Recent terror attacks in Afghanistan prove that violence continues unabated even as peace talks progress between the Afghan Taliban and the United States. There is ample evidence that terrorist groups are active in the country even as the United States looks to negotiate an exit. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) estimated in June 2019 that there are 8,000 to 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) in Afghanistan, out of which 2,500 to 4,000 are affiliated with the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which is anti-Taliban and al-Qaeda. The UN assesses that the Taliban is the “primary partner” of a variety of terrorist groups: al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network (Miranshah Shura Taliban), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (non-ISKP faction), and the Turkestan Islamic Party, “as well as nearly 20 other regionally and globally focused groups” in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and ISKP both consider Afghanistan an important region to recuperate and plan their next phase of operations. In case of a weakened central authority and security vacuum in the country, these groups will increase in strength and influence and might shift their operations abroad, posing regional and global security risks.
Al-Qaeda Networks in Afghanistan
According to a UNSC report published in July, al-Qaeda is appearing to make a comeback in Afghanistan under a resurgent Taliban. The July report states in no uncertain terms that al-Qaeda views Afghanistan as a “safe haven for its leadership.” This is understandable, considering that al-Qaeda-Taliban relations were forged in the throes of the Afghan Civil War in the mid-1990s and the two have cooperated together in fighting their common enemies. Furthermore, the former and present al-Qaeda leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri respectively, each gave an oath of allegiance to all three successive Taliban emirs and also recognized each of them as the rightful leader(s) of faithful Muslims (Amir al Mu’minin), a title usually reserved for the caliph of an Islamic Caliphate. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership have publicly and repeatedly stressed the important nature of their alliance and called on all Muslims to participate in their jihad. Unsurprisingly, the July UN report also states that al-Qaeda members regularly act as “military and religious instructors” for the Taliban.
Bin Laden called for the gradual re-establishment of a Caliphate and saw the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban as an important step in this regard, a view espoused by Zawahiri as well. Though the Taliban have not been in power since 2001, it is closer to re-establishing its emirate today than any point since then and al-Qaeda has been aiding them in this regard.
Afghanistan is an important region for jihadists as the historic name for the wider region, which also includes Pakistan, parts of Iran, India, and Central Asia – Khorasan – is mentioned in a hadith of dubious authenticity that prophesizes a Muslim army emerging from the region to conquer the Middle East, including Jerusalem. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) have capitalized on this prophecy to legitimize their activities in the region.
Al-Qaeda has also tagged along with other regional terrorist groups like LeT, the Haqqani Network, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Central Asian groups, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan among others, to increase its influence. Reports suggest that LeT and JeM have shifted some of their activities and presence to Afghanistan (allegedly in response to Indian retaliatory counterterrorism actions in Pakistan). Kunar province remains a focal point for FTFs, where LeT reportedly continues to act as a key facilitator in recruitment and financial support activities. Afghan officials stated that approximately 500 LeT members were active in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces and many ISKP members (including its present governor) there were former LeT.
The July UNSC report specifically mentions that al-Qaeda is “keen to strengthen its presence” in Badakhshan province bordering Tajikistan as well as in Paktika province (a Haqqani stronghold bordering North Waziristan, Pakistan). Certain al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian terrorist groups operate mainly in Badakhshan. They coordinate with organized crime networks that engage in cross-border narco-trafficking between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and use those smuggling routes to “infiltrate fighters into Central Asia.”
Central Asian jihadists may intend to execute attacks in their native countries, but the Taliban do not currently allow groups under their influence to do anything that could lead to allegations of them supporting international terrorism rather than being a nationalist force. This situation could change in case of progress in the Afghan peace process, as some of these terrorist groups might declare allegiance to IS and mount international attacks rather than lay down their arms.
Islamic State in Khorasan
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) suffered multiple major military setbacks against U.S., Afghan, and Taliban forces over the last couple of years and has a minimal presence in Afghanistan, being restricted mostly to Nangarhar and Kunar provinces bordering Pakistan. However, it maintains the capability to carry out country-wide attacks as well as taxation, propaganda, and criminal activities. ISKP’s main resilience comes from its direct links to and resources received from IS central in Iraq and Syria even before its inception in 2013.
Fighters in different regions throughout Khorasan, with seven different local leaders, renewed their allegiances to IS Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in an online video in June 2019. Those regions included Afghanistan, Iran, India, Kashmir, and Pakistan. Many of these commanders have been critical of the Taliban becoming part of the mainstream political and diplomatic process and have appealed to Taliban members to stay true to Islam. Hence, there is apprehension that if any peace agreement is signed by the Taliban it would lead to increased recruitment for ISKP. ISKP reportedly has the highest percentage of FTFs among the group’s affiliates. A July 2018 UN report mentioned that several foiled attacks in Europe originated from ISKP.
ISKP also has a Central Asian contingent led by Tajik national Sayvaly Shafiev, which currently operates in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Shafiev is a major recruitment facilitator for ISKP and is also believed by Tajik authorities to be training sleeper agents to be deployed to Tajikistan. Ever since IS lost its caliphate in the Middle East, there are concerns that Tajik and other Central Asian fighters might see Afghanistan as an alternative battleground. Entry into ISKP was made easier for Tajik nationals after it merged with a Tajik terrorist group known as Jamaat Ansarullah in 2017.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan blamed the majority of civilian casualties in 2018 (6,980, 63 percent of the total) on anti-government forces, which included the Taliban (37 percent) but also ISKP (20 percent) and others (6 percent). Casualties attributed to anti-government elements rose by 3 percent compared to 2017. Civilian casualties from attacks deliberately targeting civilians by ISKP more than doubled from 843 in 2017 to 1,871 in 2018, including deliberate sectarian-inspired attacks against Shias.
The peace talks with the Taliban ignore a series of fundamental failures. U.S. and Afghan forces alike have been unable to dismantle and disarm violent nonstate actors, much less force them to cooperate with the Afghan government. Without dealing effectively with external powers that provide these groups active and passive support, any meaningful change will remain elusive.
Saurav Sarkar is a Research Associate at Center for Air Power Studies, Western Air Command, New Delhi. He holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Amity Institute of International Studies, Amity University Uttar Pradesh, Noida, India where he is a Member of its Area Advisory Board.