The doors of jihad opened for Ayman al-Zawahri as a young doctor in a Cairo clinic, when a visitor arrived with a tempting offer: a chance to treat Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan. With that offer in 1980, al-Zawahri embarked on a life that over three decades took him to the top of the most feared terrorist group in the world, al-Qaida, after the death of Osama bin Laden. Already an experienced militant who had sought the overthrow of Egypt’s “infidel” regime since the age of 15, al-Zawahri took a trip to the Afghan war zone that was just a few weeks long, but it opened his eyes to new possibilities. What he saw was “the training course preparing Muslim mujahedeen youth to launch their upcoming battle with the great power that would rule the world: America,” he wrote in a 2001 biography-cum-manifesto. Also read: Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought 'justice' Al-Zawahri, 71, was killed over the weekend by a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden announced the death Monday evening. The strike is likely to lead to greater disarray within the organization than did bin Laden’s death in 2011, since it is far less clear who his successor would be. Al-Zawahri was crucial in turning the jihadi movement to target the United States as the right-hand man to bin Laden, the young Saudi millionaire he met in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Under their leadership, the al-Qaida terror network carried out the deadliest attack ever on American soil, the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon made bin Laden America’s Enemy No. 1. But he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy. While bin Laden came from a privileged background in a prominent Saudi family, al-Zawahri had the experience of an underground revolutionary. Bin Laden provided al-Qaida with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world. “Bin Laden always looked up to him,” said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University. Also read: Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri killed in US missile attack When the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan demolished al-Qaida’s safe haven and scattered, killed and captured its members, al-Zawahri ensured al-Qaida’s survival. He rebuilt its leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions. He also became the movement’s public face, putting out a constant stream of video messages while bin Laden largely hid. With his thick beard, heavy-rimmed glasses and a prominent bruise on his forehead from prostration in prayer, he was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He picked ideological fights with critics within the jihadi camp, wagging his finger scoldingly in his videos. Even some key figures in al-Qaida’s central leadership were put off, calling him overly controlling, secretive and divisive — a contrast to bin Laden, whose soft-spoken presence many militants described in adoring, almost spiritual terms. Yet he reshaped the organization from a centralized planner of terror attacks into the head of a franchise chain. He led the creation of a network of autonomous branches around the region, including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and Asia. In the decade after 9/11, al-Qaida inspired or had a direct hand in attacks in all those areas as well as Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London. More recently, the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen has proven itself capable of plotting attacks on U.S. soil with an attempted 2009 bombing of an American passenger jet and an attempted package bomb the following year. After Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, al-Qaida proclaimed al-Zawahri its paramount leader less than two months later. The jihad against America “does not halt with the death of a commander or leader,” he said. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings around the Mideast threatened a major blow to al-Qaida, showing that jihad was not the only way to get rid of Arab autocrats. It was mainly pro-democracy liberals and leftists who led the uprising that toppled Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, the longtime goal al-Zawahri failed to achieve. But al-Zawahri sought to co-opt the wave of uprisings, insisting that they would have been impossible if the 9/11 attacks had not weakened America. And he urged Islamic hard-liners to take over in the nations where leaders had fallen. Al-Zawahri was born June 19, 1951, the son of an upper-middle-class family of doctors and scholars in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. From an early age, he was enflamed by the radical writings of Sayed Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist who taught that Arab regimes were “infidel” and should be replaced by Islamic rule. In the 1970s, as he earned his medical degree as a surgeon, he was active in militant circles. He merged his own militant cell with others to form the group Islamic Jihad and began trying to infiltrate the military — at one point even storing weapons in his private clinic. Then came the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad militants. The slaying was carried out by a different cell in the group — and al-Zawahri has written that he learned of the plot only hours before the assassination. But he was arrested along with hundreds of other militants and served three years in prison. After his release in 1984, al-Zawahri returned to Afghanistan and joined the Arab militants from across the Middle East fighting alongside the Afghans against the Soviets. He courted bin Laden, who became a heroic figure for his financial support of the mujahedeen. Al-Zawahri followed bin Laden to his new base in Sudan, and from there he led a reassembled Islamic Jihad group in a violent campaign of bombings aimed at toppling Egypt’s U.S.-allied government. The Egyptian movement failed. But al-Zawahri would bring to al-Qaida the tactics that he honed in Islamic Jihad. He promoted the use of suicide bombings, to become al-Qaida’s hallmark. He plotted a 1995 suicide car bombing of Egypt’s embassy in Islamabad that killed 16 people — presaging the more devastating 1998 al-Qaida bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200, attacks al-Zawahri was indicted for in the United States. In 1996, Sudan expelled bin Laden, who took his fighters back to Afghanistan, where they found a safe haven under the radical Taliban regime. Once more, al-Zawahri followed.
As the sun was rising in Kabul on Sunday, two Hellfire missiles fired by a U.S. drone ended Ayman al-Zawahri's decade-long reign as the leader of al-Qaida. The seeds of the audacious counterterrorism operation had been planted over many months. U.S. officials had built a scale model of the safe house where al-Zawahri had been located, and brought it into the White House Situation Room to show President Joe Biden. They knew al-Zawahri was partial to sitting on the home's balcony. They had painstakingly constructed “a pattern of life," as one official put it. They were confident he was on the balcony when the missiles flew, officials said. Also read: Indonesia arrests key leader in al-Qaida linked group Years of efforts by U.S. intelligence operatives under four presidents to track al-Zawahri and his associates paid dividends earlier this year, Biden said, when they located Osama bin Laden’s longtime No. 2 — a co-planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. — and ultimate successor at the house in Kabul. Bin Laden's death came in May 2011, face to face with a U.S. assault team led by Navy SEALs. Al-Zawahri's death came from afar, at 6:18 a.m. in Kabul. His family, supported by the Haqqani Taliban network, had taken up residence in the home after the Taliban regained control of the country last year, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces after nearly 20 years of combat that had been intended, in part, to keep al-Qaida from regaining a base of operations in Afghanistan. But the lead on his whereabouts was only the first step. Confirming al-Zawahri’s identity, devising a strike in a crowded city that wouldn’t recklessly endanger civilians, and ensuring the operation wouldn’t set back other U.S. priorities took months to fall into place. That effort involved independent teams of analysts reaching similar conclusions about the probability of al-Zawahri’s presence, the scale mock-up and engineering studies of the building to evaluate the risk to people nearby, and the unanimous recommendation of Biden’s advisers to go ahead with the strike. “Clear and convincing,” Biden called the evidence. "I authorized the precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all. This measure was carefully planned, rigorously, to minimize the risk of harm to other civilians.” The consequences of getting it wrong on this type of judgment call were devastating a year ago this month, when a U.S. drone strike during the chaotic withdrawal of American forces killed 10 innocent family members, seven of them children. Also read: Pentagon chief: al-Qaida may seek comeback in Afghanistan Biden ordered what officials called a “tailored airstrike,” designed so that the two missiles would destroy only the balcony of the safe house where the terrorist leader was holed up for months, sparing occupants elsewhere in the building. A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strike planning, said al-Zawahri was identified on “multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time” on the balcony where he died. The official said “multiple streams of intelligence” convinced U.S. analysts of his presence, having eliminated “all reasonable options” other than his being there. Two senior national security officials were first briefed on the intelligence in early April, with the president being briefed by national security adviser Jake Sullivan shortly thereafter. Through May and June, a small circle of officials across the government worked to vet the intelligence and devise options for Biden. On July 1 in the White House Situation Room, after returning from a five-day trip to Europe, Biden was briefed on the proposed strike by his national security aides. It was at that meeting, the official said, that Biden viewed the model of the safe house and peppered advisers, including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and National Counterterrorism Center director Christy Abizaid, with questions about their conclusion that al-Zawahri was hiding there. Biden, the official said, also pressed officials to consider the risks the strike could pose to American Mark Frerichs, who has been in Taliban captivity for more than two years, and to Afghans who aided the U.S. war efforts who remain in the country. U.S. lawyers also considered the legality of the strike, concluding that al-Zawahri’s continued leadership of the terrorist group and support for al-Qaida attacks made him a lawful target. The official said al-Zawahri had built an organizational model that allowed him to lead the global network even from relative isolation. That included filming videos from the house, and the U.S. believes some may be released after his death. On July 25, as Biden was isolated in the White House residence with COVID-19, he received a final briefing from his team. Each of the officials participating strongly recommended the operation’s approval, the official said, and Biden gave the sign-off for the strike as soon as an opportunity was available. That unanimity was lacking a decade earlier when Biden, as vice president, gave President Barack Obama advice he did not take — to hold off on the bin Laden strike, according Obama's memoirs. The opportunity came early Sunday — late Saturday in Washington — hours after Biden again found himself in isolation with a rebound case of the coronavirus. He was informed when the operation began and when it concluded, the official said. A further 36 hours of intelligence analysis would follow before U.S. officials began sharing that al-Zawahri was killed, as they watched the Haqqani Taliban network restrict access to the safe house and relocate the dead al-Qaida leader’s family. U.S. officials interpreted that as the Taliban trying to conceal the fact they had harbored al-Zawahri. After last year’s troop withdrawal, the U.S. was left with fewer bases in the region to collect intelligence and carry out strikes on terrorist targets. It was not clear from where the drone carrying the missiles was launched or whether countries it flew over were aware of its presence. The U.S. official said no American personnel were on the ground in Kabul supporting the strike and the Taliban was provided with no forewarning of the attack. In remarks 11 month ago, Biden had said the U.S. would keep up the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries, despite pulling out troops. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.” “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities," he said. On Sunday, the missiles came over the horizon.
A vehicle laden with explosives rammed into cars and trucks at a checkpoint leading to the entrance of the Presidential Palace in Somalia, killing at least eight people, police said Saturday. The checkpoint is the one used by Somalia’s president and prime minister on their way to and from the airport in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Read:At least 2 killed in German chemical blast; 31 injured Nine other people were wounded in the bombing, police spokesman Abdifatah Adam Hassan said. The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group has claimed responsibility. The group often carries out such attacks in the capital.
Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism squad has arrested a convicted militant and suspected leader of an al-Qaida-linked group that has been blamed for a string of past bombings in the country, Indonesia police said Monday. Abu Rusdan was seized late Friday in Bekasi near the capital of Jakarta, along with three other suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah, police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan said. “He is currently known to be active among the unlawful Jemaah Islamiyah network’s leadership,” Ramadhan told the Associated Press. Indonesian authorities consider Rusdan to be a key figure in the Jemaah Islamiyah, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group. The shadowy Southeast Asian network is widely blamed for attacks in the Philippines and Indonesia — including the 2002 bombings in the Indonesian resort island of Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists. READ: Taliban takeover prompts fears of a resurgent al-Qaida Ramadhan described the arrests as part of a broader nationwide crackdown on the group. Police are still searching for other suspected members, followed tips that the group was recruiting and training new members in Indonesia. Born in Central Java, Rusdan, 61, was sentenced to jail in 2003 for sheltering Ali Ghufron, a militant who was later convicted and executed for carrying out the Bali bombings. After his release from prison in 2006, Rusdan traveled Indonesia giving speeches and fiery sermons that received tens of thousands of views on YouTube. In one recorded sermon, he praised as the “land of jihad” Afghanistan — the country where he had previously trained with other militant groups. Indonesia’s police counterterrorism unit, known as Densus 88, has swept up 53 alleged members of the Jemaah in the past weeks, across 11 different provinces. An Indonesian court banned the group in 2008 and a sustained crackdown by the country’s security forces with support from the U.S. and Australia has helped to weaken the militant network. A spokesman for Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency, Wawan Hari Purwanto, said in a video statement early this month that following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, officials have stepped up their efforts at early detection and prevention “particularly toward terrorist groups that have links to the Taliban’s ideology and networks.” Indonesia’s counterterrorism crackdown has been ongoing for months already. In the past year, Indonesian officials say counterterrorism forces have captured dozens of militants and suspected members of the Jemaah, including its alleged military leader, Zulkarnaen, who had been wanted for more than 18 years. READ: US, Israel worked together to track and kill al-Qaida No. 2 Militant attacks on foreigners in Indonesia have been largely replaced in recent years by smaller, less deadly strikes targeting the government, mainly police and security forces, inspired by Islamic State group tactics abroad.
The lightning-fast changes in Afghanistan are forcing the Biden administration to confront the prospect of a resurgent al-Qaida, the group that attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, at the same time the U.S. is trying to stanch violent extremism at home and cyberattacks from Russia and China. With the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces and rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, “I think al-Qaida has an opportunity, and they’re going to take advantage of that opportunity,” says Chris Costa, who was senior director for counterterrorism in the Trump administration. “This is a galvanizing event for jihadists everywhere.” Read: What Taliban's return means for Bangladesh Al-Qaida’s ranks have been significantly diminished by 20 years of war in Afghanistan, and it’s far from clear that the group has the capacity in the near future to carry out catastrophic attacks on America such as the 9/11 strikes, especially given how the U.S. has fortified itself in the past two decades with surveillance and other protective measures. But a June report from the U.N. Security Council said the group’s senior leadership remains present inside Afghanistan, along with hundreds of armed operatives. It noted that the Taliban, who sheltered al-Qaida fighters before the Sept. 11 attacks, “remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged Friday that al-Qaida remains a presence in Afghanistan, though quantifying it is hard because of a reduced intelligence-gathering capability in the country and “because it’s not like they carry identification cards and register somewhere.” Even inside the country, al-Qaida and the Taliban represent only two of the urgent terrorism concerns, as evidenced by unease about the potential for Islamic State attacks against Americans in Afghanistan that over the weekend forced the U.S. military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul. The Taliban and IS have fought each other in the past, but the worry now is that Afghanistan could again be a safe harbor for multiple extremists determined to attack the U.S. or other countries. President Joe Biden has spoken repeatedly of what he calls an “over-the-horizon capability” that he says will enable the U.S. to keep track of terrorism threats from afar. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters Monday that Biden has been clear that counterterrorism capabilities have evolved to the point where the threat can be suppressed without a strong boots-on-the-ground presence. He said the intelligence community does not believe al-Qaida currently has the capability to attack the U.S. Read: Who are the Taliban? The U.S. is also presumably anticipating that strengthened airport screening and more sophisticated surveillance can be more effective than 20 years ago in thwarting an attack. But experts worry that intelligence-gathering capabilities needed as an early-warning system against an attack will be negatively affected by the troop withdrawal. An added complication is the sheer volume of pressing national security threats that dwarf what the U.S. government was confronting before the Sept. 11 attacks. These include sophisticated cyber operations from China and Russia that can cripple critical infrastructure or pilfer sensitive secrets, nuclear ambitions in Iran and an ascendant domestic terrorism threat laid bare by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. FBI Director Chris Wray has described that home-grown threat as “metastasizing,” with the number of arrests of white supremacists and racially motivated extremists nearly tripling since his first year on the job. “My concern is that you can’t compare 2001 to today,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. There’s a “much vaster and better organized bureaucracy,” he said, but it’s burdened with demands not specifically tied to terrorism. Hoffman said that although he didn’t think al-Qaida would be able to quickly use Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks against the U.S., it may re-establish “its coordinating function” in the region to work with and encourage strikes by its affiliates — a patient strategy that may yet be vindicated. “Terrorist groups don’t conform to train timetables or flight schedules,” Hoffman said. “They do things when it suits them and, as al-Qaida was doing, they quietly lay the foundation in hopes that that foundation will eventually affect or determine their success.” The concern is resonant enough that Biden administration officials told Congress last week that, based on the evolving situation, they now believe terror groups like al-Qaida may be able to grow much faster than expected. In June, the Pentagon’s top leaders said an extremist group like al-Qaida may be able to regenerate in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within two years of the American military’s withdrawal. The Sept. 11 attacks made al-Qaida the most internationally recognizable terror group, but in the past decade at least, the most potent threat inside the U.S. has come from individuals inspired by the Islamic State, resulting in deadly massacres like the ones in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando. But al-Qaida hardly disappeared. U.S. authorities alleged last year that a Saudi gunman who killed three U.S. sailors at a military base in Florida in 2019 had communicated with al-Qaida operatives about planning and tactics. Last December, the Justice Department charged a Kenyan man with trying to stage a 9/11-style attack on the U.S. on behalf of the terrorist organization al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida. Now it’s possible that other extremists will find themselves inspired by al-Qaida, even if not directed by it. “Until recently, I would have said that the threat from al-Qaida core is pretty modest. They didn’t have safe haven in Afghanistan, their senior leadership was scattered,” said Nathan Sales, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department. But, now with the Taliban back in control, “all of that could change and could change very rapidly.”
Florent Coulibaly, a soldier in Burkina Faso’s army, says he hasn’t been sleeping well for the past few months as he is often roused at 3 a.m. to fight jihadi rebels. Until recently life was peaceful in western Burkina Faso’s Comoe province, but an increase in attacks by extremist groups in the country’s west has put the military on edge. “It tires us. It gives us a lot of work. It scares us, too,” said Coulibaly, 27. “We don’t know where (the jihadis) are going to come from. They see us, but we don’t see them. They know us, but we don’t know them.” Also read: Burkina Faso says at least 100 civilians killed in attack Over the past six months, his battalion has doubled its patrols from once a week to twice, but Coulibaly says the men are ill-equipped, overworked and worry the area could be overrun by jihadis. Burkina Faso is experiencing an increase in extremist violence by groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Last month, at least 11 police officers were killed when their patrol was ambushed in the north. The country also experienced its deadliest violence in years when at least 132 civilians were killed in an attack in its Sahel region. The jihadi rebels are also expanding their reach within Burkina Faso. Extremist violence centered in the country’s north and east has spread into the west and southwest areas near Mali and Ivory Coast, bringing residents and security forces in those areas to brace for more conflict. The move into western Burkina Faso makes strategic sense for the groups who can use it as a base to extend their operations in West Africa. The thick vegetation gives them cover and the area can give them territorial control over the smuggling route between Gulf of Guinea countries and Mali. Attacks in three regions of Burkina Faso’s south and southwest quadrupled from four to 17 between 2018 and 2019, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. There were nine attacks last year — a reduction that analysts attribute to increased military operations as well as the expansion of violence across the border in neighboring Ivory Coast. In June, a soldier was killed in northeastern Ivory Coast on the border with Burkina Faso, and in March there was an attack by 60 gunmen on two security outposts in Ivory Coast, killing three people. Also read: Gunmen kill 24 in attack near church in Burkina Faso “This attack confirmed the intention of armed groups to target the north of coastal countries. This is likely a new phase in the groups’ strategy to expand into these areas,” said Florent Geel, deputy director-general for Promediation, an international organization focused on mediation. During a trip in April to the towns of Banfora and Gaoua in the west and southwest, as well as one village near the border with Ivory Coast, local defense groups and security forces told The Associated Press they didn’t have the manpower to stem the violence and felt like it was just a matter of time until the area was inundated by jihadis. Civilians also say they’ve started living in fear. Last year, for the first time, jihadis posted notes on classroom doors warning students and teachers to stay away, said a 35-year-old primary teacher in a village in Comoe province who didn’t want to be named for fear of his safety. While his village hasn’t been attacked, it has become militarized with checkpoints stoking paranoia among residents. “The situation is deteriorating .. In the past you could leave (the village) at midnight with your motorbike ... But today you are not going to take the risk ... When you’re sleeping you’re on the lookout, when you hear a strange noise you startle, but before it wasn’t like that,” he said. Large numbers of teachers, including himself, are asking to transfer from less secure villages, which are easier for jihadis to attack, into larger towns like Banfora, he said. Burkina Faso’s army is also trying to work with the Ivorian military by conducting joint patrols and sharing intelligence, but during at least one clash with jihadis, the Ivorian soldiers refused to fight, the military said. Some areas have no security presence and rely on local defense groups to stave off extremists. In Gaoua, a group of Dozos — traditional hunters who operate across the region — said they’re often the first to arrive when there is an attack, with the army showing up three hours later or not at all. “It’s discouraging,” said Noufe Sansan, a Dozo chief. Pointing to a text message on his phone that he received from a security officer informing him that there are more than 60 extremists hiding in a nearby forest, he said news of attacks in the once peaceful area have become almost daily. The Dozos are trying to strengthen their forces and alert the community of the potential for future violence, but want help from the government. Two years ago, they asked for 24 motorbikes to increase mobility to better respond to attacks, but have yet to receive anything, he said. Meanwhile, civilians who escaped the volatility in the north in hopes of rebuilding their lives in more peaceful parts of the country, say they’re fed up from fleeing. Seated on the ground in Niangoloko village, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Ivory Coast’s border, Saydou Gamsore described how he fled his home last year because of the extremist violence and said if he’s attacked again, he’d rather die than keep moving. “We are tired of running away,” said the 76-year-old. “Even if it means death … I will stay here.”
The U.S. left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield after nearly 20 years by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without notifying the base’s new Afghan commander, who discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left, Afghan military officials said. Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling air base Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the epicenter of America’s war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America. The U.S. announced Friday it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August. “We (heard) some rumor that the Americans had left Bagram ... and finally by seven o’clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram,” Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander said. Read: US vacates key Afghan base; pullout target now 'late August' U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett did not address the specific complaints of many Afghan soldiers who inherited the abandoned airfield, instead referring to a statement last week. The statement said the handover of the many bases had been in the process soon after President Joe Biden’s mid-April announcement that America was withdrawing the last of its forces. Leggett said in the statement that they had coordinated their departures with Afghanistan’s leaders. Before the Afghan army could take control of the airfield about an hour’s drive from the Afghan capital Kabul, it was invaded by a small army of looters, who ransacked barrack after barrack and rummaged through giant storage tents before being evicted, according to Afghan military officials. “At first we thought maybe they were Taliban,” said Abdul Raouf, a soldier of 10 years. He said the the U.S. called from the Kabul airport and said “we are here at the airport in Kabul.” Kohistani insisted the Afghan National Security and Defense Force could hold on to the heavily fortified base despite a string of Taliban wins on the battlefield. The airfield also includes a prison with about 5,000 prisoners, many of them allegedly Taliban. The Taliban’s latest surge comes as the last U.S. and NATO forces pull out of the country. As of last week, most NATO soldiers had already quietly left. The last U.S. soldiers are likely to remain until an agreement to protect the Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is expected to be done by Turkey, is completed. Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, district after district has fallen to the Taliban. In just the last two days hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled across the border into Tajikistan rather than fight the insurgents. “In battle it is sometimes one step forward and some steps back,” said Kohistani. Read: US hands Bagram Airfield to Afghans after nearly 20 years Kohistani said the Afghan military is changing its strategy to focus on the strategic districts. He insisted they would retake them in the coming days without saying how that would be accomplished. On display on Monday was a massive facility, the size of a small city, that had been exclusively used by the U.S. and NATO. The sheer size is extraordinary, with roadways weaving through barracks and past hangar-like buildings. There are two runways and over 100 parking spots for fighter jets known as revetments because of the blast walls that protect each aircraft. One of the two runways is 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) long and was built in 2006. There’s a passenger lounge, a 50-bed hospital and giant hangar-size tents filled with supplies such as furniture. Kohistani said the U.S. left behind 3.5 million items, all itemized by the departing U.S. military. They include tens of thousands of bottles of water, energy drinks and military ready-made meals, known as MRE’s. “When you say 3.5 million items, it is every small items, like every phone, every door knob, every window in every barracks, every door in every barracks,” he said. The big ticket items left behind include thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys to start them, and hundreds of armored vehicles. Kohistani said the U.S. also left behind small weapons and the ammunition for them, but the departing troops took heavy weapons with them. Ammunition for weapons not being left behind for the Afghan military was blown up before they left. Afghan soldiers who wandered Monday throughout the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 U.S. troops were deeply critical of how the U.S. left Bagram, leaving in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers tasked with patrolling the perimeter. “In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” said Afghan soldier Naematullah, who asked that only his one name be used. Within 20 minutes of the U.S.’s silent departure on Friday, the electricity was shut down and the base was plunged into darkness, said Raouf, the soldier of 10 years who has also served in Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Read:Biden vows 'sustained' help as Afghanistan drawdown nears The sudden darkness was like a signal to the looters, he said. They entered from the north, smashing through the first barrier, ransacking buildings, loading anything that was not nailed down into trucks. On Monday, three days after the U.S. departure, Afghan soldiers were still collecting piles of garbage that included empty water bottles, cans and empty energy drinks left behind by the looters. Kohistani, meanwhile, said the nearly 20 years of U.S. and NATO involvement in Afghanistan was appreciated but now it was time for Afghans to step up. “We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands,” he said.
Nearly 20 years after invading Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and hunt down al-Qaida, the U.S. military has vacated its biggest airfield in the country, advancing a final withdrawal that the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August. President Joe Biden had instructed the Pentagon to complete the military withdrawal by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, but the Pentagon now says it can finish the drawdown a little earlier. In fact, the drawdown is already largely completed and officials had said it could be wrapped up this weekend. But a number of related issues need to be worked out in coming weeks, including a new U.S. military command structure in Kabul and talks with Turkey on an arrangement for maintaining security at the Kabul airport, and so an official end to the pullout will not be announced soon. READ: US hands Bagram Airfield to Afghans after nearly 20 years “A safe, orderly drawdown enables us to maintain an ongoing diplomatic presence, support the Afghan people and the government, and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists that threatens our homeland,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. The administration is meanwhile narrowing options for ensuring the safety of thousands of Afghans whose applications for special visas to come to the United States have yet to be approved. The administration has already said it’s willing to evacuate them to third countries pending their visa approvals but has yet to determine where. Officials said Friday that one possibility is to relocate them to neighboring countries in Central Asia where they could be protected from possible retaliation by the Taliban or other groups. The White House and State Department have declined to comment on the numbers to be relocated or where they might go, but the foreign ministers of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were both in Washington this week and the subject of Afghan security was raised in meetings they held with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Kirby said that Austin on Friday approved a new command structure in Afghanistan to transition the U.S. military mission from warfighting to two new objectives — protecting a continuing U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul and maintaining liaison with the Afghan military. Austin’s plan calls for the top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Scott Miller, to transfer his combat authorities to the Florida-based head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, before relinquishing his command this month. Also, a two-star Navy admiral will head a U.S. Embassy-based military office, dubbed U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward, to oversee the new mission of providing security for the embassy and its diplomats.A satellite military office based in Qatar and headed by a U.S. one-star general will be established to administer U.S. financial support for the Afghan military and police, plus maintenance support provided for Afghan aircraft from outside Afghanistan. Kirby said Miller, who already is the longest-serving commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the 20 years of warfare, will remain in command for “a couple of weeks” longer but was not more specific. He said Miller will be preparing for and completing the turnover of his duties to McKenzie and also will be traveling inside and beyond Afghanistan. Miller met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Friday and, according to a Dari-language tweet by the presidential palace, the two discussed “continued U.S. assistance and cooperation with Afghanistan, particularly in supporting the defense and security forces.” READ: Biden vows 'sustained' help as Afghanistan drawdown nears Bagram Airfield has been the epicenter of the war to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. At its peak in and around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through the massive compound barely an hour’s drive north of Kabul. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, said the American departure was done overnight without any coordination with local officials, and as a result early Friday, dozens of local looters stormed through the unprotected gates before Afghan forces regained control. “They were stopped and some have been arrested and the rest have been cleared from the base,” Raufi told The Associated Press, adding that the looters ransacked several buildings before being arrested and the Afghan forces took control. However, U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said the handover was an “extensive process” that spanned several weeks and began soon after Biden’s mid-April announcement that America was withdrawing the last of its forces. “All handovers of Resolute Support bases and facilities, to include Bagram Airfield, have been closely coordinated, both with senior leaders from the government and with our Afghan partners in the security forces, including leadership of the locally based units respective to each base,” said Col. Leggett. The Taliban welcomed the American withdrawal from Bagram Airfield. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that Friday’s departure was a “positive step,” urging for the “withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country.” As of this week, most other NATO soldiers have already quietly exited Afghanistan. Announcements from several countries analyzed by the AP show that a majority of European troops has left with little ceremony — a stark contrast to the dramatic and public show of force and unity when NATO allies lined up to back the U.S. invasion in 2001. READ: Taliban gains drive Afghan government to recruit militias The U.S. has refused to say when the last American soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but also future security and protection for Kabul International Airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and U.S. soldiers are currently protecting the airport, still under Resolute Support Mission, which is the military mission being wound down. Until a new agreement for the airport is struck by Turkey and the Afghan government, and possibly the United States, it appears the Resolute Support mission would to have to continue to be in charge of the facility.
After nearly 20 years, the U.S. military left Bagram Airfield, the epicenter of its war to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, two U.S. officials said Friday. The airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force in its entirety, they said on condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to release the information to the media. One of the officials also said the U.S. top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, “still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the forces.” Afghanistan’s district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, said the American departure was done overnight without any coordination with local officials, and as a result early Friday dozens of local looters stormed through the unprotected gates before Afghan forces regained control. Read:Biden vows 'sustained' help as Afghanistan drawdown nears “They were stopped and some have been arrested and the rest have been cleared from the base,” Raufi told The Associated Press, adding that the looters ransacked several buildings before being arrested and the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) took control. “Unfortunately the Americans left without any coordination with Bagram district officials or the governor’s office,” Raufi said. “Right now our Afghan security forces are in control both inside and outside of the base.” The deputy spokesman for the defense minister, Fawad Aman, said nothing of the early morning looting. He said only the base has been handed over and the “ANDSF will protect the base and use it to combat terrorism.” The withdrawal from Bagram Airfield is the clearest indication that the last of the 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops have left Afghanistan or are nearing a departure, months ahead of President Joe Biden’s promise that they would be gone by Sept. 11. It was clear soon after the mid-April announcement that the U.S. was ending its “forever war,” that the departure of U.S. soldiers and their estimated 7,000 NATO allies would be nearer to July 4, when America celebrates its Independence Day. Most NATO soldiers have already quietly exited as of this week. Announcements from several countries analyzed by The Associated Press show that a majority of European troops has now left with little ceremony — a stark contrast to the dramatic and public show of force and unity when NATO allies lined up to back the U.S. invasion in 2001. The U.S. has refused to say when the last U.S. soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but also the protection of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and U.S. soldiers currently are protecting the airport. That protection is currently covered under the Resolute Support Mission, which is the military mission being wound down. Read:Taliban gains drive Afghan government to recruit militias Until a new agreement for the airport’s protection is negotiated between Turkey and the Afghan government, and possibly the United States, the Resolute Support mission would appear to have to continue in order to give international troops the legal authority. The U.S. will also have about 650 troops in Afghanistan to protect its sprawling embassy in the capital. Their presence it is understood will be covered in a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government. The U.S. and NATO leaving comes as Taliban insurgents make strides in several parts of the country, overrunning dozens of districts and overwhelming beleaguered Afghan security Forces. In a worrying development, the government has resurrected militias with a history of brutal violence to assist the Afghan security forces. At what had all the hallmarks of a final press conference, Gen. Miller this week warned that continued violence risked a civil war in Afghanistan that should have the world worried. At its peak around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its sprawling compound barely an hour’s drive north of the Afghan capital Kabul. The departure is rife with symbolism. Not least, it’s the second time that an invader of Afghanistan has come and gone through Bagram. Read: US to keep about 650 troops in Afghanistan after withdrawal The Soviet Union built the airfield in the 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back a communist government, it turned it into its main base from which it would defend its occupation of the country. For 10 years, the Soviets fought the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, dubbed freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a front-line force in one of the last Cold War battles. When the U.S. and NATO inherited Bagram in 2001, they found it in ruins, a collection of crumbling buildings, gouged by rockets and shells, most of its perimeter fence wrecked. It had been abandoned after being battered in the battles between the Taliban and rival mujahedeen warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves. The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $96 million. There are 110 revetments, which are basically parking spots for aircraft, protected by blast walls. GlobalSecurity, a security think tank, says Bagram includes three large hangars, a control tower and numerous support buildings. The base has a 50-bed hospital with a trauma bay, three operating theaters and a modern dental clinic. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans. There was no immediate comment from Afghan officials as to the final withdrawal from Bagram Airfield by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie has visited war-weakened Burkina Faso to show solidarity with people who continue to welcome the displaced, despite grappling with their own insecurity, and said the world isn’t doing enough to help. “The humanitarian crisis in the Sahel seems to me to be totally neglected. It is treated as being of little geopolitical importance,” Jolie told the Associated Press. “There’s a bias in the way we think about which countries and which people matter.” Read: Burkina Faso says at least 100 civilians killed in attack While Burkina Faso has been battling a five-year Islamic insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State that’s killed thousands and displaced more than one million people, it is also hosting more than 22,000 refugees, the majority Malian. As Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Jolie marked World Refugee Day on Sunday in Burkina Faso’s Goudoubo refugee camp in the Sahel, where she finished a two-day visit. She spoke with the camp’s Malian refugees and internally displaced people in the nation’s hard-hit Center-North and Sahel regions. After 20 years of work with the U.N. refugee agency, Jolie told the AP the increasing displacement meant the world was on a “terrifying trajectory towards instability”, and that governments had to do something about the conflicts driving the vast numbers of refugees. “Compared to when I began working with UNHCR twenty years ago, it seems like governments have largely given up on diplomacy ... countries which have the least are doing the most to support the refugees,” she said. Read:Churchill painting owned by Angelina Jolie sells for $11.5M “The truth is we are not doing half of what we could and should ... to enable refugees to return home, or to support host countries, like Burkina Faso, coping for years with a fraction of the humanitarian aid needed to provide basic support and protection,” Jolie said. Malians began fleeing to Burkina Faso in 2012 after their lives were upended by an Islamic insurgency, where it took a French-led military intervention to regain power in several major towns. The fighting has since spread across the border to Burkina Faso, creating the fastest growing displacement crisis in the world. Last month Burkina Faso experienced its deadliest attack in years, when gunmen killed at least 132 civilians in Solhan village in the Sahel’s Yagha province, displacing thousands. The increasing attacks are stretching the U.N.’s ability to respond to displaced people within the country as well as the refugees it’s hosting. “Funding levels for the response are critically low and with growing numbers of people forced to flee ... the gap is widening,” UNHCR representative in Burkina Faso Abdouraouf Gnon-Konde told the AP. Read:Angelina Jolie lauds Bangladesh’s leadership role in Rohingya crisis The attacks are also exacerbating problems for refugees who came to the country seeking security. “We insisted on staying (in Burkina Faso), (but) we stay with fear. We are too scared,” said Fadimata Mohamed Ali Wallet, a Malian refugee living in the camp. “Today there is not a country where there isn’t a problem. This (terrorism) problem covers all of Africa,” she said.