Taliban claim they did not know Ayman al-Zawahiri was living in central Kabul


Denial contradicts US officials who say al-Qaida leader was staying at home of Taliban leader’s aide
The Taliban leadership has said they did not know that al-Qaida boss Ayman al-Zawahiri had moved to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the US president, Joe Biden, said he was killed by a drone strike at the weekend.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul,” the militants said in a statement, that used their chosen name for their unrecognised regime.
The statement was released more than three days after the hit on a house in the capital’s Sherpur district.
Taken at face value, the claim is an extraordinary one. It suggests the Taliban have little control over the heart of their capital, including the heavily guarded area frequented by some of their most elite leadership.
It also implies they were unable to track or control a terror group whose status was a key part of the 2020 deal with Washington that paved the way for US troops to leave, and the Taliban to return to power.
Under the Doha agreement, the Taliban promised the US that Afghanistan would not host terror groups that threatened the US and its allies.
The interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, just two days before the drone strike told an Indian news outlet that al-Qaida was a “dead” organisation with no presence in Afghanistan.
However, US officials have said the apartment where Zawahiri was killed was rented by one of Haqqani’s aides.
If the Taliban denial seems barely plausible, it was perhaps the only way out of a political bind created by Zawahiri’s assassination.
The Taliban are still seeking international recognition for their rogue regime, hoping it may cushion an economic collapse by ending sanctions and releasing funds for aid and business. An aggressive response to Zawahiri’s death would not further that cause.
However, al-Qaida and its leadership are revered by many in the group’s ranks, who are also likely to see a drone strike in the heart of the capital as an assault on their sovereignty. So they could not afford to ignore the hit on Zawahiri.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s designated delegate to the UN who is based in Doha, said the regime was investigating both whether Zawahiri had been in Kabul, and whether he had been killed, and would share its findings.
“Investigation is under way now to find out about veracity of … both claims,” he said in a text message to reporters.
The Taliban also said in the statement they wanted “to implement the Doha pact”, and there was no threat to America from Afghanistan.
However, the statement condemned Washington for “invad[ing] our territory and violat[ing] all international principles” with the attack, and made a barely veiled warning that it would consider retaliation in case of future drone strikes.
Several members of the government, including Haqqani, still have bounties on their heads in relation to past terror attacks and reportedly live in fear of assassination attempts, keeping a low profile and moving regularly.
“If such action is repeated, the responsibility of any consequences will be on the United States of America,” the statement said.
It was an open secret in many Kabul circles that the neighbourhood was full of “Arabs”, a term understood to refer to al-Qaida operatives and their families.
Despite the Taliban’s insistence that they did not know if the al-Qaida boss was on their doorstep, or if he was killed, the area swarmed with elite troops soon after an explosion on Sunday morning, and is now heavily guarded.