Following the withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban’s swift and summary takeover of Afghanistan territory and political leadership has left many wondering what their return to power means for international jihadism.
The last time the Taliban were in power, they ruled Afghanistan in a notoriously brutal manner and harboured al-Qaida – a transnational jihadist movement that conducted the largest terrorist attack in history against the United States – prompting the US invasion in 2001 and two decades of military involvement that came to its ignominious end just a few short days ago.
The Taliban leadership is eager to assuage the fears of Afghan civilians and the international community, who remember all too well what happened the last time the Taliban were in power. People are understandably questioning the prospects of al-Qaida and the risk of international jihadist terrorism more broadly.
The return of the Taliban will be a boon for international jihadism in a number of ways.
First it is an important victory for al-Qaida. US Secretary of State Antony Blinkin has said that “it’s not in their self-interest” to allow al-Qaida to use Afghanistan as a base for international terrorist attacks, as it did during the late nineties and early 2000s.
Those that downplay the Taliban Al-Qaida ties are banking on the Taliban’s desire for international legitimacy and their need for international aid to continue to flow into the country.
However, they are ignoring the fact that the Taliban and al-Qaida have their own “special relationship” that goes beyond transactional self interest.
Despite two decades of military onslaught the Coalition was never able to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida completely and the Taliban have not relinquished their ties with al-Qaida in exchange for greater political power at any of the many attempts at negotiation. They are deeply aligned with ideology and a vision of Islamic governance.
Not only are the Taliban and al-Qaida ideologically aligned, al-Qaida members in Afghanistan have melded into the Taliban over the ensuing decades of the US ‘global war on terror’ .
Former al-Qaida foreign fighters have become permanent residents in Afghanistan, solidifying their relationship through intermarriage and joint combat experience.
According to assessments from both the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team and the US Inspector General , the Taliban still continue to maintain active ties with al-Qaida despite publicly denying this fact.
At the moment al-Qaida is laying low, waiting for future guidance from the Taliban as they consolidate control and ensure the foreign troop withdrawal is complete.
But according to the head of US Central Command, Gen Kenneth McKenzie, “left unmolested [al-Qaeda] are certainly going to rebuild, re-strengthen themselves, and we have no reason to doubt they…want to attack us in our homeland”.
With a renewed safe haven in Afghanistan, al-Qaida have space, infrastructure, fighters and arms to plot a comeback and execute international terrorist campaigns around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Afghanistan can once again become a country jihadist foreign fighters can flock to in large numbers.
Second, the return of the Taliban will animate another lodestar of the jihadist movement – Islamic State – a rival to al-Qaida. The Taliban and al-Qaida also need to contend with other competing jihadists in their midst, including a faction of Isis known as Islamic State in Khorasan (ISISK), which has increased its attacks in the past few months in anticipation of a US withdrawal.
The Taliban have taken over much of the country, but it has not yet solidified its total control. Though it appears to have the upper hand and are projecting an image of strength – consolidating their control of all of Afghanistan, ensuring security and governing the country will be no easy task. There are ungoverned spaces and grievances aplenty in Afghanistan. This provides an opening for rival jihadist movements like ISISK to operate.
While some jihadist groups, particularly those that are al-Qaida affiliated, are celebrating the Taliban’s return , some are already critical and could seek to engage in attacks to signal their continued relevance and siphon jihadist supporters, who may believe that al-Qaida and the Taliban are putting their political ambitions in Afghanistan ahead of their ideological principals of jihad.
ISISK is banking on recruiting future disenfranchised Taliban members and other extremists, should the Taliban offer too many immediate concessions to keep the international aid flowing and maintain a semblance of the Afghan civil service they will need to govern.
Third in a broader sense, the Taliban victory vindicates the strategic patience of the jihadist movement. The dishonourable and chaotic manner in which the United States departed Afghanistan, abandoning its partners in the Afghan military and the callousness with which it considered the security of Afghan civilians, was a huge propaganda boost to the jihadist cause.
The message was clear – the United States and the Coalition are unreliable partners, never cared about nation building and all you have to do to defeat the United States and other forces opposing a global caliphate and jihadist rule is to wait them out.
Despite President Biden’s assurances that the United States has “over the horizon” counterterrorism capabilities – the withdrawal of US troops has significantly reduced its capability to monitor and counter jihadist activity out of Afghanistan and in the surrounding region.
There won’t likely be an immediate heightened risk of terrorism by jihadist actors out of the region targeting the West. But it will not be because the Taliban has mellowed or eschewed the jihadist cause. Right now the Taliban are laser focused on consolidating control and through a calculated strategic communications campaign are projecting a pragmatic image and obfuscating their ties to al-Qaida in the quest for legitimacy and recognition.
But the risk of terrorism – particularly in the region – will increase as developments in Afghanistan solidify. Already the Pakistani Taliban are buoyed by the success across the border and will redouble their efforts against the Pakistani state. China especially is concerned about the heightened risk of jihadist and militant activity out of Afghanistan with the Taliban in control and US troops gone.
Unfortunately, there is risk either way – whether the Taliban successfully retain control or whether they meet sustained opposition from the Afghan people and anti Taliban forces – that the security situation deteriorates.
On the one hand, should the Taliban remain in control, al-Qaida is guaranteed a safe haven and the Taliban’s hard-line elements, not their public relations men, will come to the fore.
On the other, if the Taliban meet sustained opposition and civil conflict erupts, Afghanistan is once again plunged into sustained violence and chaos and jihadist actors can exploit these conditions as they always do and operate in the ungoverned spaces.
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