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This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 19 August 2021.
Commentary in the international press including from members of the counter-terrorism and academic communities seems to be divided on whether the Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda will change now it is in power. Specifically, if the Taliban will renounce global jihad to get international recognition, or if under its leadership Afghanistan will again become a major exporter of militant jihadist threats.
In light of all this, clients have asked us what effect the takeover may have on the terrorist threat globally, both in the immediate and longer term. Our assessment is that the near-term impact is likely to be limited, beyond contributing to the resolve of militants engaged in ongoing insurgencies. There are a few exceptions; we assess that there is reasonable potential for the threat to rise in Bangladesh and Pakistan, given the existing strengths of militant connections between Afghanistan and those countries.
Global jihadism is not a priority for most Taliban leaders and fighters. But for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan presents an opportunity to deepen and re-build its networks to fulfil its long-held objective of mounting attacks in the West. We are also fairly confident, not least because of divisions within the Taliban, in forecasting that Afghanistan will again become a more permissive environment for jihadists. And that this will become a defining feature of the networked global jihadist threat over the long term, even though we assess that radicalised individual actors will continue to be the primary form in which the jihadist threat materialises in the West over the next few years.
The Taliban and Al-Qaeda have close ties; UN reports in recent years have consistently shown that Al-Qaeda members live in Taliban-controlled areas and are linked by marriage and ideology. A UN report from May 2020 also said that groups met several times to discuss ‘operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for Al-Qaeda’ in Afghanistan. And in an indication of the Taliban’s duplicity, there have been several recent incidents in which Al-Qaeda members have been killed alongside Taliban fighters, including in March this year, despite claiming that there are ‘no foreign fighters in areas under our control’.
Despite recent statements by the Taliban that they will uphold their commitment not to harbour foreign militants, we disagree with some recent commentary in the international press that suggests the Taliban in government will pursue a different strategy on foreign fighters than it has followed while running an insurgency. The Taliban’s ideology appears to have changed very little, even if it has become better at making it appear more moderate.
In our analysis, the Taliban probably only agreed with the US not to allow other militants to operate from Afghanistan simply to ensure the US troop withdrawal. Given the depths of Al-Qaeda-Taliban ties and moral obligations to provide refuge under the Pashtunwali tribal code it seems highly unlikely that the Taliban would take a more hostile stance to foreign militants even as it seeks to establish itself as a legitimate government.
Nor do we assess that signs that the Taliban has begun tightening their control over foreign jihadists in Afghanistan are an indication that the group will significantly curtail their activities. The UN report on terrorism from June said that the Taliban has begun gathering information and forbidding such groups from launching independent operations. And a former spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban posted on social media in September 2020 a document that was reportedly issued by the Afghan Taliban entitled ‘Instructions for Control and Supervision of Refugees’.
In our analysis, these rules are mainly aimed to help the Taliban to maintain plausible deniability around the actions of foreign fighters, rather than because they want to significantly curtail their activities. The Taliban has imposed similar restrictions on foreign militants in the past, while also allowing them to set up training camps and use their territory to plan and prepare attacks. For instance, the same instruction document mandates foreign groups to only use the Taliban flag to ‘prevent suspicions’. And factionalism within the Taliban itself is likely to be a major challenge in enforcing any restrictions.
The Taliban victory seems to have already given a major boost to the morale of Al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist extremist groups. Several jihadist groups across South Asia, MENA and sub-Saharan Africa have issued statements celebrating the Taliban’s victory and drawing parallels with the resolve of their own militants in fighting similarly lengthy insurgencies. But we doubt that this alone will substantially change the dynamics of ongoing conflicts, for example in Syria, Mali or Somalia in the near to medium term.
Under its current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda has sought to support local affiliates, such as AQAP or JNIM, in their fight to overthrow states in the countries where they are active. Based on the group’s actions over the last decade, including in Syria, it has two overlapping motivations for this. The first is because the group believes that these states are un-Islamic, and the second is because sympathetic states would in turn enable it to plan and execute attacks against the far enemy; the West. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan provides Al-Qaeda with the chance to advance both strands of this strategy.
Taliban control of Afghanistan will almost certainly bring several practical advantages to Al-Qaeda-linked groups, even though we anticipate that the Taliban will not necessarily provide overt backing to them. These include revenue (such as taxation and illicit trade in drugs and minerals), state-issued travel documents, territory and arms for training, and access to neighbouring countries. We forecast that it will seek to share these resources with affiliates globally, both to assist them in their local struggles and also with the aim of creating other pockets of territory from which Al-Qaeda can operate.
Based on these factors, the profile of some foreign fighters present in Afghanistan and geographic proximity, militants will probably be able to mount more frequent attacks in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan beyond the coming year. This is primarily because there are already members of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and Pakistani Taliban operating in the country. And because militants improving their skills would still require a network and infrastructure that will enable them to travel or procure weaponry. Given the relative infrequency of attacks in India in recent years, it is there where this would have the greatest impact.
The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, therefore, presents yet another opportunity for Al-Qaeda to rebuild its networks with the long-term aim of mounting attacks in the West, including Europe. However, many Western governments have become much more able to detect and prevent internationalised plots over the last two decades. For instance, intelligence-sharing has expanded considerably, and there have been major advances in border and aviation security. No Western state has issued threat warnings in light of the Taliban takeover, and we forecast that it will take years for this threat to materialise in the West.
Image: Afghan militia fighters keep a watch at an outpost against Taliban insurgents in Charkint district in Balkh Province in July 2021. Photo by Farshad Usyan/AFP via Getty Images