide. And with no U.S. troop presence on the ground, Washington and its allies will be forced to rely on an offshore counterterrorism strategy with serious limitations.

Al Qaeda revival in Afghanistan is also possible because the rear sanctuary for backup support from Pakistan has not disappeared. In fact, sections in Pakistan are still receptive to the founding myth of Al Qaeda - the resistance of Muslims to American imperialism. Even Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in parliament, had called Osama a Shaheed (martyr).

Bin Laden's death did not stop extremism from spreading in the country, and conservative religious movements became even more influential.

Over the next 10 years, several terror groups — foremost among them the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) carried out bloody attacks and established strongholds in northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The present Al Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri remains alive and he continues to issue statements from his hideout in Pakistan.

This is not to say that Al Qaeda has not suffered major setbacks.

Bin Laden’s son and potential heir, Hamza, was killed mysteriously sometime this year with the assistance of the Trump administration. The heir of the Al-Qaida organization in Iraq—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—has lost control of most of the ground it once held in Iraq and Syria.

Yet, the group has not been decimated and could revive again, from offshoots in Libya and Afghanistan.

Indian intelligence agencies say that around 130 al-Qaeda members hailing from India and Bangladesh have received training at Miranshah in North Waziristan in Pakistan. They have been shifted to Afghanistan for carrying out coordinated attacks there. Ahead of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, they are trying to identify people from India who have joined the Al-Qaeda terror network in the AfPak zone.

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