Bombing in Kabul Stokes Fear of Jihadi Revival
(Bloomberg) -- The explosions outside Kabul’s international airport underscored a familiar worry in Afghanistan: the country remains home to thousands of fighters dedicated to jihad, or Muslim holy war. The South Asian country’s rugged landscape and its 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) border with Pakistan makes it an ideal hiding place for militants from al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other groups. The fear is that the victory of the Taliban has only increased the dangers. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the two blasts that killed 12 U.S. service members and at least 75 Afghans as the U.S. directed a military-led evacuation.
1. What is Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan?
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which emerged from an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq into an even more radical group, announced the formation of an Afghan franchise in January 2015. The affiliate, known as ISIS Khorasan, for an historical region stretching across parts of Asia and the Middle East, was formed largely by defectors from the Taliban and Tehrik-e Taliban, a group dedicated to the overthrow of Pakistan’s government. The affiliate, also called ISIS-K, was nearly wiped out from its main base in eastern Afghanistan in late 2019 by U.S. and Afghan military offensives and, separately, the Taliban. But around 2,000 fighters remain, according to a report by a United Nations Security Council committee, which attributed 77 attacks in the country to the group in the first four months of 2021.
2. How does Islamic State relate to the Taliban?
The movements are at odds. They have fought over territory and doctrinal differences. Islamic State, which views the Muslim world as one entity that should be united under a single caliph, or Islamic ruler, lambasts the Taliban for being a nationalist movement and for being too tolerant of Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslim minority, who are anathema to Islamic State. In its propaganda, Islamic State excoriated the Taliban for reaching a deal with the U.S. in 2020, under which it pledged not to allow any group to use Afghanistan to threaten the security of the U.S. or its allies, in exchange for a commitment for the withdrawal of all U.S. and allied troops. In a newsletter, Islamic State denounced the Taliban for taking the “Crusaders” as their “new allies” and said it wouldn’t stop attacking the Americans in Afghanistan.
3. Why are so many jihadis in Afghanistan?
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and installed a Marxist puppet regime, thousands of Muslims especially from the Arab world converged on the country to help their co-religionists expel the foreigners in the name of jihad. Even after a 20-year intervention in Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies, the region is still a magnet for extremists “due to its symbolic prominence in the jihadi mythology, its remote geography and rugged terrain, and its weak governments,” according to a report from the U.S. Institute of Peace, an institute funded by the U.S. Congress devoted to resolving conflicts. “They combine to make it hard to conduct counter-terrorism operations there and, therefore, make it attractive to extremist groups.”
4. What’s al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan today?
For the most part, Taliban spokesmen deny that there any al-Qaeda fighters remaining in Afghanistan. But the UN report describes an al-Qaeda force in Afghanistan ranging from several dozen to 500 men, with a leadership residing in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Al-Qaeda itself has confirmed its armed presence in the country, reporting in its weekly Thabat newspaper on operations in 18 provinces since 2020. According to the UN report, the main contact between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is through the Haqqani Network, a battle-hardened semi-autonomous component of the Taliban. It is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is thought to also be a member of al-Qaeda’s leadership.
5. What’s the history between al-Qaeda and the Taliban?
The late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, was among those who fought alongside the Afghans against the Soviets. The two groups share a radical interpretation of Islam and commitment to establishing Islamic government. The Taliban offered sanctuary to bin Laden in 1996, during a 5-year stint when it controlled the country. In 1998, while still based in Afghanistan, bin Laden declared war on the U.S. and its allies. Al-Qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania later that year, a U.S. warship in Yemen in 2000 and finally the U.S. homeland in the 2001, attacks that struck devastatingly at symbols of American financial and political power. It’s been estimated, that al-Qaeda paid the Taliban roughly $20 million a year for allowing the group to operate from its land. When the Taliban refused to extradite bin Laden after the 2001 attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
6. What do we know about their relationship now?
In February 2020 the administration of then U.S. President Donald Trump signed the peace deal with the Taliban aimed at winding down the longest conflict in American history. In negotiations preceding the deal, the Taliban refused U.S. demands to sever ties with al-Qaeda, agreeing only to prevent groups from using Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks. According to the UN report, to avoid exposing the relationship, the Taliban have minimized overt communications with al-Qaeda and have moved the group’s members to remote areas. The Taliban had also tightened its control over the group by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them.
7. What about other jihadists?
According to the UN report, there are approximately 8,000 to 10,000 foreign jihadists in Afghanistan. The majority are affiliated with the Taliban, many are allied with al-Qaeda or Islamic State, and the rest support insurgencies in their homelands in Central Asia, the north Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region of China.
The Reference Shelf
- Related QuickTakes on the Afghanistan’s wars, sharia law and the status of women in Afghanistan.
- A report by the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team on threats to peace and security in Afghanistan.
- A report by West Point’s Modern War Institute on the connections between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
- A paper by the U.S. Institute for peace on possible pathways to peace for Afghanistan.
- A U.S. Treasury Department report containing information on connections between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
- The U.S. State Department’s version of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.