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Interview

Al-Qaida grows weaker by the day, says Osama bin Laden aide

Muhammad Amin ul Haq believes war in Afghanistan will change, not end

Muhammad Amin ul Haq, left, says that al-Qaida has steadily weakened since the death of Osama bin Laden ten years ago. (Source photos by Muhammad Amin ul Haq and Getty Images)

ISLAMABAD -- Al-Qaida is "weakening day by day" because the organization has failed to keep active since the killing of Osama bin Laden during a U.S. military raid on his lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, a close aide told Nikkei Asia on the 10th anniversary of the al-Qaida founder's death.

Muhammad Amin ul Haq -- who, according to a United Nations Security Council webpage, once coordinated security for bin Laden -- said the master terrorist's death was a serious blow to al-Qaida because he was so highly respected by other al-Qaida leaders and also by the Afghan mujahedeen who fought Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s.

Al-Qaida was formed by bin Laden in 1988 in Afghanistan. He came from one of the wealthiest and best connected families in Saudi Arabia with a fortune based on construction, but went off to join the anti-Soviet jihad after the invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979.

"All the other key leaders in al-Qaida came from Egypt, and they were not famous," Haq told Nikkei in handwritten replies in his native Pashto sent from a secret location. "They were unable to do any significant work after Osama's death, and found no space for themselves in Iraq or Syria. Al-Qaida is weakening day by day."

"People who have sympathy for the ideology of al-Qaida number in the hundreds of thousands around the world, and it would not be an exaggeration to say there are hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan alone," said Haq. "But al-Qaida is weak in terms of manpower, and it is difficult to give an exact number for its members."

Haq is today a prominent figure in the Afghan Taliban working in its prisoner commission, which collects details about Taliban prisoners in Afghan jails. He was also in negotiations with the U.S. in Qatar on the sidelines of Taliban-U.S. talks for the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners.

"Many al-Qaida members got Afghan citizenship during the tenure of mujahedeen leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, and they now call themselves Afghan nationals," said Haq. Rabbani was president from 1992 to 2001, latterly presiding over only a small part of the country. He was assassinated in a suicide bombing in 2011 in Kabul while serving as chairman of the High Peace Council formed by President Hamid Karzai for talks with the Taliban.

Rabbani was appointed interim president in 1992 in accordance with an accord signed in Pakistan's Peshawar province. He was confirmed as president in 1993 after mujahedeen leaders signed a power-sharing pact in Islamabad. Initially, he had control of most of the country, but when the Taliban overran Kabul in 1996, he fled to northern parts of Afghanistan and was recognized by the U.N.

Haq served in several official positions in Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from Kandahar in the south from 1996 to 2001.

Haq said that what remains of al-Qaida would most probably fall in line with Taliban instructions. He said, however, that the Taliban might allow al-Qaida and other foreign militants to resume operations on Afghan soil if the U.S. keeps "violating" the Doha Agreement signed in February last year for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

"Al-Qaida, like any group, looks carefully at the situation," Haq told Nikkei. "If its leaders think keeping silent and adopting a low profile works best, they will keep quiet. But if they consider an active role as benefiting them, then they will resurface."

The Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the U.S. signed last year in Doha stated that the Taliban "will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies."

"The Taliban will also assess the situation, and if the Americans honor their commitments in the Doha Agreement then they will not allow foreign militants to operate in the areas under their control," Haq said. "But if the situation is different, then it would be the Taliban's compulsion to provide space to al-Qaida and other foreign mujahedeen to operate because everyone seeks financial support and manpower in such a situation."

Asked about what is likely to transpire, Haq said he has never been optimistic about the Doha Agreement and does not think it will end the war.

"There is a possibility the nature of the war will change because of the Taliban-U.S. agreement but fighting will not end," he said. "I think it will lead to more bloodshed. I do not think the Americans will fully quit Afghanistan. It is possible the regular army will be withdrawn, but the U.S. will keep contractors or strengthen private militias to serve its interests for a long time."

Haq said the COVID-19 pandemic has had no impact on the war in Afghanistan, and that fighting lately has actually been more intense than in previous years.

The U.S. Defense Department said in a report in July that al-Qaida's regional affiliate in Afghanistan maintains close ties with the Taliban.

"AQIS [al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent] routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members in its efforts to undermine the Afghan government, and maintains an enduring interest in attacking U.S. forces and Western targets in the region," the Pentagon said in a security assessment compiled for the U.S. Congress.

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