The Taliban have broken their silence over a U.S. drone strike that killed Al Qaeda’s top leader in Afghanistan’s capital, acknowledging his death and pledging to launch an investigation.
The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri on the balcony of a Kabul safe house Sunday has further strained relations between the Taliban and the West, particularly as it seeks an urgent infusion of cash to handle an economic catastrophe there after the U.S. withdrawal a year ago.
“The government and the leadership weren’t aware of what is being claimed, nor any trace there,” Suhail Shaheen, the head of the group’s political office in Doha, Qatar, told The Associated Press.
In a separate statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also insisted that the group was not aware that al-Zawahiri was living in a house in Kabul.
“We didn’t have any information about his arrival and living in the house,” he said.
Mujahid added that the the incident would be thoroughly investigated and there was “no threat to the U.S. and other countries from the Afghan soil.”
Those claims directly conflict with what U.S. officials have said about the strike. They said al-Zawahiri was staying at the home of a top aide to 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 U.S. that they would not harbor Al Qaeda members or those seeking to attack the U.S.
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,” Shaheen added.
The strike early Sunday shook Shirpur, once a district of historic buildings that were bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials in Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and international aid organizations.
After the U.S. withdrawal last August, 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 U.S.-led NATO troops and the former Afghanistan government.
The U.S. government maintains a $10 million bounty on 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 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, al-Zawahiri increasingly reached out to supporters with video and audio messages, including assurances that Al Qaeda could compete with the Islamic State terrorist group for leadership of a global movement, a report by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said.