Twenty-one years after September 11 and a year removed from the fall of Kabul, the terror landscape has shifted dramatically in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s quick rise to power sparked “joy” and celebration amongst a variety of militant groups that admired the Taliban’s commitment to their ideological goals. The international community’s concerns that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorist activity, as in the 2000s, remains steadfast.
Despite international fears, there are only a few major players in the Afghan context that the ascendency of the Taliban has deeply affected—the Taliban and their subgroups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
The Taliban’s situation appears, at first glance, to be clear-cut—once a small insurgency group founded in the mid-90s, the now 60,000-strong jihadi network has taken over Afghanistan once again following the disastrous U.S. withdrawal last summer.
The Taliban was brought to power last year by the Haqqani Network, a “kingmaker” sect embedded within the Taliban that shares particularly close ties with al-Qaeda. The Haqqanis are a particularly violent subgroup of the Taliban that pioneered the high-casualty suicide bombings, which are commonly seen as a hallmark of the group. Their ruthlessness and tight control of the Taliban government, which appointed several Haqqanis to senior government positions, including the interior minister position, may usher in a new realm of brutality.
However, the group has splintered and decentralized over time. It is now comprised of several similar groups in various regions of Afghanistan and across the Indian Subcontinent.
The TTP and other Taliban Sects
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the TTP, is the largest of the Taliban’s subgroups. The TTP has revitalized efforts in the wake of the insurgency to such a degree that the UN sanctions monitoring team examining the Afghan situation in its May report found that the group has “arguably benefitted the most of all the foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan from the Taliban takeover.” The UN reports that there are presumed to be approximately 3,000 to 4,000 TTP-allied fighters in the east and southeast region of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Yet, they have received significant support from the Afghan Taliban, who helped them in talks with Pakistan, and freed more than 2,000 TTP fighters from jails when they rose to power.
The TTP have been immensely successful in launching a series of attacks in Pakistan, with the situation becoming so dire that the Pakistani government was forced to negotiate a mediated ceasefire in June. However, the group has since claimed responsibility for several recent deadly attacks on policemen, suggesting that the period of calm is over. Diplomacy will likely become more difficult for the Afghani Taliban in the near future, given that Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban have traditionally clashed over territory and Pushtun-majority areas, and they will now be forced to reckon with a TTP bloodbath.
However, while the TTP was given the green light to consolidate power by the Afghan Taliban, other subgroups have not been as fortunate. The Taliban’s largely Pashtun-centric consolidation of power has angered and alienated the Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik sects of the Taliban, ethnic groups in the north. Pashtun-Taliban have reportedly begun seizing the homes and land of these ethnic minorities and gifting them to fighters. This blatant discrimination, in an area already largely opposed to Taliban rule, has sparked a localized guerrilla movement. Most recently, the arrest and subsequent disappearance of two ethnic Uzbek and Tajik Taliban commanders sparked violent protests in northern Afghanistan, which culminated in a shoot-out that left four dead.
While the Taliban have attempted to put on a show of unity and strong leadership to the international community, it appears that as the stress of running a country may further splinter the group, forcing them to face deadlier challenges to governance.
ISIS, also known as Daesh, first rose to prominence for its rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and high-casualty coordinated attacks on Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016. Since then, ISIS has lost almost all of its territory thanks to the success of coalition forces, but the group has managed to expand slightly in the Khorasan region of Afghanistan since the Taliban took over.
Their advancements in Khorasan have earned the group the nickname Daesh-K. Daesh-K, which has received significant funding from the ISIS core, claimed responsibility for the 2021 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. soldiers and 170 Afghans. The group has since conducted several high-profile attacks throughout the region, often targeting enemy Taliban commanders, ethnic and religious minorities, and prisons holding large numbers of captured fighters.
Historically, ISIS has been at odds with the Taliban and al-Qaeda due to religious and political differences. The group often attracts Taliban defectors who believe their methods are not extreme enough. Tensions between the groups have grown so high that the Taliban recently labeled ISIS as a “false sect” that “spreads corruption.”
The Taliban has brutally killed hundreds of Daesh-K fighters since their takeover, but they lack the air-strike and intelligence capabilities of the previous Afghan government to significantly fight back. While Daesh-K currently lacks the operational capacity to inflict more serious attacks or achieve significant territory gains, the group already has anywhere from 1500 to 4000 fighters. This is thought to be anywhere from five to ten times as large as the number of al-Qaeda operatives.
It is unclear how the organization will continue to develop in the future, especially since it was formed so recently. Yet to the Taliban and the international community, Daesh-K’s strength is troubling, especially if the group moves to consolidate additional territories.
Al-Qaeda has been a historic partner of the Taliban. In fact, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was prompted by the Taliban’s unwillingness to turn Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, over to the United States.
But the Taliban’s tight embrace of al-Qaeda in the early 2000s turned Afghanistan into a global pariah. The Taliban has aspirations for international recognition, according to Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former UN coordinator, and it is already likely “embarrassing” to the Taliban that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second leader of al-Qaeda and architect of 9/11, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul.
Thus, al-Qaeda has “strategically camouflaged” its true role in Afghanistan in order to protect the Taliban from political damage and help garner international legitimacy for the group. The Taliban also have an urgent need for international aid—more than 97 percent of Afghanistan is believed to be living below the poverty line, and the country is quickly reaching a tipping point. If benevolent states have legitimate fears that they are directly financing an international attack, the Taliban will lose out on billions.
Nevertheless, the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda continues. Data collected by a UN monitor team in April indicated that Afghanistan is seen as a friendly environment for terror proliferation, despite Taliban promises that the country will remain free of outside terrorist influences. The increased “freedom of action” granted to al-Qaeda has proved invaluable for the group, which seeks “to reclaim its primacy” in the region.
Intelligence regarding the status of al-Qaeda is conflicting, but The New York Times notes that several prominent al-Qaeda figures are thought to be living in Kabul, even following al-Zawahiri’s death. The Taliban, despite promises made in the Doha peace agreements, have allowed al-Qaeda to rebuild the famed recruiting training camps that have produced many high-profile terrorists.
Just as concerning, the Times reports, are the networks of influence given to al-Qaeda by the Taliban. Like the Haqqanis, a few al-Qaeda figures were appointed to oversee administrative duties in various provinces. As time progresses, it is likely that al-Qaeda will begin growing in strength again, thanks to their special and continued relationship with the Taliban.
The al-Qaeda network, weakened since its peak in the early 2000s, has splintered into several regional groups, with the quickest rising being al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). AQIS’ founding in 2014 united various like-minded militants in South Asia under a sort of “regional umbrella organization” that aims to instigate and unite jihadis. AQIS, according to Fitton-Brown, is comprised of several hundred fighters headquartered in Afghanistan, and draws jihadis from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. The majority of recruits are Pakistani, though, and it has consistently pledged its “unconditional loyalty to the Afghan Taliban” from the outset.
AQIS initially emerged as a jihadi competitor to the TTP and has not been shy in issuing criticisms of the group. The group’s leader, emir Usama Mahmoud, has secretly written before that he believes the TTP’s high-casualty attack strategy to be harmful to the Afghan Taliban and its governing aspirations.
AQIS leadership also reportedly believe themselves to be a brigade of the Taliban fighting for its leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and they are frequently identified by the UN as fighting in Taliban combat units. They too attempted to hide their relationship with the Taliban during the Doha negotiations so that U.S. troops would withdraw and the Taliban could rise to power.
AQIS leadership claimed, in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, that they would soon shift their focus from Afghanistan as their goal of a Taliban takeover was realized. They seem committed to their promise to withdraw from Afghanistan operationally, and evidence indicates that that are ramping up propaganda and media efforts in Muslim-majority areas of India and Burma. However, this does not mean they are not an immediate threat to the Afghan people, as leaders and training grounds remain staged in Afghanistan.
The Bigger Picture
Despite several critical missteps, such as reneging on a promise to allow girls to return to school (a move that cost them billions in promised aid), the Taliban’s attempts to garner international legitimacy have not yet yielded significant jihadi attacks tied to Afghanistan. The CTC explains it well- there is a “state builder versus struggle paradigm of Taliban policy formation” that has made governance difficult, especially as the country becomes an increasingly popular breeding ground for Islamic militant groups.
However, even if they were unwilling to directly support terror (although their support for the TTP and al-Qaeda indicates that they remain open to it), it is likely that terror proliferation would happen anyways- according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Afghanistan is a “weak and failing state” that has so-far proved unable to control law and order outside of its immediate sphere of influence. The true dearth of intelligence in Afghanistan and chaotic military organization of the Taliban leaves the country susceptible to terrorist infiltration and unchecked jihadi activity, whether the state is aware and willing, or not.
The UN monitor report published in May on the situation in Afghanistan predicted that terror groups based in Afghanistan, particularly the TTP and Daesh-K, will have developed the capacity to launch a more complex, global attack by 2023- within three months of the writing of this article. Without a more advanced comprehension of the terror situation in Afghanistan, the U.S., other Western nations, and bordering states are left waiting for an attack to come.
The U.S. and other nations must continue to emphasize the importance of counterterrorism in peace talks with the Taliban, and potentially even offer intelligence support in exchange for the fulfillment of basic human rights promises. While certainly an unprecedented move, doing so would likely result in a more peaceful, terror-free world for years to come.
Image courtesy of Voice of America News