The twenty-year war in Afghanistan (2001 to 2021) has come to an end. This latest conflict was shaped by two fronts: a more explicit one, pitting a long-lasting Taliban insurgency against foreign armies and a national government, which the fundamentalist movement deemed illegitimate; and another, less manifest one, embodied in the struggle to counter jihadist terrorism which has taken root in the country and which is pursued by different groups and acronyms.
Today, the world must find a way to deal with a victorious Taliban who not only gained the upper hand on the battlefield but also learned how to efficiently exploit the digital ecosystem with a view to influencing public opinion within and outside Afghanistan. However, the group now faces the hurdle of running a country, and the outcome of this latest endeavor is still uncertain.
One of the main difficulties resides in the movement’s heterogeneous make-up. With Kabul under nominal control of the Taliban, internal divisions are becoming more evident, with factions competing over a power-sharing deal which is expected to accommodate personal and group ambitions. A further question mark hovers over the Taliban’s ability to acknowledge a profoundly changed Afghan civil society and over the extent to which the Taliban political arm will be able to rein in a younger generation of fighters who have been exposed to global jihadist ideologies, brands, objectives, and tactics. Their ranks could swell with a Taliban diaspora, depending on Taliban choices in matters of politics and security (i.e., as pertains to the preservation of women’s rights and roles, ethnic and religious inclusiveness, and overt or covert alliances with former enemies in the war against the so-called Islamic State).
However, the Taliban — who have not shied away from crushing dissent within their own ranks — essentially retain the characteristics of a coherent and internally collaborative movement. A characteristic which stands in stark contrast to a constellation of other jihadist groups enlisting an increasing number of veteran foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq.
In practical terms, the insurrectional front is estimated to include about forty different militant groups, some organized into political factions, others based on tribal or ethnic affiliations. Hence, the difficulty lies in being able to evaluate how many mujahideen actually operate on the battlefield. In 2007, military intelligence sources provided a figure ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 elements — swelling to 15,000 as per Pakistani sources, who included Pashtun tribal militias in their calculations. In February 2009, the Afghan Ministry of Interior estimated that overall, anti-government and jihadi groups’ fighters could number 10-15,000.
According to U.S. intelligence, prior to the final offensive which led to the fall of Kabul, the figure stood at around 60,000 active militants out of about 200,000 total elements. A number thought to have increased by a few tens of thousands over the months preceding the Taliban conquest, through the recruitment of new mujahideen among both Pashtun and non-Pashtun communities and thanks to an efficient, de-centralized organization based on an autonomous, "compartmentalised”, and tactically flexible approach.
The Taliban’s DNA: supra-tribal ideology and tradition
The Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun movement yet, thanks to ties and agreements at the local level, it has managed to involve other ethnic groups as well. Based on a dense network of affiliations, rooted in a form of Islamism steeped in tribal tradition and with a generic reference to the experience of jihad against the Soviets, the Taliban movement has fought with the objective of returning to power in Afghanistan.
According to experts Thomas Ruttig and Antonio Giustozzi, the Taliban movement rests on a dual nature: structural and ideological. It can be described as an organization characterised by a vertical structure, which over the years morphed into a central "shadow" state, defined by a supra-tribal and supra-ethnic ideology which can accommodate "nationalistic" aspirations. But the movement is also defined by a horizontal network structure deeply rooted in the segmented Pashtun tribal society.
The movement can be viewed as a ‘network of networks’: religious, tribal, and regional factors merge with the organizational principles of the Taliban who, politically, aim at building a state which overcomes tribal limitations in favour of a "national" outreach and the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate (the official name by which they always went by). If the Taliban share a nationalist drive, they are, however, no irredentist Pashtuns seeking re-unification of Pashtun areas: their supra-tribal ideology leaves room for the inclusion of non-Pashtun communities, an approach which has helped them win "hearts and minds" of non-Pashtun peoples, such as those living in the Northern and Western provinces.
For the Taliban — unlike other militant Islamist groups whose progressive growth represents a forthcoming challenge for Afghanistan — religion serves as an umbrella accommodating different communities: as such, the combination of vertical (religious / ideological) and horizontal (tribal) structures is supposed to have given the Taliban a high level of cohesion and strong organizational effectiveness.
al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K) and other terror groups operating in Afghanistan 
Afghanistan risks becoming a haven for militant groups, including Pakistani Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, who carried out the devastating 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and could continue their offensive against Indian targets in Afghanistan. Other terror groups are or will likely be operating in — and from — the country, above all the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) and al-Qaeda, which can also count on its regional franchise, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
As periodically reported by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the top echelon or “core” AQ leadership has been a primary U.S. target in Afghanistan since 2001. This includes AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his deputies. In September 2019, the White House announced that U.S. forces had killed Hamza bin Laden, son of AQ founder Osama bin Laden and a rising leader in the group, “in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.” U.S. officials have argued that U.S. raids and airstrikes on AQ targets, including a large training camp uncovered in Kandahar province in 2015, have reduced AQ presence in Afghanistan. An April 2021 report from the Department of Defense (DoD) estimated that AQ core leaders in Afghanistan “pose a limited threat”, because they “focus primarily on survival.”
The U.S.-Taliban agreement commits the Taliban to preventing any group, including al-Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. Taliban-AQ links have been reinforced by their shared battle against international forces in Afghanistan as well as through intermarriage and other personal bonds among members of the two groups. As reported in a United Nations (UN) report in April 2021, AQ and the Taliban “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” The Taliban reportedly issued orders in February 2021, barring their members from sheltering foreign fighters, but do not otherwise appear to have taken tangible steps in the direction of severing ties with AQ.
AQ reacted positively to the agreement with the U.S., with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and, consequently, for global militancy; AQ sympathizers celebrated the Taliban’s takeover, while the Taliban reportedly freed prisoners, including AQ members. Following the fall of Kabul, the al-Qaeda leadership issued a dense, two-page statement on Afghanistan, congratulating the Islamic Emirate and framing it as an achievement for Afghans and the ‘umma’ (the global Muslim community); a result which, according to their propaganda, “proves” jihad is the right strategy to pursue, while “predicting” more victories ahead. What emerges from AQ affiliates’ statements all over the world is the belief that the establishment of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan heralds wider triumphs and a new era of what they see as Islamic rule, validating jihad as the way forward and exposing the “democracy game” and peaceful means as illusory.
In addition, with the return of the Taliban in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, it is assessed that al-Qaeda could exploit the situation to regroup, enhancing the risk that Afghanistan will once again turn into a recruitment and training ground for jihadi terror groups. A fear which is corroborated by the recent return of Amin-ul-Haq, a major al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and former aide of Osama bin Laden, to his native Nangarhar province.
Last but not least, relations between the Taliban — especially the Haqqani Network (HQN, see below) — and AQ remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has reportedly solidified its presence in Afghanistan by embedding fighters in the Taliban. In September 2014, AQ leader al-Zawahiri announced the creation of this formal, separate AQ affiliate in South Asia.
According to the Congressional Research Service, differentiating between AQ and AQIS is a difficult task, but some key distinctions exist. Essentially, AQIS, in compliance with the ‘franchise’ model, establishes itself as an attempt by AQ to maintain a more durable presence in the region by enhancing links with local actors, prompted in part by the relocation of some AQ leaders to Syria. Former AQIS leader Asim Umar, who was being “sheltered” by Taliban forces when he was killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Afghanistan (September 2019), was an Indian national with deep roots in Pakistan; while AQ core leaders are predominantly Arab.
According to the April 2021 U.S. DoD report, AQIS threatened U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a reflection of the group’s cooperation with the Taliban, but likely lacked the means to conduct attacks outside the region.
Islamic State - Khorasan Province (IS-K)
The self-styled Islamic State announced the creation of its Afghan affiliate in January 2015, but steps in this direction had already been taken in late 2014. IS-K once concentrated in Nangarhar, an Eastern Afghanistan province bordering Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There, IS-K was mostly comprised of former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, see below) militants who fled Pakistani army operations in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after mid-2014. Arguably one of the Islamic State’s most successful affiliates, IS-K was “nearly eradicated” from its main base in Eastern Afghanistan in late 2019 by U.S. and Afghan military offensives and, separately, the Taliban. An IS-K contingent in Northern Afghanistan was similarly defeated in 2018. These territorial losses have forced the group to “de-centralize” according to UN sanctions’ monitors, who assess the group has around 2,000 fighters located primarily in the East but also in Northern Afghanistan. A number of IS-K leaders have been killed in U.S. strikes or captured by Afghan forces since 2016. IS-K remains a threat, and recent attacks attributed to the group — in particular the Kabul airport attacks in late August 2021 — indicate a high level of operational resilience and capabilities. In addition to attacks against civilians, the U.S., and the Taliban during the US withdrawal from Kabul, IS-K has claimed previous large-scale bombings, mainly targeting Afghanistan’s Shia minority.
IS-K and Taliban forces have sometimes fought over control of territory or due to political and other differences; currently, the two groups oppose each other both on the ideological level and on the battlefield. Upon taking power in August 2021, the Taliban reportedly executed an imprisoned former IS-K leader. It is assessed that Taliban hardliners – in particular, elements belonging to the HQN and young radicals – might defect to IS-K if Taliban leaders compromise on certain issues as they transition to governance.
The Haqqani Network is an official, semi-autonomous branch of the Afghan Taliban with solid ties to AQ. It was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani (who died in 2018), a leading anti-Soviet Islamist commander who became a prominent Taliban official and a key leader in the post-2001 insurgency.
The group’s current leader is Sirajuddin Haqqani (Jalaluddin’s son), who has also served as deputy leader of the Taliban since 2015. Sirajuddin’s appointment to lead the network likely strengthened cooperation between the Taliban and AQ. The HQN is thought to be a “primary liaison” between the Taliban and AQ and, according to reports, there might have been some recent form of cooperation between the HQN and IS-K elements in conducting complex suicide attacks in Kabul. It should be borne in mind that the HQN was the main driving force behind the deadliest attacks which took place during the war in Afghanistan.
Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has distinctive anti-Pakistan objectives. As confirmed by the Congressional Research Service, TTP is reportedly operating in and from Afghanistan, with thousands of fighters, alongside the Afghan Taliban. In 2014, some TTP members pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and subsequently relocated to Eastern Afghanistan in response to Pakistani army operations that mostly drove the group from its safe havens in the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Reunification between core TTP and some former splinter groups (possibly facilitated by AQ) since 2020 has swelled the group’s ranks. Some TTP members operating in Syria under the IS-K umbrella returned to Afghanistan together with Arab jihadist elements: this possibly substantiates the risk that Afghan soil might turn into a safe haven for global jihadi groups. It is assessed that the TTP may further benefit from the Taliban takeover and release of TTP prisoners held in Afghanistan.
Other minor groups
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was once a prominent ally of AQ. Formed by Uzbeks who fought with Islamist forces in the Tajikistan 1992-1997 civil war, IMU allied with the Taliban and launched attacks into other Central Asian states. After U.S. operations began in 2001, the group’s focus shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. IMU forces operate in Northern Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban. In 2014, some IMU members pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and, similarly to former TTP members, started operating in Afghanistan and Syria under the IS-K: some veterans returned to Afghanistan with other Arab jihadist elements.
East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)
The Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) aims to establish an independent Islamic State for the Uyghur Muslim minority, the Turkic-speaking people in Western China. The group has ties to AQ. As recently reported, as a result of the China-Taliban talks and agreements, the latter has committed to eliminating ETIM from Afghanistan. At present, the group is still operating with hundreds of fighters in the Northeast of Afghanistan, and it maintains a larger presence in Idlib, Syria, moving its fighters between the two areas. ETIM in Afghanistan is reportedly focused on China; while the Syrian contingent has “a more global outlook,” in line with IS-K global vision of jihad. It is assessed that if the Taliban breaks off relations with ETIM (in accordance with the agreement with China), ETIM fighters will likely switch to IS-K.
What’s next? The threat evolves into "New Insurrectional Terrorism"
The ideological and territorial spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has triggered a latent, global jihadist violence. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan instilled a new vital impetus to international jihadism and is now presented by its propaganda as the victory of their interpretation of Islam over the West and its corrupt values. This happens in contrast to the Taliban approach to jihad, which is limited to blessing their success in what they perceive as a war of national liberation, in opposition to the narrative of IS-K and other groups, who anticipate a global triumph.
Regardless of this, the Taliban’s victory is already having direct effects on the will and operational capacity of jihadist terrorist groups and individuals at a global level from communications and propaganda to tactical and operational aspects.
Over the past 20 years, terror groups, cells, and individual jihadi fighters alike have begun to increasingly display new tactics, which they exported to — and adapted for — the contemporary and the future jihadi war. A first, bitter taste of things to come were the Mumbai attacks of 2008, when a group of ten terrorists divided into smaller groups mounted a siege which lasted for almost three days.
Western cities have, since, occasionally become the set of complex suicide attacks and team-raids, and more often of individual assaults where the perpetrator efficiently exploits techniques learned in Middle Eastern war theaters. “Islamic State” or al-Qaeda militants and sympathizers have proven widely capable of carrying out deadly attacks and to pose a direct threat to the security of citizens and national institutions. As such, contemporary terrorism can be described — and must be recognized — as a phenomenon with military characteristics or inspiration, particularly since IS with its external operations came onto the stage.
Today, with the fall of Kabul and a successful Taliban, the specter of terrorism hangs over the Afghan, Syrian, and Libyan battlefields.
Can we claim that the significant increase in jihadi terrorist violence in the world and in Europe over the last 20 years is consistent with the classical concept of terrorism?
Terrorist attacks occurring between 2015 and 2018 in Europe, the United States, as well as in North African or Middle Eastern countries do confirm the effective operational capability of terror groups, especially the Islamic State, whose nature shifted over time from a proto-state reality with territorial control to what we can deem a de-nationalized, borderless phenomenon. “Leaderless jihad”, which anticipates IS, was perfected by the latter as “aspiring” fighters were prevented from travelling and therefore chose to strike their home countries. What we are facing today has already been dubbed “New Insurrectional Terrorism” (NIT), a concept which essentially includes all attempts at disrupting the national and/or international political order through violence. NIT is revolutionary and utopian, and whereas terrorism is functional, insurrectional terrorism continuously evolves. The aim of this new “breed” does not consist in instigating the masses with a view to overthrowing governments, rather in persuading a large number of Muslims all over the world to join the fight against the “infidels”, insisting on a narrative which is now also supported by the victory of their interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan and, at the same time, presenting such victory as a valid reason to avoid any compromise with Western countries.
This emerging "New Insurrectional Terrorism" has therefore nothing to do with the political terrorism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It surfaced in the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2003) and developed in the mid-2000s. It attracted world attention in 2014, due to its battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria (and then in Afghanistan). Today, however, IS – whose main affiliate group is still fighting in (and possibly from) Afghanistan – has lost most of what it conquered over the past ten years: territories, energy resources, access to trade, and finance channels. Its media appeal, though, is still strong and will aptly frame the Afghan success as ‘exemplary’, while attacking the Taliban for being corrupted.
The loss of "territory" forced IS to focus, on the one hand, on its franchise activities abroad, especially in crisis areas, with a new social approach defined by the outsourcing of violence based on reciprocal recognition between IS’ central organization and local groups/opposition movements. Its message attempts at turning thousands of radicalized individuals and dozens of young people and armed opposition groups into smart and ready "proximity weapons" prepared to “kill and die” in the name of the Caliphate.
In brief, the “New Insurrectional Terrorism" consists in the use of violence, or threatened use of intentional, calculated, rational, self-justified violence in order to achieve political, religious, and ideological goals. NIT is characterized by specific elements. The nature of the terrorist activity consists in using (or threatening to use) violence in order to attain a political objective. It is complex and, above all, unpredictable, revolutionary, and subversive and with a view to establishing a proto-state aiming at obtaining the “monopoly of force” within a geographical area. Furthermore, it contains political, socio-economic, and religious aspects (justified on religious and apocalyptic grounds) and can be described as "stra-ctical" because its strategic nature is being conveyed through tactics which must not necessarily be interconnected. Its nature is "glocal", transnational, borderless, and based on "flexibility and adaptability". Its targets are represented by political, civilian, military, religious, and symbolic combatants, as well as non-combatants. Lastly, it is symbiotic: it “outsources” violence supported by emulative effects and as a response to the “call to jihad”.
We can find all these elements in the (re)emerging phenomenon of the Islamic State, which is gaining new energies from the defeat of the United States in Afghanistan. What arises from this description is a threat to security by a contemporary, new form of terrorism: a phenomenon which adapts and evolves without a temporal or geographically defined goal. NIT simply wants to enforce a new societal model (the Caliphate) by tearing down alternatives and will use the symbolism associated with the Afghan war to glorify what they deem the “victory of Islam” obtained through the sacrifice of “martyrs” and “divine blessing”.
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 France24, Afghanistan: Do Islamic State group jihadists pose a real challenge to the Taliban? 31 agosto 2021
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