Just one year ago, in early to mid-August, the world’s collective jaw dropped at the horror unfolding in Afghanistan. With the US almost completely withdrawn from the country, entire provinces and their capitols were falling to the Taliban on a daily basis. Amid its conquests, the Taliban was waging a prolific PR campaign across Twitter and other social media platforms, reintroducing itself as a diplomatically open, human rights-respecting member of the international community—and that 20 years of war had taught it lessons.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda, the largest point of concern in the US and Taliban’s so-called Doha Agreement, seemed out of the picture. No statements, no celebration. Per numerous reports, leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had been dead since October 2020, making al-Qaeda’s silence all the more deafening in those last weeks before the last US troops departed.
The silence was short-lived, though. Miraculously, Zawahiri returned from the dead on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, confirmed alive with new messages to the world.
Now, in the aftermath of Zawahiri’s second and actual death in Kabul on July 31, an unseen plot of deception can be seen clearly as ever: together, the Taliban and al-Qaeda lied to the world for a year about the status of Zawahiri and their continuing relationship. These lies were meant to ensure the progression of the Doha Agreement and advance their long-term goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.
Just as they lied about this, they are now surely lying amid negotiations on the release of part of the $9.5 billion in frozen Afghan government assets. It is of critical importance to understand that if released, some of these funds will find their way to support al-Qaeda’s terrorist plans and the Taliban’s reign of terror. The Taliban had, for over 20 years, lied about practically anything and everything, so we shouldn’t expect anything different today, especially when talking about such a large sum of money.
He Said, She Said
Al-Qaeda was a major factor in the Doha Agreement’s signing in February 2020. The agreement specifically stated the Taliban would not “host” groups like al-Qaeda or permit their “recruiting, training, and fundraising” on Afghan soil. However, many officials expressed concerns as to the Taliban’s true intentions. In March 2020, US Central Command leader Gen. Frank McKenzie stated that the Taliban’s intent to uphold their side of the agreement “has not yet been demonstrated.” In May 2020, a United Nations report described how the Taliban had “regularly consulted” with al-Qaeda, including Zawahiri, and “offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties.”
Concerns intensified as the first planned US withdrawal in November 2020 grew near. An Aug. 2020 report from the Defense Department inspector general’s office stated, “The Taliban did not appear to uphold its commitment to distance itself from terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. UN and U.S. officials reported that the Taliban continued to support al-Qaeda, and conducted joint attacks with al-Qaeda members against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”
Similar reports regarding the Taliban’s intent regarding the Doha Agreement came from Afghan government officials. Unfortunately, none of these reports had a smoking gun that would stop the Agreement.
Meanwhile, it was business as usually for al-Qaeda. On the 19th anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab Media Foundation published a 42-minute speech by Zawahiri, in which he criticized al-Jazeera over a related documentary it released a year prior.
Screenshot of a Zawahiri speech released September 11, 2020 (left) and its official English transcript signaling, “may Allah protect him.” (right)
As with other As Sahab productions, the speech was accompanied by an official transcript, this time in English. Per the usual, the video and the transcript contained the phrase May Allah protect him (or in Arabic, hafizahullah) after Zawahiri’s name. In jihadi contexts, this phrase provides assurance that a leader is alive and well.
The Doha agreement continued on track. The Taliban repeatedly denied accusations regarding its intent to uphold the terms of the agreement. Many were still skeptical, but there was no majorly compelling proof that Taliban still harbored al-Qaeda, or that Zawahiri was in Afghanistan or a Taliban-controlled area. After all, it was Pakistan, not Afghanistan, that Bin Laden eventually found safe haven.
On October 8, 2020, then-president Trump announced on Twitter his plan to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by Christmas of that year. The Taliban couldn't be any more ecstatic. On the same day of Trump's tweet, the Taliban published an official statement celebrating the announcement:
US President Donald Trump has tweeted that they should have their remaining forces in Afghanistan at home by the end of the ongoing year.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) welcomes these remarks and considers it a positive step for the implementation of the agreement signed between The IEA and the US.
And it continued to lie about its true intentions:
IEA is also committed to the contents of the agreement and hopes for good and positive relations with all countries, including the US, in the future.
But then something critical happened that could have easily derailed the Taliban’s plans and expose its lies.
Pushed into a Corner
On October 28, Afghan and US forces announced the killing of al-Qaeda’s media chief, Husam Abd al-Rauf (AKA “Abu Muhsin al-Masri”) in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, a Taliban stronghold. Rauf, one of FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists,” was a prominent al-Qaeda leader whose videos and communications were published by the group.
FBI wanted poster for al-Qaeda media chief Husam Abd al-Rauf.
Then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the killing proof “that Taliban has not cut off their ties with other terrorist networks including Al-Qaida yet.” Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) stressed Rauf’s close relationship with Zawahiri. It all emphasized what many had been sidestepping: if Rauf was still given safe haven in Afghanistan, perhaps Zawahiri was too.
Completely out of character, the Taliban never responded to the allegations that followed Rauf’s death. Prior to this, they would consistently and promptly respond to local and international reports of similar nature. For example, on October 8, 2019, the Taliban vehemently denied reports that Asim Umar, an al-Qaeda leader, was killed in a raid in Musa Qala, Helmand. The Taliban went as far as claiming that the news was intended to “” of attacking a wedding party.
But Umar was killed before the Doha Agreement. Now, with the agreement’s manifestation in jeopardy, it kept total radio silence. The group was so close to this victory and staying quiet was the most cautious option at hand.
Still, at this juncture, concerns about Zawahiri and al-Qaeda intensified to a point that something drastic had to be done. Rauf’s killing was simply too big a deal to be denied or easily explained away. Backed into a corner, al-Qaeda and the Taliban decided to take their deception and lies to an unprecedented level.
Zawahiri's First Death
Ten days after Rauf’s killing, “confirmed” reports that Zawahiri had died began popping up like mushrooms after a rain. On November 10, Pakistani media outlet Arab News reported that Zawahiri had died of natural causes, citing two sources among “several security sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The report also quoted an unidentified al-Qaeda insider as stating that Zawahiri died in Ghazni, Afghanistan, a week prior “of asthma because he had no formal treatment.”
Three days later, terrorism analyst Hassan Hassan, who had a following of over 100,000 on Twitter at that time, reported that Zawahiri had died in October of natural causes. Hassan cited confirmation via a source with al-Qaeda’s de facto Syria affiliate, Hurras al-Deen.
News outlets, while acknowledging the news as unconfirmed, leaned into the reports with headlines like “Is al-Qaeda's leader dead? Report claims terror chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan from ‘asthma-related breathing issues’” and “TERROR CHIEF ‘DEAD’ Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘dead’ – Al-Qaeda boss dies from asthma in Afghan mountain hideout, reports claim.”
The Times of Israel even pondered who the successor might be: “With unconfirmed rumors swirling over fate of Al-Zawahiri in wake of Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s killing in Iran, many analysts point to Saif al-Adel as next leader”
It wasn’t just the news itself that was suspect; it was the delivery method as well. Jihadi groups do often leak information of relatively minor importance to the media. But for something as major as Zawahiri’s supposed death, a news leak—as opposed to a major, high-production announcement delivered on al-Qaeda’s own terms and timing—was unprecedented. Five days after Bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda confirmed his demise and a month and half later named Zawahiri as his successor. But after the reports of Zawahiri’s death emerged, there was no such confirmation or denial from al-Qaeda. For several months, the organization was completely silent on the matter.
But in March 2021, seven months after al-Qaeda last confirmed Zawahiri was alive via the transcript of his September 11 speech, al-Qaeda finally announced a forthcoming speech by Zawahiri. All eyes and ears were waiting to finally see whether or not the leader was in fact dead, and a speech would therefore carry immense weight.
Zawahiri’s new speech, released by as-Sahab on March 12, was titled “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Ummah.” The speech commented on Myanmar government’s atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority and called to strike the country’s interests. It made no mention of developments related to Afghanistan. More, Zawahiri didn’t reference any specific event that could indicate when the speech was recorded.
Even more notably, the space after Zawahiri’s name in the official Arabic transcript or the video was blank: no hafizahullah (may Allah protect him) to confirm him alive, or rahamauAllah (May Allah have mercy on him) to confirm him dead. Nothing.
Audio from a Zawahiri speech about Myanmar beneath a picture of him in a March 12, 2021 as-Sahab release (left) and its official Arabic transcript without the standard “hafizahullah” after his name (right)
This was clearly not a mere oversight for a group that closely follows all news and rumors related to it. Al-Qaeda knew well that if there was ever a time to make a clarification about Zawahiri's vital status, it was then. Thus, this absence of clarification was a complicated statement of its own, depending on who was reading it. To many in the jihadi world, specifically, it was a rather thick hint that he was in fact still alive and that they didn’t need to mourn him.
As the Taliban began seizing large swathes of Afghanistan amid the US’ withdrawal that summer, the global jihadi movement celebrated. It was validation, if not outright vindication of the jihad they rallied around for two decades. Yet al-Qaeda, the largest character in the story next to the Taliban, didn’t release a single message about the Taliban takeover, let alone release a Zawahiri speech.
During that time, the Taliban tried to convince the world that it was different from the Taliban that protected Bin Laden and al-Qaeda after 9/11. It painted a picture of a group more modernized and ready to engage in diplomacy. It flooded Twitter with photos of women participating in conferences alongside men. It promised to allow free speech and bring no harm to those who worked with the US.
But as soon as the last US troops left Kabul on August 30, 2021, just two weeks after the Taliban seized the city, everything turned upside down. On August 31, the Taliban released a new issue of al-Somood, its Arabic-language monthly publication. The featured article in the magazine was titled “Between the Taliban of Today and the Taliban of Yesterday... What has Changed?” The answer was a blatant assurance to its hardline supporters: absolutely nothing.
At this point, al-Qaeda was also reemerging from the shadows. Hours after the publication of the magazine, al-Qaeda released its own statement congratulating the Taliban. “These events prove that the Way of Jihad is the only way that leads to victory and empowerment,” al-Qaeda’s statement declared.
Then came the final confirmation. After a year of deceit, on the 21st anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaeda was finally letting go of the ruse. On September 10, 2021, as-Sahab released an 852-page book, authored by Zawahiri, discussing the effects of political corruption on Muslims over the ages. The book contained an introduction from Zawahiri, dated April 2021, less than six months after his reported “death.”
Moreover, the following day, as-Sahab released a new video speech from Zawahiri. In it, Zawahiri lauded a suicide attack by Hurras al-Deen against a Russian base Syria that took place on January 1, 2021, indicating that the recording could not have been made any earlier, giving yet more confirmation he didn’t die that prior October. And sure enough, on the cover of as-Sahab’s official English transcript, Zawahiri’s name was followed by those key words: may Allah protect him.
Transcript from September 11, 2021 video speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri, containing the phrase, “may Allah protect him”
As I describe in my previous book, Terrorist Hunter, my foray into the counterterrorism world started with understanding the two faces terrorist groups often wear to deliver contrasting messages to their followers versus the rest of the world. I stumbled upon a seemingly innocent booklet from the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) which subsequently was designated as a terrorist front. The booklet had parts in Arabic and parts in English. The list in Arabic was very different from the one English. While legitimate organizations were listed in the latter, several terrorist organizations were listed in the former as charities that HLF raised funds for.
Similarly, both the Taliban and al-Qaeda had purposefully and cleverly disguised their dealings until such time was ripe to unravel them. They lied to the world and to the US, but only until such a lie was no longer needed to ensure the success of the scheme. For the entire year leading into the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban manipulated their propaganda, exercised radio silence, and fed disinformation to the media—all to lead the world to believe Zawahiri was dead. And as the Taliban surged toward control of Afghanistan, the terrorist leader was standing by to resurface in a newly accommodating country. So Zawahiri died; but then he didn’t.
On Saturday, July 30, 2022, Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike on a balcony in downtown Kabul. This time, he died for real.
Al-Qaeda’s lie to the world about Zawahiri's vital status can be seen as part of misinformation strategy meant to fool governments, but not their own followers. However, for the Taliban, lying to its followers about the living status of leaders has historically been fair game. In April 2013, Taliban founder and first leader Mullah Omar died. However, the group presented him alive for more than two years after, publishing messages signed “Mullah Omar,” from Eid greetings to policy statements—anything that required a leader's response. Only in late July 2015 it was revealed to the Taliban’s supporters that their leader had been dead all that time. This wasn’t misinformation toward the enemy but blatant lie to its own people.
The Taliban and its close associate al-Qaeda are now in control of Afghanistan. The long-awaited dream of establishing a Caliphate is alive and hopes are higher than they have been in a long time.
Funneling funds by unfreezing the Afghan government assets will only fuel this fire and bring that dream one step closer to becoming a reality. They lied about virtually everything. They are now lying about the purpose of the funds. Releasing these funds would be a grave mistake and will mean we have not learned anything from history. A very dangerous mistake.