When al-Qaida perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, the immediate response from within the group, not to speak of the broader militant Islamist movement, was not unanimously positive. Senior leaders including Said al-Adl and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani opposed the strikes out of strategic concerns. Nonetheless, it was the attacks against the US homeland that catapulted al-Qaida from being one among several militant Islamist groups in the region to become the indisputable banner carrier of Jihadis worldwide. Similarly, the capture of Mosul — and the ensuing declaration of the caliphate — was the Islamic State’s kodak moment that — alongside its geographical expansion — represented its overcoming of al-Qaida as the pioneer of Jihad. These monumental events were not only tactical and central victories for the respective groups’ standing within the militant Islamist movement: they were also integral to their ability to recruit and mobilize supporters over a number of years. They became the central pieces of their respective narratives.
The Taliban’s swift conquest of Afghanistan is likely to represent yet another milestone in the Jihadi movement’s evolution and one that will have an equally significant impact on the movement’s future. This is particularly so because — besides the Islamic State’s short rendered territorial caliphate in the Levant — the Taliban’s victory represents the first tangible proof that Jihad is a viable solution to achieve political ambitions. And Jihadis certainly have not been slow to stress this point.
In a string of public statements, al-Qaida and its affiliates have lauded the Taliban and its victory. In addition to reiterating Mullah Umar’s famous quote that ‘Bush has promised me with defeat, and Allah has promised me with victory, and we will see which of the two promises are true,’ al-Qaida has highlighted that the Taliban’s victory proves that Jihad is the solution.
Al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate, AQAP, was the first stating “this victory and empowerment reveals that jihad and fighting represent the Shariah-based, legal, and realistic way to restore rights, expel the invaders and occupiers, make Allah the almighty’s word supreme on earth and restore the ummah’s glory and honour.” In a statement echoing their colleagues in Yemen, al-Qaida groups in the Sahel and in the Indian Subcontinent argued respectively that “one of the greatest lessons one can draw from what happened in Afghanistan is that jihad is the only way for the ummah to emerge from the pit of humiliation to the peak of glory” and ”the message in the Islamic Emirate’s victory for all Muslims is that the only way to confront and defend against the attack of the oppressors and the aggressor forces is to fight jihad and join the battlefields.” Finally, al-Qaida Central concluded that “These events prove that the way of Jihad is the only way that leads to victory and empowerment.”
For al-Qaida and various other militant Islamist groups, apart from the Islamic State (at least that is how the group frames it in its public communication), the conquest of Afghanistan will strengthen the belief in their own holy wars. Militants in the Sahel, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Gaza, and Pakistan have fought long wars with mixed success; as such, the Taliban’s accomplishment adds much needed belief, and tangible reference, that Jihad is worthwhile. While the situation in Afghanistan might differ much from other countries, particularly in terms of the national army’s capacity and the more general popular support for Islamist policies, there will be important lessons to learn for other Jihadi insurgencies.
One thing that we should expect to materialise sooner rather than later is the application of the victory in Afghanistan as a cornerstone in future efforts to promote and mobilize for militancy. In fact, it already started with a range of militant groups and sympathizers praising the Taliban, its steadfastness and dedication to establish an Islamic state. And there are reasons to fear that this particular event will have a long-lasting impact on the Jihadi movement.
Jihadis are desperately in need of successes, especially relating to the realization of political ambitions. One shortcoming of Jihadism is that its proponents always have remained rather vague about their ultimate objectives. Besides the first Taliban government between 1996 and 2001, only the Islamic State’s declared caliphate in the Levant from 2014 to 2019 offers insights into what society Jihadis fight for. Yet Afghanistan anno 2021 represents another episode of the realization of Jihadis’ political project.
For those still engaged in Jihadi insurgencies around the globe — or for the individuals supporting the Jihadi project through other means — witnessing the outcome of what they fight for is certainly not irrelevant as it is likely to instil renewed enthusiasm. It brings a dimension of the ‘possibility of success’, one that generally has remained theoretical rather than empirically founded.
A question is how Jihadis in other parts of the world might employ the example of the Taliban in their own insurgencies. The context of the conflict in Afghanistan differs in so many ways from other conflicts that Jihadis in the Sahel, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, or Mozambique cannot expect to simply replicate a swift takeover. The impact is likely to be more indirect and come in two forms: as a moral boost to fighters already mobilized, injecting in them further incentives to continue fighting while acknowledging the necessity of being patient and steadfast. And as a way to attract new recruits wanting to be part of a new, successful Jihadi campaign in other parts of the world.
In terms of foreign fighters, one should expect considerable numbers joining the groups present in Afghanistan, but my hypothesis is that many of those fighters will migrate from other battlefields seeking to live a peaceful life in an Islamic state. In any case, there is little risk that Afghanistan will see anywhere near the scope of foreign fighters that travelled to Syria and Iraq from 2012 onwards. While al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Afghanistan would welcome foreigners, the Taliban would likely be more hesitant, and its nationally focused ideology does not have the same attraction compared to global Jihad. Additionally, Afghanistan does not offer a particularly hospitable environment to live in. Outside the Arab world, with its rough geography and indigenous cultural habits, the country is no dream destination for new recruits.
The Taliban has won its war – for now – and eyes should promptly turn to its close allies in al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban who will attempt to take advantage of the hospitable situation in Afghanistan while utilizing the inspiration drawn from the Taliban’s example to stimulate their own military campaigns in Pakistan and across the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. The impact will not only be felt in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s victory but is likely to be defining for the Jihadi movement in years to come.