The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has been celebrated by jihadists around the world. The Middle East Institute think tank in Washington has described their victory following the US withdrawal as “major win” for jihadi groups, including al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS).
The Taliban’s links to al-Qaida have never been severed, their struggle with IS is far from straightforward, and several other regional jihadist groups can stand to gain from their recent victory.
In a statement, al-Qaida has said that the Taliban’s takeover is a proof that “the Way of Jihad is the only way that leads to victory”.
The Afghan Taliban maintains links with al-Qaida, which is still active throughout the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In a strident demonstration of this fact, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, recently denied that Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11.
Analysts believe that the Taliban will continue to provide covert support to al-Qaida now it is once again in power. But it could also use the presence of al-Qaida as an asset to enhance its interests against the Islamic State, as well as a bargaining chip on the regional and global scene, putting security pressure on different countries to obtain much-needed international assistance.
The presence of active IS cells in Kabul and Kandahar shows their ability to evolve in a country where their movement did not originate, despite their rivalry with the Taliban. The August 26 attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, which killed at least 183 people, demonstrates their powerful ability to strike in the capital. IS terror attacks have continued since the US withdrawl, in Kabul and Kunduz.
IS is also active in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar on the border with Pakistan’s Waziristan province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area. This entire region is a stronghold of jihadism and arms trafficking, and was instrumental to the success of the Taliban themselves. IS is also present in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
Fighters from the former Afghan National Army may be tempted to reinforce IS after being chased out by the Taliban. This process occurred in Iraq, with the national army and the Sahwa, a Sunni militia, both disbanded and sent home, contributing to the appearance of al-Qaida and the Islamic State respectively.
The Taliban follow the Deobandi form of Islam, which originated in India, and IS are Salafists. They are in competition, but nevertheless compatible. They have interconnected networks; employ similar violent methods; have matching enemies; and even maintain indirect contacts through the militant Haqqani group.
Responsible for numerous attacks in Afghanistan, “including the use of death squads for public executions, as well as videos of mass beheadings and brutal assassinations”, the Haqqani group bridges the Taliban and al-Qaida, but also IS. Its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has recently been appointed interior minister of Afghanistan.
If the Taliban adopt a collaborative strategy against IS with foreign powers, they will be seen as weak rulers collaborating with the enemies. In the radical Islamist world, this equates to the ultimate discredit, and might favour jihadi recruitment, financing, and direct action.
On the other hand, if the Taliban choose to become closer with IS to avoid attacks on their soil, the Islamic State will be more or less in al-Qaida’s position before 2001. IS could then use Afghanistan as a base, rule it from behind the scenes, or take it over entirely.
Other regional groups
The new situation in Afghanistan favours radical Sunni organisations in Pakistan.
One such group is Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban. Recently, it absorbed a faction of the Lashkar-e-Janghvi terrorist organisation; the localist group Hizb-ul-Ahrar, which carried out numerous attacks in 2019; the Hakimullah Mehsud Group, a cell from the Federally Administered Tribal Area linked to Al-Qaeda; and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which was affiliated to the Islamic State.
The TTP also recently integrated two sub-groups from al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-continent.
The Pakistani Taliban is thus bringing together forces from both IS and al-Qaida. Intimately allied to the Afghan Taliban, the TTP is refocusing its dynamics on Pakistan rather than calling for a global jihad, but former connections to the two major jiadhi organisations are strong.
Finally, the Turkestan Islamic Party, which runs from Chinese Xinjiang to Syria’s Idleb province might realistically prosper under the new regime in Afghanistan, more or less covertly, as a new pivot between Central Asia, Southern Asia and the Middle East.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to the Taliban is certainly a strategic defeat, for the region, but it is also a full doctrinal setback for counterterrorism. At the centre of Asia, this new platform for regional and global jihadi groups leaves the international community without any reliable solution to prevent the foreseeable fallout of this broader security threat.