A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Outgoing Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

CTC: You've just finished a nearly five-year stint as the monitoring team coordinator for tracking the evolution of the global jihadi terror threat, the Afghan Taliban, and other problematic groups in Afghanistan, as well as maintaining the U.N. sanctions lists. Your reports have been essential reading. Given the informational challenges in tracking terror groups and sometimes competing assessments from Member States, what precepts have guided you in synthesizing and presenting information?

Fitton-Brown: It starts from the point that we are specifically mandated to liaise with Member States, intelligence and security services, and counterterrorism agencies. We are always talking to Member States. We don't run sources; we don't use open source. It's both a strength and a weakness that we rely on Member State information. Of course, the quality of Member State information can be fantastically good. If you're talking to a well-resourced intelligence service, you're going to get the best information there is, and that's the strength of it. The weakness of it, that you perhaps imply in the question, is, what if people disagree? What if people put forward a point of view that is politically motivated rather than fact based? And so of course we have to deal with that consideration.

Our main guiding principle is unanimity within the team, so the team is 10 experts from 10 different countries, and that includes one from each of the P5 countries. So if we, as an editorial group, agree on something, it probably won't be politically slanted because there's likely to be someone in the group who's going to cry foul and say, 'Come on, that sounds like this Member State trying to get at that Member State.' So there's a reasonably good safeguard within the editorial process.

In fact, there's a very strong sense of common purpose. And that's because of the subjects that we deal with; if you're thinking about groups like al-Qa'ida and ISIL, these are groups that nobody likes or supports. And so the fundamental proposition that we're trying to add to the international counterterrorist cause is very unifying and means that the group works really well together. That's also been true in relation to Afghanistan. It's not as if anybody has any bright ideas to impose a national agenda upon Afghanistan. Enough countries have broken their heads on that one in the past. And so there is a genuine sense, the first four years that I was there, of how to support peace and security in Afghanistan. And then, even since the Taliban takeover, there's no real sort of agenda that's taken over. Our job remains to tell the unvarnished truth as we understand it about what's happening in Afghanistan, because without that, people are going to make bad policy decisions on how to address it.

It all works surprisingly well, and I give enormous credit to my colleagues for that because they do act as independent experts and they're not politically influenced. We have a vital role to perform here, and we must perform it in good faith. There's also the need to triangulate because intelligence services get it wrong regularly. In talking to us, many of them have been quite good about saying, 'Well, you know, we're sure about this, but we're not so sure about that.' And so if we've got something that sounds interesting but we can't triangulate it, can't gain the necessary confidence based on hearing the same conclusion from different services with different sets of sources and can't rule out it is circular reporting, then we may not perhaps use that information. Unless it's incredibly important to flag it, in which case we might, as you occasionally see in one of our reports, say, 'One Member State says... ' When we say that, we are very pointedly saying that this is something that we think we want to draw people's attention to as a possibility, but we are not saying that we are convinced that it's true. So we've got that option when it's an important but controversial point.

We travel to do our work. It's difficult to do this kind of work online. There are some countries who are reasonably good at that and willing to do it, but there are many who are very nervous about it. As professionals, we don't want to try and force the states to talk on an open line about things when they're not comfortable doing that. So we need to travel, and we design the travel accordingly. We will aim to make sure that we are balancing perspectives; particularly with Afghanistan, you're trying to make sure that we get to Central Asia and to Pakistan and India and that we're getting the input from the P5 and others. We design engagement with Member States to give us the kind of triangulation needed to produce material on which one can be reasonably confident. Occasionally, we do get it wrong. I'm always very keen that if we do get it wrong that we actually own up to that or try and track down what's gone wrong. We know that we're not infallible, but the accuracy rate is high, I think.

CTC: Shortly after 6:00 AM, Kabul time, on Sunday, July 31, al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed on the balcony of his Kabul residence by a U.S. missile strike. (1) What is your assessment of the significance of the fact that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul?

Fitton-Brown: The significance of Zawahiri being in Kabul is substantial. The monitoring team had already reported that we understood from Member States that he was present in Afghanistan. We didn't know that he was in Kabul, which obviously is a little different from being in the mountainous remote border areas of Afghanistan. It implies a different level of Taliban or Haqqani network collusion with him. Of course, we have reported regularly on the close relationship between al-Qa'ida's senior leadership and the Taliban and in particular the Haqqani network. We have reported particularly on the relationship of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the de facto Interior Minister of Afghanistan, with al-Qa'ida and with Zawahiri, but still I was surprised that he had been found in Kabul.

The point we made in our report about the increased frequency and ease of Zawahiri's communication since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan just under a year ago of course now, with the benefit of hindsight, makes sense. As the U.S. has stated, he was recording videos in this safe house in Kabul. (a) He had, in recent times, been able to communicate from a situation that was more comfortable, more secure, and more conducive to releasing videos that were more current. We said in our last report (2) that this had led to very recent proof of life, evidence of Zawahiri communicating about recent events. Knowing, as we now do, that he was in Kabul, you can see how his ability to communicate would have been much better than when he was accommodated in more remote and challenging circumstances in the past.

The significance is that it proves the Taliban are providing al-Qa'ida with a safe haven in Afghanistan as we have said in all of our recent reports. Yes, it feels a bit strange to talk about a safe haven for someone who has just been killed by a U.S. counterterrorism operation, but nevertheless, the fact that he was being looked after in Kabul by members of the Haqqani network with his family, that shows the kind of safe haven that the Taliban and the Haqqani network are providing to al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan.

CTC: According to the White House, "senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's presence in Kabul" and "Haqqani Taliban members took actions after the strike to conceal Zawahiri's former presence at the location." (3) How troubling do you find this?

Fitton-Brown: It's troubling, but it is also good to have that clarity made public. Because there were people who were in denial about the level of partnership of the Taliban, and especially the Haqqani network, with al-Qa'ida. Let's be clear: This was a facilitated presence in Kabul. Zawahiri's presence was facilitated by the Haqqani network. It was facilitated after they took over Afghanistan and when they were caught out and the Americans killed Zawahiri, they then went about their business of trying to conceal all of the traces as far as they could. (b) I presume within the Taliban, within the Haqqani network, they will be engaged in some form of damage control operation and trying to work out what this means for their immediate future dealings with the international community.

CTC: In a report published in July 2021, you noted that according to U.N. Member States, al-Zawahiri's most probable successor would be the Egyptian al-Qa'ida veteran operative Saif al-'Adl and that al-'Adl was based in Iran. (4) Is al-'Adl still believed to be in Iran, and what is your current assessment of the succession dynamics?

Fitton-Brown: Yes, Saif al-'Adl is still believed to be the likely successor, and he is believed to be in Iran. The monitoring team has reported on this repeatedly over the last few years, the presence of certain senior al-Qa'ida figures in Iran. This is based on Member State reporting, which agrees overwhelmingly that this is the case. It's not unanimous. It's not that all Member States agree on this. But the great majority do. Our understanding, which you can see from our latest report, (5) is that the leadership of al-Qa'ida from one to five in order of seniority at the time we wrote the report was 1) Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader in Afghanistan; 2) Saif al-'Adl in Iran; 3) Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi in Iran; 4) Yazid Mebrak (aka Yusuf al-Anabi), the Algerian head of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and overall, indirect chief also of Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) who is in charge of al-Qa'ida's interests in northwestern Africa and the western Sahel; 5) Ahmed Diriye of al-Shabaab in Somalia.

So we have a possible frame of reference for the succession, and the expectation would be that Saif al-'Adl would take over from al-Zawahiri. But of course the...

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