AFGHANISTAN continues to be home to the enemies of most countries in the region. Many such groups that are based in Afghanistan are officially declared regional terrorist groups, some of which are operating as extensions of the Taliban. They assisted the Taliban in defeating the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA).
Now these transnational terrorist groups, such as ETIM (China), IMU (Uzbekistan), TTP (Pakistan) and Jamaat Ansarullah (Tajikistan), to name a few out of at least two dozen groups, want to seize the opportunity and commence jihad in their own countries with the aim of establishing regimes that are similar to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Daesh’s Islamic State.
They want the Taliban to actively assist them in their militant campaigns that they call jihad in their own countries, just as they had assisted the Taliban from 2001 until 2021. There are reports that these groups have already infiltrated from Takhar into the Ferghana Valley, all the way up to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Dilemma for Taliban
This developing situation has created a dilemma for the Taliban. If they assist these groups, it will slow down their hopes of diplomatic recognition and possibly cut short their tenure in power. And if they ignore the expectations of these regional terror groups, it will likely lead to the commencement of another series of violence inside Afghanistan.
These groups may side with and strengthen anti-Taliban militant groups in Afghanistan, including, but not limited to the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). The early signs of such a scenario are already visible on the ground. The suicide attack in a mosque in Kunduz in October 2021 was reportedly conducted by an ethnic Uyghur from China, possibly a member of ETIM. Many subsequent suicide bombings in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, including the attacks in Kabul, were conducted by nationals from Tajikistan.
There is a strong possibility that many of the fighters of the regional terrorist groups in Afghanistan may independently (without the Taliban’s assistance) move to their own countries and commence new phases of terrorist activities there – resulting in the destabilisation of the region. Central Asian states are the most vulnerable in this respect. Many of these are more fearful of the spread of the Taliban’s ideology into their countries, than they are of the spread of the actual fighters from Afghanistan.
Most notorious group
Some of the identified pro-Taliban terrorist groups at present in Afghanistan are: Al Qaeda: The most notorious of the terrorist groups present in Afghanistan, particularly due to the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. This group is enjoying a safe haven and a renaissance under the Taliban’s rule. Its senior leadership is living openly in safe houses across the major cities of Afghanistan, and they are actively promoting their own victory against the US in Afghanistan. Their leaders are making a point out of living in key cities such as Kabul, to demonstrate that they roam around in the cities in which the US Army was present just two years ago.
The objectives of Al Qaeda remain the same – to target western countries and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council region. The key figures of Al Qaeda enjoy close relationships with certain factions and individuals within the Taliban. Some of these ties have become familial as intermarriages have occurred between members/leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and now a second generation has come of age, mostly with Arab fathers and Afghan mothers. This second generation of Al Qaeda is more difficult to verify as they often appear culturally and linguistically assimilated into the Afghan society and many of them have acquired Afghan IDs and passports from the Interim Taliban Administration.
There are reports that many of the training centres of the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Interior have been availed to Al Qaeda where they continue to train the next generation of jihadists. Many Al Qaeda fighters of the famed 055 Brigade of the 1990s are now embedded in the Badri 313 Brigade of the Haqqani Network which played a key role in the capture of Kabul from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Another part of the 055 Brigade became the Lashkar-al-Zil which is still active within both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. The third part of the 055 Brigade’s second generation has joined IS-K.
The new Iran-based leader of Al Qaeda, named Saif al Adel, is believed to be even more extreme than Al Zawahiri. The strike that killed Zawahiri in downtown Kabul and a follow-up strike on Al Qaeda fighters in the Dehmazang area of Kabul were sufficient to prove that Al Qaeda enjoys sanctuaries in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. According to reports coming out of Afghanistan, in the year 2022, thousands of new foot-soldiers joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, most of them hailing from Bangladesh and the Rohingya population of Myanmar.
After the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, most Talibs fled to Pakistan but many members of Al Qaeda fled to Iran as they felt unsafe in Pakistan. The current leader of Al Qaeda, Saif Al Adel, still resides in Iran. It was this presence of Al Qaeda in Iran that allowed it to establish trust between Iran and the Taliban in the early 2010s when the Taliban was seeking alternative sponsors to reduce their dependence on Pakistan. Now, Al Qaeda plays a key role as a guarantor between ITA and Iran, specifically between Kandahar and Qom.
They are facilitators of the narcotics trade between the inner circle of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC of Iran. They are also facilitating the smuggling of excess weapons from Afghanistan to Iran, which usually end up with non-State actors and militants in the Middle East that are linked with Iran. The frequent gunfights that erupt at the Nimroz border post between Afghanistan and Iran are erroneously termed as water wars between Iran and Afghanistan. These gunfights are not a result of policy changes, but erupt when deals related to the smuggling of drugs or weapons go wrong, as this is the border point from which the drugs and weapons are smuggled between the ITA and IRGC.