In Taliban’s Afghanistan, opportunity for Al Qaeda, ISIS

Reuters
Armed Taliban men drink tea as the militant group's forces block the roads around the airport after Thursday's attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 27, 2021.

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Back in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are reiterating anti-terrorism pledges made 25 years ago, five years before 9/11. But with Taliban forces patrolling Kabul, a suicide bomber on Thursday inflicted the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a decade.

At a minimum, the attack underscores how the Taliban have failed to stop an Islamic State faction operating within Afghanistan’s borders from attacking U.S. targets, terrorism experts say. Moreover, they add, the Taliban’s factional divisions and differences between leadership and foot soldiers leave open the possibility that more radical Taliban elements could facilitate terror attacks.

Why We Wrote This

As it negotiated its exit from Afghanistan, the U.S. relied, in part, on Taliban pledges to curb terrorism. The Kabul attack underscores experts’ doubts about the militants’ abilities, and intentions.

“As the Taliban tries to consolidate power, it’s going to be tested,” says Nathan Sales, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. “The security vacuums that are going to develop ... will create opportunities for ISIS to thrive in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, experts stress that the Taliban maintain a close partnership with Al Qaeda as well as ties with many other Islamic extremist groups they are not inclined to expel.

“The group that harbored Al Qaeda ... which gave us 9/11, and refused to hand over bin Laden – they’re right now back where they were two decades ago,” Ambassador Sales says. “We should never trust the Taliban when American lives are at stake.”

Twenty-five years ago, when the Taliban first took power in Afghanistan, the militants held a press conference to declare their opposition to terrorism and spreading radical Islam.

“Regarding international terrorism, we are totally against that,” Mohammed Stanakzai, then deputy foreign minister of the Taliban’s provisional government, said in October 1996, vowing to “punish” any troublemakers, according to news accounts.

Yet five years later, Al Qaeda used its base and training camps in Afghanistan to help orchestrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Four civilian airliners were hijacked – two that felled the World Trade Center, a third that crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

Why We Wrote This

As it negotiated its exit from Afghanistan, the U.S. relied, in part, on Taliban pledges to curb terrorism. The Kabul attack underscores experts’ doubts about the militants’ abilities, and intentions.

Now the Taliban are back in power in Kabul, again pledging not to allow any group, including Al Qaeda, to use Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.

But on the Taliban’s watch, and with their forces patrolling Kabul, a suicide bomber on Thursday inflicted the biggest mass-casualty attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a decade – and one of the heaviest losses of American lives in a single attack of the war. An Islamic State terrorist affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan, a “sworn enemy” of the Taliban, claimed responsibility.

Thirteen American service members, and according to reports Friday, a staggering 169 Afghans, were killed in the attack at Kabul airport. And there reportedly are warnings that more attacks in Kabul are possible.

At a minimum, the attack Thursday underscores how the Taliban have failed to stop a terrorist group operating within Afghanistan’s borders from attacking U.S. targets, terrorism experts say. Moreover, they add, the Taliban’s factional divisions and differences between leadership and foot soldiers leave open the possibility that more radical Taliban elements could facilitate terror attacks.

Security vacuums

“ISIS-Khorasan and the Taliban are ... sworn enemies ... but that doesn’t mean that the Taliban has the wherewithal to keep ISIS under control,” says Nathan Sales, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“As the Taliban tries to consolidate power, it’s going to be tested in its ability to provide security in the country,” he says. “The security vacuums that are going to develop under Taliban control will create opportunities for ISIS to thrive in Afghanistan.”

Rahmat Gul/AP
Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 19, 2021. As the group tries to consolidate power, terrorist groups could thrive in security vacuums that are created, experts warn.

Meanwhile, the terrorism experts stress that the Taliban maintain a close partnership with Al Qaeda as well as ties with many other Islamic extremist groups they are not inclined to expel.

“We should never trust the Taliban when American lives are at stake,” Ambassador Sales says.

A case in point, he says: A Taliban spokesperson said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that there is “no proof” that Osama bin Laden was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, despite documentation that the Al Qaeda leader, killed by Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011, plotted the strikes.

“The group that harbored Al Qaeda ... which gave us 9/11, and refused to hand over bin Laden – they’re right now back where they were two decades ago,” Ambassador Sales says. “The new Taliban is the same as the old Taliban.”

ISIS-K’s fingerprints

Experts said the attack Thursday bore the hallmarks of ISIS-K, which was founded in 2015 and headquartered in Afghanistan’s Khorasan province.

“It was low-tech, complex ... and makes the Taliban appear too weak to control their own territory,” says Douglas London, former CIA counterterrorism chief for South and southwest Asia. “They have been a particularly resilient organization because they have decentralized and have multiple small and independent cells,” he says.

President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. military to plan operations to hit ISIS-K “assets, leadership, and facilities” whenever and wherever the U.S. government chooses. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said at a press conference Thursday.

Mr. Biden stressed that ISIS-K is “an archenemy of the Taliban,” and said there was no evidence of collusion between the two groups. The Taliban also condemned the attack. Yet while the Taliban have battled against ISIS-K for years and seek to crush it as a competing organization, experts say, they have so far failed to do so.

AP/File
Relatives pray at a funeral for one of three women working for a local radio and TV station who were killed in attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, March 3, 2021. The coordinated killings were part of a campaign targeting journalists.

And while the Taliban oppose ISIS-K, they have long-standing, close ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups present in Afghanistan that they have fought alongside and are highly unlikely to abandon, experts say.

More than a partner, “Al Qaeda is integrated into the Taliban, literally intermarried into the Taliban at all sorts of levels into the second generation of Al Qaeda kids” born in Afghanistan since the 1980s, says Mr. London. “The Taliban is not going to go after family members.”

Haqqani network

The Taliban have relied heavily on Al Qaeda for funding in the past, and continue to depend on it for expertise, including the training of the Taliban’s elite fighting elements, such as their “red units,” he says. While Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has dwindled, it has between several dozen and 500 fighters across about 15 provinces, according to a United Nations report in June.

“Large numbers of Al Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan,” the report said.

“It is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” it concluded, noting how “Al Qaeda and like-minded militants continue to celebrate developments in Afghanistan as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global radicalism.”

The Taliban group with the closest ties to Al Qaeda is the Haqqani network, considered the Taliban’s most combat-ready force, which has reportedly taken charge of security in Kabul. Some intelligence indicates tactical collaboration may exist based on personal ties between members of the Haqqani network and ISIS-K commanders, according to the U.N. report.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan escalates the risk of a resurgence of terrorist groups in the country, posing dangers to neighboring countries – including Pakistan – as well as to the rest of the world, experts say, especially in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal.

That risk is one reason nations should not formally recognize the Taliban government, they say.

“The Taliban-Al Qaeda terrorist syndicate has returned to Kabul,” says Bradley Bowman, director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Military and Political Power in Washington. “If you recognize the Taliban, you’re essentially recognizing Al Qaeda.”

Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report.

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