“It is not known who is behind that,” Suhail Shaheen told CBS News during an interview in Qatar, where talks with the United States are taking place. “If there is proof given to us, we are ready to try him.”
The denial of al Qaeda’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks has a long history in Afghanistan and across the political spectrum there, with conspiracy theories flourishing just as they have in much of the world.
These ideas are not limited to groups like the Taliban, which espouses a fundamentalist view of Islamism that shares similarities with al Qaeda’s worldview: during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2015, former U.S.-backed Afghan president Hamid Karzai said it was a “fact” that 9/11 had not been plotted in Afghanistan and suggested that al Qaeda was a “myth.”
However, Shaheen’s denial of al Qaeda’s involvement in the attacks comes at the start of renewed peace talks where the Taliban’s relationship with the group and its continued presence in Afghanistan are central. The United States has long demanded that the Taliban refuse to let al Qaeda operate in areas it controls, but found the group unwilling to fully cut ties with an old ally.
Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, moved to Afghanistan in 1996 as it came under the rule of the Taliban. Bin Laden, a wealthy founder of al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia, had previously fought in the Soviet-Afghan war in the previous decades along with the mujahideen fighters who would later form the Taliban.
Though Bin Laden initially distanced himself from 9/11 the attacks, in 2004 he released a video statement that claimed responsibility and suggested al Qaeda was motivated to strike the United States again. From the start, the Taliban’s own public statements on the attacks that targeted New York and Washington were similarly muddled.
In the years before September 2001, Taliban representatives had met with U.S. officials to discuss whether they could find an agreeable way to hand over Bin Laden, who had been wanted in connection with bombings against American interests in the Persian Gulf and Africa. Immediately after 9/11, the Taliban’s foreign minister denounced the attacks and said Afghanistan did not know who was behind them.
Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, would go on to reject American demands to hand over Bin Laden, instead calling for evidence of bin Laden’s role in the attacks and suggesting the Taliban would only hand him over to a neutral third party.
“No. We cannot do that," Omar said during an interview with Voice of America in Sept. 2001 when asked if Afghanistan could hand over Bin Laden. "If we did, it means we are not Muslims... that Islam is finished.”
The Taliban continued to distance themselves from the attacks for years after U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, but would not condemn al Qaeda as the perpetrators. Even the death of Bin Laden in 2011 and Omar in 2013 did not end the ambiguous view of al Qaeda’s 9/11 role: as recently as this July, the Taliban released a video that blamed the 9/11 on the United States’ "interventionist policies and not our doing.”
Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has been almost totally overshadowed by other extremist groups. The Taliban emerged as a more structured insurgency after the invasion and a local affiliate of the Islamic State has gained strength and carried out deadly attacks in Kabul.
But al Qaeda is not necessarily totally defeated. During an appearance at an event hosted by The Washington Post in December, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said the group and others like it could reconstitute and plan events like 9/11 again if the United States eased pressure.
With peace talks progressing, some key figures in Washington argue that the Taliban could not be trusted to control al Qaeda, even if they promised to.
“I hope President Trump and his team make sound and sustainable decisions about radical Islamist threats emanating from Afghanistan — the place where 9/11 originated,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement last week.