Bill Roggio on state of counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan a year later
This week, on the “Intelligence Matters” podcast, host Michael Morell speaks with terrorism analyst and Long War journal editor Bill Roggio on the state of the counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan a year after the full U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban regaining control of the country. Roggio says that al Qaeda has a stronger global position today than it had prior to 9/11. He notes that while the Islamic State is a more immediate threat, al Qaeda is the greater threat long-term. Roggio details the lead up to the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan and how the Biden administration’s lack of a phased withdraw did not give a chance for Afghans to transition to “an Afghan way.”
- Al Qaeda stronger than pre-9/11: “I think that al Qaeda from Afghanistan and globally is in a much stronger position today than it was prior to 9/11. Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda really only had a major base in one area in Afghanistan. Now it’s throughout the Middle East, throughout all of Africa, like the Sahel in West Africa, not just North Africa, as it was in the early 2000s. It’s an organization that adapts. It has its faults, it has its problems, but it’s been adaptive. And I only see them growing stronger as the West seeks to disengage from this fight and focus on Russia and China, which I totally understand. Those are key issues, but we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
- U.S. withdrawal didn’t allow transition to “Afghan way”: “What we needed to do was to support the Afghan government by having it consolidate its lines in Afghanistan, abandon the south and east, reorganize its military to fight the Afghan way, not the American way. That’s a whole podcast in itself, that discussion. Basically, form dueling alliance 2.0, have them manage territory they can manage and take the fight to the Taliban in the contested areas in and around Kabul and in the south and east. But instead, the Biden administration just pulls out, and there’s no phased withdrawal here to give the Afghans a chance to transition to an Afghan way. “
- Al Qaeda greater long-term threat than ISIS: “To me, al Qaeda is the greater threat than the Islamic State. It’s because of its patience. The Islamic State is a more of an immediate threat. It likes to conduct attacks for its propaganda and recruiting. But I don’t think it has a real caliphate building plan. And al Qaeda does. Al Qaeda is patient. Patient and thoughtful enemies are what scares me.
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS: BILL ROGGIO
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show. It’s an honor to have you on the show.
BILL ROGGIO: Michael, the honor is all mine. It truly is an honor and a pleasure to have an opportunity to speak to you about these important issues.
MICHAEL MORELL: So thanks for joining us to talk about Afghanistan and the CT fight there. One year after the Taliban regained control of the country and after the full withdrawal of the U.S. presence from the country, there’s lots to talk about here, as you know, including a report that just came out from the Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the withdrawal itself, recent targeted killing of the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a recent statement from the White House about the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. So lots to talk about.
But before we get into where things stand today in Afghanistan, I want to rewind to last year and I’d love to have you walk us through your understanding on how we got from President Biden’s decision in April of last year to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan to a collapse of the Afghan government, a Taliban takeover of the country, and a hack and deadly end to our presence there. I’ll go back and say again that the Republicans in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Congressman Mike McCaul, who I have deep respect for, just released a report that is sharply critical of the policy process, particularly at the State Department, and interestingly, not so critical on the performance of the intelligence community, which surprised me a little bit. But what’s your take on what happened? What went wrong?
BILL ROGGIO: First of all, I abhor the partisan food fights over issues like Afghanistan, because the reality is, this was a failure that was two decades in the making and a bipartisan failure in that. And I’m going to get very briefly go through the Bush administration after overthrowing the Taliban, the fault wasn’t not negotiating with the Taliban. The Taliban was always going to support Al Qaeda. It sacrificed its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to shelter bin Laden and others post 9/11. So that was destined to happen. Its failures was standing up an Afghan government and military that were not appropriately made for Afghanistan, centralized control over both organizations. Not dealing with Pakistan properly, and then also diverting resources to the war in Iraq, and making Afghanistan the forgotten war. Under the Obama administration, Afghanistan became the good war, but there was a surge that was kneecapped as well as it opened up negotiations with the Taliban. Again, no effort to deal with Pakistan. The Trump administration cut off Pakistan, all aid from Pakistan and talked tough. But then within eight months began talks with the Taliban and signed the Doha deal, which was an absolute disaster.
This led to the seeds of the failure. I began tracking the Taliban in 2014 when the U.S. ended its- the transition from a military operation to a train advise and assist to the Afghans. I recognized the flaw in the counterinsurgency strategy which was ‘we’ll give the Taliban the rural areas and we will defend the urban areas or the built up or the important districts is what they call them.’ The Taliban said, ‘hey, that’s just fine. We’ll go with this.’ So this began under the 2014 under the Obama administration. The Taliban slowly start taking up territory, taking over territory or making territory contested. And we have up until the date of the deal is signed, then the Taliban are touting this deal as a victory. I signed, car loan agreements and insurance documents that were longer than this Doha agreement, three and a third pages where much of the text is written in the form where it says the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate, but we don’t recognize, that’s repeated like 12 or 15 times in a three and a half page document-
MICHAEL MORELL: Taking up much of the three and a half pages.
BILL ROGGIO: I think if I counted, I wound up saying it took up about a half a page, Michael. There were no conditions put on the Taliban. It was a fanciful agreement. For the Biden administration– that’s what we have to understand — once the Obama administration decided that the U.S. was leaving Afghanistan, this is where all of our failure began. The policy becomes ‘let’s find a way to leave.’ How do we leave? Well, we can’t leave if al Qaeda is strong in Afghanistan. We can’t leave if the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship is strong. Both of those things were true. But we were told by successive administrations that they weren’t true. That was the excuse to leave. Remember, President Biden, when he announces withdrawal, he says al Qaeda is done, quote done. Well, you know, why do we need to remain in Afghanistan? Less than a year later, we kill Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda there.
It’s 20 years of failure, of bad policy that led up to this. I can’t just blame President Biden, although he shoulders a large part of the blame here because he ultimately made the decision to leave. The National Security Council just issued an- or there was a memo leaked. I don’t know if it’s official now, but Axios reported it. Their defense of the policy in Afghanistan was, ‘let’s blame Donald Trump because he signed the deal.’ The Obama administration, they gave us a false choice. Either we have to ramp up U.S. forces in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban or we can leave. And that was untrue. There was a third way. They chose not to mention it or take it. What we needed to do was to support the Afghan government by having it consolidate its lines in Afghanistan, abandon the south and east, reorganize its military to fight the Afghan way, not the American way. That’s a whole podcast in itself, that discussion. Basically form dueling alliance 2.0, have them manage territory they can manage and take the fight to the Taliban in the contested areas in and around Kabul and in the south and east.
But instead, the Biden administration just pulls out, and there’s no phased withdrawal here to give the Afghans a chance to transition to an Afghan way. Within three and a half months of announcing the withdrawal, the last U.S. soldier leaves Afghanistan. Bagram, the key node for air operations in Afghanistan is closed down by the beginning of July, I believe it was about a month and a half after withdrawal was announced.
Not only did the U.S. leave, it shut off the lights without even telling the Afghans there that we were leaving. The Trump administration set the conditions to weaken the Afghan government, to allow the Taliban to issue a whisper campaign saying the ‘Americans are leaving.’ The Biden administration merely struck the last few nails in the coffin by announcing withdrawal and then doing it in a manner that ensured the Afghan government was going to collapse. And one more quick story here. I always tell this. When I talked to Afghan officials before President Trump signed the deal, before Biden was elected, after he was elected, before he announced withdrawal and immediately and a couple of months, about a month, prior to the full withdrawal at the end of August, I talked to them and I told them, you need to find your own way. You need to reorganize. You need to do these things. The Americans are leaving.
And here’s what they told me. This would be in the Afghan Defense Department, their Interior Ministry, presidential advisors, ambassadors. These are the people I was speaking to. And their response was always this ‘we were assured by, and you could fill in the blank here, the U.S. State Department, the Department of Defense, CIA, by administration officials that the U.S. wasn’t leaving. They’re going to be here for us. This is a lot of politics, but it’s ultimately the U.S. will back us.’ They never internalized that the U.S. was going to withdraw. The speed in which the US withdrawal didn’t even give them a chance to see what was happening and to internalize this and reorganize. That’s in a 5 minutes nutshell, that’s what happened in Afghanistan.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s jump back to the present here, and let’s start with the Taliban’s rule of the country. A number of observers promised us a more tolerant Taliban. They actually called it Taliban 2.0. A year in now, how does this Taliban rule compare to the group’s governance prior to 2001?
BILL ROGGIO: Taliban 2.0 was always Taliban 1.0. When you analyze who the top leaders of the Taliban so-called interim government are a year later, the interim government is the government, about 50 to 60% of them were leaders of the Taliban just prior to 9/11. They may have switched around positions. And then other important officials, like the Taliban’s two deputy emirs, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob. Sirajuddin was the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was a key minister within the Taliban government. And Mullah Yaqoob also, of course, is the son of Mullah Omar, the founder and first emir of the Taliban. That’s what we’re looking at.
So again, Taliban 2.0 is Taliban 1.0. They are forcing women to go out, with escorts, women can’t work. Women have to cover up. Girls can’t go to school. People are being beaten, stoned for things like adultery. It’s essentially the Taliban of Afghanistan of pre-9/11. The Taliban is a little bit more slick on things like social media and has news organizations. And it seems to be a little bit more permissive with things like cell phones, although they do confiscate these. And I think there’s a reason for that, Michael. I think they like people to have cell phones, because then if they do want to go after them, they can see what they’ve been looking at on social media and things like who they’re talking to, get information on them to see if they’re anti-Taliban resistance or just people they don’t like. So there’s no change. The new Taliban is the same as the old Taliban.
MICHAEL MORELL: How about their effectiveness, their efficacy in dealing with Afghanistan’s problems, the issues the Afghan people face every day?
BILL ROGGIO: The Taliban’s primary concern is ruling Afghanistan and imposing its harsh version of Sharia or Islamic law. Everything else is secondary to that. The Afghan people, a large number, over 50% have food insecurity. There’s shortages of medicine. There’s a drought and famine going on in Afghanistan. Sure, the Taliban tries to deal with these issues, but its number one priority is Taliban control, and that is military control- policing, securing the country, its borders and propping up a Taliban regime. Everything is secondary to that. And the Afghan people today are suffering for this.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the United States negotiator with the Taliban, the special representative for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, he signed that Doha deal under the Trump administration and to this day is still coming out flacking for the Taliban, saying we should be negotiating with them. They told us that the Taliban would moderate, the moderate Taliban. Things like this. And I always said, show me a moderate Taliban. And if you think that someone like Mullah Baradar who was on the negotiating team.
There was a great New York Times article where it mentions how he had to draw the shades in Doha because he couldn’t look at the women at the pool and how he insisted on not having women in the room when they’re negotiating or having hallways cleared. That’s what a moderate Taliban looks like. Baradar is a killer. He’s an awful person. He’s just one that was willing to sit down with Americans in order to get the U.S. withdrawal. As bad as the United States mismanaged and NATO mismanaged Afghanistan, the Afghan people didn’t have to live under the deprivations of the Taliban as they have the last past year. This is part of the moral failure of Afghanistan, of the U.S. leaving Afghanistan.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is the Taliban have full control of the entire country? Are there parts of the country they don’t control? Do they face an insurgency from a select group of former government officials? What’s going on, on that front?
BILL ROGGIO: I would describe Afghanistan as being 100% Taliban controlled at this moment. There is a nascent insurgency that is beginning. The one group that seems to be doing the bulk of the fighting is called the National Resistance Front. It is led by Ahmad Massoud, who’s the son of a mad Shah Massoud. He was the head of the Northern Alliance prior to 9/11. Al Qaeda killed him on September 9th, 2001, two days prior to 9/11. They killed him because they recognized- and did it, obviously, with the bidding of the Taliban. They sent in a news crew who were actually members of al Qaeda who had a bomb inside the camera. It’s led by the son of Massoud. I’m starting to actually map this out right now. It’s kind of interesting seeing and it’s certainly not surprising to me who’s followed Afghanistan all these years.
There’s some resistance that is in Panjshir and then in some surrounding districts in neighboring provinces, primarily Takhar, Baghlan, and it looks like Kapisa and perhaps Parwan as well. It’s really difficult right now to get information out of Afghanistan. Prior to the U.S. withdrawal, you at least had foreign press. I always took what the Taliban said about controlling and contesting districts very seriously, because we could usually verify that in the press. And then you would have with the Afghan government or the U.S. military or NATO’s said and you could put all this together, and you also had a vibrant Afghan press prior to the U.S. withdrawal. That’s all gone now.
Now, you have with the National Resistance Front is saying and some other smaller groups, which I’m told primarily smaller groups are seem to be– how do I put this delicately — a scam to raise money, to extract money from people. But the National Resistance Front certainly is fighting. But right now, it’s possible they can contest a couple of districts. They reportedly have some bases in some districts. And I think by my technical dictionary definition, that means they control some remote territory, as remote as it is. They’re really launching guerrilla attacks against Taliban military forces, convoys, or if the Taliban try to venture in areas where their bases are, they’ll strike hard. Panjshir is a very mountainous central region of Afghanistan. So it’s easy to be a mountain gorilla, so to speak. The reach is very narrow at this point. I describe it as nascent.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you know if they’re getting any outside support?
BILL ROGGIO: So the U.S. State Department, about a month ago issued a statement saying, this was after some fighting between the two groups, saying the U.S. State Department doesn’t condone violent resistance to the Taliban. It suggested that the parties should sit down and talk because negotiations, Michael, works so well with the Taliban —
MICHAEL MORELL: –work so well with the Taliban.
BILL ROGGIO: Right. We should trust them to negotiate in good faith with a nascent resistance group who the Taliban absolutely hate. So the U.S. government’s official policy is to not support them, whether the CIA is providing some support. I can’t answer that question. I have no information that they are.
MICHAEL MORELL: I doubt it. Given where U.S. policy is.
BILL ROGGIO: I strongly, I never discount it, I strongly doubt it. The State Department officially says that. So if it’s discovered that the CIA was actually providing support, that’s just a big black eye. I also think that the Biden administration really wants to keep Afghanistan on the back pages or off the of the newspaper period. Anything mentioned with Afghanistan with respect to the Biden administration merely points to their failures there.
Supporting a resistance would be a tacit admission that its policy to leave was a failure. In countries like Tajikistan, very likely, they’re at least allowing the National Resistance Front’s leadership to be based there. Also, it’s very likely a country like India is providing covert support to the National Resistance Front, even as it’s flirting with conducting talks with the Taliban. But I would suspect India- it would make a lot of sense for India, to be supporting the National Resistance Front.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s turn to terrorism now and let’s take ISIS and al Qaeda one at a time for reasons that you know well and for reasons that will become obvious to our listeners here. Let’s start with ISIS. Where does ISIS in Afghanistan stand today compared to a year ago?
BILL ROGGIO: The Islamic State in Afghanistan is estimated to have several thousand fighters. This is according to the United Nations sanctions monitoring team. I suspect that’s probably right. The Islamic State basically is made up of castoffs from the Taliban and al Qaeda and some other groups that had an issue with how the death of Mullah Omar was handled. The Taliban hid that for two years and that was a real disaster, actually led to the dissolution of the Taliban. They were unhappy with that. And also these are probably more of what I would describe as the red-blooded jihadists, if there’s such a thing.
I always describe the difference between al Qaeda and the Islamic State in very simple terms. The Islamic State is caliphate now. With an apostrophe at the end, they want to declare the caliphate and that’s exactly what they did. They declared their caliphate and fought for it. Al Qaeda was always ‘we don’t declare the caliphate until we get defend it.’ So it’s a more patient- we build it and they will come emirate by emirate.’ And that’s the real difference in my mind between the two. The Islamic State in Afghanistan, you get those ones who are anxious, don’t really agree with al Qaeda’s patient strategy. There’s a core support there. I describe them as the Islamic state Khorasan province, as they’re known, to be like a tertiary threat that emanates from Afghanistan. It’s that Taliban-al Qaeda alliance that’s really the threat. The Islamic State is able to conduct attacks inside of Afghanistan and they largely target soft targets like Shia Hazara, who they hate because they consider them to be apostates.
The Islamic State’s problem is it doesn’t build coalitions. It’s my way or the highway. You swear allegiance to our emir or our caliph or we’ll kill you. That’s basically the Islamic State’s message. Whereas the Taliban and al Qaeda, they band with all of these other groups, Central Asian and Pakistani terror groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Islamic Movement Uzbekistan. I could go on and on with the alphabet soup of groups that operate in both Pakistan as well as many are based in Afghanistan today. So the Islamic State doesn’t build those coalitions. It won’t take state sponsorship. For instance, the Taliban and Al Qaida takes state sponsorship from Iran, Pakistan provides state sponsorship from the Taliban. The Islamic State just wouldn’t do that. To me it’s a far less of a threat to us and the West and in the region as well because they just don’t play well with others.
MICHAEL MORELL: How much of a threat are they to the Taliban?
BILL ROGGIO: I would describe them as, at the moment, as a nuisance threat. The Taliban survived two decades of U.S. airstrikes, of an Afghan military that was trained to fight them, of raids by Afghan commandos or U.S. special forces, of NATO’s Special Forces. The Islamic State can pull off some occasional suicide bombings, assassinations. But these are a pinprick compared to what the Taliban experienced just prior to taking over the country on August 15th, 2021.
MICHAEL MORELL: And is it mostly Afghans or are there some foreigners mixed in there?
BILL ROGGIO: It’s a mix. Some of them are Afghan Taliban, former Afghan Taliban, former Pakistani Taliban. Some of them are Central Asian jihadist groups from the Islamic movement, Uzbekistan. That group basically split in half. It’s religious leader was very upset about how the Taliban hid Mullah Omar’s death, and he took a large contingent to join the Islamic State. There’s some Uyghurs from China. They used to be members of the Turkistan Islamic Party. There’s also Indians and others from Southeast Asia.
MICHAEL MORELL: And have they shown any interest in attacks outside Afghanistan?
BILL ROGGIO: I think they’re interested in conducting attacks outside of Afghanistan, but I don’t think they have the capacity to do so because they don’t have safe haven. They’re constantly on the run. They’re operating at the cellular level. And the Taliban has been taking the fight to them. Now, a lot of people will say this makes Taliban an effective counterterrorism partner. But I would wildly disagree. Because of the Taliban’s support for Al Qaida and the other groups. The Taliban are only targeting the Islamic State because the Islamic State opposes Taliban rule. I just haven’t seen any indication that the Islamic States Khorasan Province is able to do anything but conduct a localized terrorist attack either against the Taliban or against soft civilian targets.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s turn to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the threat it poses to the United States and our interests worldwide. I want to start by asking you about a set of talking points that the White House put out this weekend on Al Qaida in Afghanistan. The White House said that the talking points were a summary of a just completed intelligence community assessment that would be released soon. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet. Just give people a sense of what those talking points said and what your take is on them.
BILL ROGGIO: One of the big talking points is that there was only a dozen or so legacy al Qaeda leaders/operatives who were based in Afghanistan. And this is a direct quote, ‘probably in Kabul.’ They’re not a threat to the United States. They can’t conduct plot attacks against the U.S. I would argue if you knew that there was 12 legacy al Qaeda leaders and were in Kabul while we were there. Why didn’t we take them out before exiting Afghanistan? If that’s true. I would argue the numbers are wrong. And Michael, I’m going to tell a real quick story. We heard from 2010 to 2015 that there were only 50 to 100 core al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and they were ineffective. That number never changed for six straight years up until the U.S. killed a top al Qaeda leader in Paktika province. He was a member of al Qaeda Shura. And then during that raid, they discovered that al Qaeda was running two training camps in Kandahar, where the U.S. intelligence was saying al Qaeda was only 50 to 100 and confined in northeastern Afghanistan. Kandahar is in the southeast. They raid the camp, kill 150 Al Qaida operatives and leaders. One of the U.S. generals who was involved in the raid said it was the largest camp they had seen post-9-11. I took that to mean the largest camp they have seen in the world post-9-11. But even if it was Afghanistan, that was pretty striking because we’ve raided some significant camps in Afghanistan while we were there.
I’m very, very, very skeptical when it comes to assessments from the U.S. intelligence community about al Qaeda’s strength and presence inside of Afghanistan. Once that camp was rated in Kandahar, it was called shorabak. Once the camp was raided, the U.S. intelligence community upped the assessment. Well, now it’s 200. Look, I didn’t believe 50 to 100. Why didn’t I believe that number? The U.S. military was reporting on raids of al Qaeda from 2007 to 2013. And they were reporting that about 25 to 75 al Qaeda fighters and commanders and operatives and trainers for the Taliban, etc., etc., were killed inside of Afghanistan yearly. And yet we have a 50 to 100 number. So none of this made sense to me. I was able to track raids in 24 of 36 of 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. So you’re telling me you only manned one or two guy al Qaeda guys in in these provinces. That’s how al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was tracked out.
I’m highly skeptical when I see the intelligence community come out– I think this is an issue that’s been highly politicized. It gets back to why is this an issue that is highly politicized? The U.S. can’t leave Afghanistan if al Qaeda has a significant presence there and the U.S. can’t leave Afghanistan if the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship is strong. So how do we downplay that to achieve a policy end of getting out of Afghanistan? We downplay al Qaeda’s significance and relationship with the Taliban.
In this case, I think the administration, the Biden administration is telling us about al Qaeda’s insignificance in Afghanistan to justify their reasoning for withdrawal. Another key part in that report was they said al Qaeda doesn’t have the capacity to launch attacks against the U.S. from Afghanistan. The 9/11 Commission report is very clear, safe haven is the lifeblood, as well as state sponsorship, is the lifeblood for terrorist groups. What does al Qaeda have today in Afghanistan? We know it does because Zawahiri was there, and he wasn’t alone. He comes with a staff. He comes with a security detail. And he’s not the only one there. Al Qaeda has a safe haven within Afghanistan. Yes.
The U.S. was able to launch one strike in one year to kill him, but they have it in Afghanistan, and they have state sponsorship. The Taliban is the Afghan state. What that safe haven and state sponsorship gives al Qaeda is it gives the ability for its leadership to organize, to rest. They’re not being actively hunted like they were. Yes, there was a one drone strike, but show me ten of them in the next year and then you might get my attention because killing one senior leader who’s been around since 9/11, that doesn’t impress me. It’s an impressive individual strike, but it’s not a campaign to take al Qaeda apart.
They have the ability to rest, to regroup, to refit, to get medical attention. They can move their families in. They can begin to recruit. It’s a boon. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan with al Qaeda’s support is a boon for recruiting. They can recruit, they can train, they could open up training camps. They can indoctrinate, they can plot. And then if they decide to execute and attack, they have everything sitting right there for them to do it. If I’m al Qaeda, I don’t launch an attack against the United States because I don’t want to poke the bear. People think that the threat of al Qaeda is launching a 9/11 style or even a lesser style attack. That’s merely a tactic of al Qaeda. It’s a tactic to achieve its overarching goal. What is that goal? It’s to establish a global caliphate.
It launches terror attacks against the United States, forces us to withdraw from countries and regions, so they can launch their insurgencies and take them over. They have the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, that is one emirate within al Qaeda’s hoped for caliphate, and that gives them safe haven. It gives them all the capacity to do the things to promote its goal of building the caliphate. And in doing that, they’re going to continue to attack us to help drive us out of this. They believe that the U.S. is weak. They believe that that the U.S. will ultimately will tire of these wars. And Afghanistan showed that we did tire of that war.
MICHAEL MORELL: Are you suggesting that we’re more likely to see al Qaeda attacks in places like the Middle East and North Africa than we are the United States? Given what you just said?
BILL ROGGIO: Yes, I do. And that doesn’t make them any less of a threat to us. We still have U.S. military personnel overseas, U.S. businesses, U.S. civilians, expats, as well as our allies. Our friends and allies, Europe and India and across the world. To me, al Qaeda is the greater threat than the Islamic State. It’s because of its patience. The Islamic State is a more of an immediate threat. It likes to conduct attacks for its propaganda and recruiting. But I don’t think it has a real caliphate building plan. And al Qaeda does. Al Qaeda is patient. Patient and thoughtful enemies are what scares me.
Let’s face it, they were patient for 20 years along with the Taliban to get the U.S. to leave. Now that the U.S. is out of Afghanistan, they can focus their energies in the Middle East, in Africa, Somalia or Mali. I would put each name on a coin and flip it. A significant portion of these countries can become the next al Qaeda controlled areas. Keep in mind, Shabaab took control of southern and central Somalia from I believe 2007-2008 to about 2011-2012 before the United States and the African Union and Kenya joined together to eject them. And now they fought back and they control about, we estimate, 40%. An American general two years ago said 25% of Somalia is under Shabaab control. I’d put that number closer to 40, given what I’ve seen or given research on this issue.
These are significant problems. Just because our desire here in the West, among U.S. policymakers, is to end the so-called endless wars. What that means is we’re ending our involvement in these wars. But our enemy isn’t. They’re continuing the fight. They want to drive us out of Somalia. The Biden administration just sent more troops back in there after the Trump administration withdrew them in an effort to end the so-called endless wars. The French are leaving Mali. Actually, I believe they have left at this point. But the French are in other areas. They’re going to continue to target us and our interest until they get what they want. Back to the issue of safe havens, now they have the ability to plot this– not just plot terrorist attacks, but plot and execute their strategy for caliphate building.
MICHAEL MORELL: One of the thoughts I had when I read the White House talking points was that they were making what I call negative assessments. They were saying what’s not as opposed to what is. And a what’s not assessment, as someone having been an analyst for 33 years, you need a lot of information, a lot of intelligence to make a not statement as opposed to an is statement. And I just don’t see how we have that amount of intelligence given that we don’t have a presence in that country.
BILL ROGGIO: That is an excellent point, Michael. Keep in mind, General Mackenzie, the previous commander of U.S. Central Command, I believe in December when he testified to Congress, he said our visibility in Afghanistan is 1 to 2% of what it was when we had boots on the ground before the U.S. withdrawal. And anyone who knows the military knows that that’s the best-case scenario. That’s the most optimistic assessment. The real number is probably about 0.5 to 1%. How can the White House and the national security say with such authority about the whatnots here.
Afghanistan has become an information black hole. We must assume the worst, not the best. We must assume that the al Qaeda-Taliban relationship has been strengthened and forged with 20 years of blood and fire. We must assume, given that Zawahiri was there, that lesser but no less important, al Qaeda leaders have begun to seek safe haven in Afghanistan. We have to assume that that number of an estimate of 200 al Qaeda in Afghanistan is blooming and not shrinking after the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban takeover. I could not agree with you more, Michael.
MICHAEL MORELL: Talk a little bit about the death of Zawahiri. How important from a CT perspective. And even more importantly, talk about likely successors. Can they bring more life back to this organization?
BILL ROGGIO: First, it was quite an accomplishment to kill Zawahiri, to find him and to kill him. I think al Qaeda, his security detachment got a little complacent. Zawahiri himself probably got complacent. The U.S. military said they believed in, I believe it was2020, that they thought he was in eastern Afghanistan.
MICHAEL MORELL: They did.
BILL ROGGIO: I’m certain that he’s been on the run for two decades and probably was taking the shoes off and rubbing his toes in the carpet a little bit to relax. He probably thought all as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: It tells you how comfortable he felt with the Taliban.
BILL ROGGIO: It does, right. I mean, that is certainly an excellent point, Michael. He felt he was comfortable. He felt he was safe. He felt the U.S. didn’t have the ability. The US did. But again, one strike does not make a successful counter-terrorism campaign, prove the success of it. It’s one strike. He been in command of al Qaeda for 11 years now since the death of Osama bin Laden. He was a deputy emir since the founding of al Qaeda. I always say, name me a president or vice president, a American cabinet member or a three or four star general who was there on 9/11 whose still in government or is still in the military? The answer to that is zero. Top al Qaeda leaders, fighters, they don’t retire. They either die of old age or they’re killed in military or counter-terrorism operations.
That’s what happened to Zawahiri. He put his stamp on al Qaeda for four plus decades. I dismiss the idea that he was insignificant, divisive and whatnot. Aside from the issue with the Islamic State that– we don’t know if Osama bin Laden himself would have been able to manage relations with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which ultimately was kicked out of al Qaeda. That’s the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. There were problems between the two organizations for I can recall going back to when Zarqawi was alive. So he’s dead. Who’s next in line? In the United Nations sanctions and monitoring report. I put a lot of credit in that. Edmond Fitton-Brown, the director of that. He’s a top-notch analyst. They say that it’s very likely Saif al-Adel or Abdur Rehman Al-Maghribi. These are both legacy al Qaeda leaders. Saif al-Adel, wanted, former Egyptian military officer, been with al Qaeda since at the very least the early 1990’s was their head of their military committee. He’s been Zawahiri’s deputy leader. He’s the very likely choice. Abdur Rehman Al-Maghribi held numerous positions within al Qaeda, including the head of its Al-Sahab, which is its media arm. It’s a very significant branch of al Qaeda, as well as the military leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MICHAEL MORELL: Zawahiri, son in law as well.
BILL ROGGIO: Exactly. His son in law. And this is interesting, but not surprising if you follow this. The head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the head of Shabab, which is al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. They’re very likely in the line of succession. They’re probably not going to take over. Well, people hold this up as, ‘wow, look, that’s fascinating.’ Except it isn’t. The head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was Nasser al-Wuhayshi before we killed him in the mid 2010s. He was al Qaeda’s general manager and was believed to be in the line of succession.
Al Qaeda has sort of diversified its leadership in response to the drone campaign. People think that this is a weakness of al Qaeda, but I think it’s a strength. It makes it difficult to communicate. Yes. But it gives buy in to the branches. People want to say these affiliates, which I prefer to call branches, which al Qaeda describes as their theaters. And al Qaeda doesn’t describe itself as a core, but a general command. This gives buy in from the organization, from the branches, it allows al Qaeda to protect itself from its leadership being concentrated in one area. So we’re going to find out. You know, people are also saying, ‘oh, al Qaeda hasn’t even announced his death.’ There’s a mourning period and then there’s a consultative period where they’re going to pick their new leadership. That’s very likely what’s happening. We’ll find out who that new leader is. I wouldn’t be shocked if it was a dark horse, if it was someone we didn’t know it. There is a lot of members of al Qaeda who aren’t public names we aren’t even aware of.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, your bottom line at the end of this discussion is that we have not heard the last of al Qaeda from Afghanistan.
BILL ROGGIO: No, we haven’t. I think that al Qaeda from Afghanistan and globally is in a much stronger position today than it was prior to 9/11. Prior to 911, al Qaeda really only had a major base in one area in Afghanistan. Now it’s throughout the Middle East, throughout all of Africa, like the Sahel in West Africa, not just North Africa, as it was in the early 2000s. It’s an organization that adapts. It has its faults, it has its problems, but it’s been adaptive. And I only see them growing stronger as the West seeks to disengage from this fight and focus on Russia and China, which I totally understand. Those are key issues, but we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
MICHAEL MORELL: Bill, thank you so much for joining us.
BILL ROGGIO: Thank you. Michael. It’s really a pleasure. Thank you again for having me on.