Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Thursday that al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, may try to reconstitute in Afghanistan after the United States withdrew its military forces last month and the Taliban once again took control of the country.
Austin’s comments came during a small press gaggle in Kuwait City following a four-day tour of Persian Gulf countries, in which he suggested that the Biden administration could take action against the group should it attempt to threaten the United States once again as the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches.
“The whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al Qaeda has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan,” Austin said. “The nature of al Qaeda and (the Islamic State group) is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate, whether it’s there, whether it’s in Somalia, or whether it’s in any other ungoverned space.
“I think that’s the nature of the organization,” he added.
(Video: Associated Press)
After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, they allowed al Qaeda to fester and grow inside the country, where then-leader Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. invaded the country weeks after the attacks after the Taliban government refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders, beginning a 20-year conflict that drew in NATO and other American allies and saw forces inside the country swell to more than 100,000 at one point.
Over the course of the conflict, al Qaeda’s ranks were reportedly significantly diminished. But now that the Taliban is back in power, there is rising concern that the militant group will be allowed to refurbish its ranks.
Austin, however, said that the Biden administration won’t stand idly by if that’s the case.
“We put the Taliban on notice that we expect them to not allow that to happen,” Austin said.
A February 2020 agreement between the Trump administration and Taliban leaders called on the latter to pledge they would not support al Qaeda or any other militant, terrorist organization that would pose a threat to the U.S.
However, officials in the Trump administration, as well as current White House officials, believe that the Taliban continued to have ties to al Qaeda, as have officials in a number of Gulf Arab states.
Earlier this week during a press conference, Austin was asked how difficult would it be for the U.S. to detect future threats coming from Afghanistan now that all American troops have left.
“Well, there’s no question that it will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region, but we’re committed to making sure that threats are not allowed to develop and create significant challenges for us in the homeland,” he said.
Nevertheless, the SECDEF has said that the military retains multiple capabilities for dealing with al Qaeda as well as any other extremist, terrorist organization that emanates from the southwest Asian country, including strike aircraft and surveillance technologies.
Part of Austin’s Gulf Arab state tour included a trip to Saudi Arabia, but it was postponed by Riyadh at the last moment for undisclosed reasons, Austin said.
The postponement, though, comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s announcement last week that he ordered the declassification of some documents related to the 9/11 attacks at the behest of survivors and victims’ families. Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi, though the government denies any involvement in the attacks.
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