The Magazine

Their 9/11 Role

The Taliban Five are even worse than you’ve heard.

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf relied on this same talking point during a press conference on June 5. “Look, these were not good guys. I am in no way defending these men,” Harf said. “But being mid- to high-level officials in a regime that’s grotesque and horrific also doesn’t mean they themselves directly pose a threat to the United States.” During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 11, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel insisted that “we had no direct evidence of any direct involvement in their direct attacks on the United States on any of our troops.” (Under questioning, Hagel conceded that the Taliban Five were, in fact, involved in planning operations against U.S.-led coalition forces in late 2001.) Behind closed doors, other key Obama administration officials have similarly stressed that the Taliban Five don’t directly threaten the United States. The Daily Beast reported that John Brennan, director of the CIA and previously President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, has “argued that the Taliban Five were primarily focused on fighting against other Afghans and never had a record of attacking Americans outside of their own country.”

The Obama administration’s argument misses the point. It is true that Fazl and his Taliban colleagues have not directly planned 9/11-style attacks on the United States. But according to this logic, most of al Qaeda wasn’t a threat on 9/11 and isn’t today. Most al Qaeda operatives are not involved in spectacular terrorist plots against the West. (The 9/11 attacks, for instance, were highly compartmentalized.) Regardless, the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda made it considerably easier for Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants to plan their war against the United States, and this nexus remains a threat. 

The Taliban’s Afghanistan “was the incubator for al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks,” the 9/11 Commission found. Another passage from the commission’s final report reads: “The alliance with the Taliban provided al Qaeda a sanctuary in which to train and indoctrinate fighters and terrorists, import weapons, forge ties with other jihad groups and leaders, and plot and staff terrorist schemes.” 

In addition to Fazl, each of the other four members of the Taliban Five contributed to this alliance. According to leaked JTF-GTMO files and court documents, the U.S. government believes that Khairullah Khairkhwa was tied to Osama bin Laden and oversaw one of the deceased al Qaeda master’s training camps in western Afghanistan. 

According to the United Nations, Abdul Haq Wassiq served as the deputy director of intelligence for the Taliban, and in this role he “was in charge of handling relations with Al-Qaida-related foreign fighters and their training camps in Afghanistan.” It was in these same camps that al Qaeda trained terrorists for its plots against the United States. 

Like Fazl, Norullah Noori was a Taliban military commander, and in this capacity he coordinated operations with al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces. 

And, finally, JTF-GTMO concluded that Mohammad Nabi Omari planned anticoalition attacks with al Qaeda and other affiliated forces. 

The Taliban Five may not plan any direct attacks against the United States in the future. But they have already strengthened the hand of al Qaeda terrorists who have planned such attacks in the past. Why should we assume, as the Obama administration asks us to, that they will not do so again in the future?

The administration once recognized the true nature of the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance. In December 2009, President Obama announced a surge of forces in Afghanistan to reverse the Taliban’s “momentum” and “defeat” al Qaeda. “We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven,” Obama said. And he reminded his listeners that prior to 9/11, “al Qaeda’s base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban—a ruthless, repressive, and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere.”

America is once again turning elsewhere. The Taliban is still allied with al Qaeda. 


Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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