Afghanistan’s Taliban militants have promised the world for years that they wouldn’t allow their country to be used as a terrorist base. In an agreement with the United States last year, the Taliban pledged specifically to not allow Al-Qaeda to “threaten the security of the United States and its allies” from Afghan soil.
But U.S. security czars have warned just one month after the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul that a reconstituted Al-Qaeda with aspirations to attack the United States could become a reality within three years.
“I don’t see why it would take so long for Al-Qaeda to reconfigure,” said Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan. “It is unduly optimistic about what hurdles Al-Qaeda might face in taking advantage of the permissive environment that they now face in Afghanistan.”
He pointed to the Taliban’s appointment of Mullah Tajmir Jawad as the deputy head of intelligence as evidence of how seamlessly Al-Qaeda can regain strength in Afghanistan, where its leaders enjoyed safe haven two decades ago while they launched a string of bombings globally against U.S. interests and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
Jawad is a former commander of the Haqqani network, a deadly military wing of the Taliban. Accused of planning high-profile attacks, he is now tasked with handling some of the country’s most sensitive security issues.
“Until last month he was running a suicide bombers’ training camp -- that’s how favorable an environment [Afghanistan] has become [for Al-Qaeda],” Semple told RFE/RL Gandhara. “The kind of people that Al-Qaeda treats as their peers or supporters are now moving straight out of the suicide-bomber training camps into running the intelligence service.”
Keeping A Lower Profile
Jawad is far from the only Taliban leader accused of facilitating international terrorism. Yet experts are saying that, this time around, Al-Qaeda might seek a lower profile in Afghanistan, instead adopting a hub-and-spoke approach with regional affiliates and franchises across the Muslim world.
Semple, now a professor at Queen's University in Belfast, says the centrality of the Haqqani network within the Taliban government’s security apparatus is a major boost to Al-Qaeda because relations between Haqqani family elders and Al-Qaeda’s Arab leaders predate the organization’s formal founding in the late 1980s.
The extended Haqqani family and its loyalists now constitute a key part of the Taliban-led government. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of the late eponymous leader Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Mawlawi’s brother Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani are both ministers in the Taliban cabinet, with the former heading the Interior Ministry and the latter the Refugee Affairs Ministry. Washington has designated both as global terrorists and still offers rewards of up to $10 million for information leading to their arrest.
“If you are a member of Al-Qaeda trying to make arrangements to keep your leaders and key operatives safe and out of view and avoiding trouble from the local authorities, what more could you dream of than to have your well-wishers take over the Interior Ministry?” Semple said.
He said Al-Qaeda regional affiliates already had a large presence in Afghanistan even before the Taliban takeover last month and foreign militants are now embedded within Taliban units. Many of these were even part of the Al-Qaeda’s shura, or council, in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region before a Pakistani military operation in June 2014 pushed them over the border into Afghanistan.
“We know about the fighters from the Caucuses, from different parts of the Russian Republic; we know about the Uzbekistanis, we know about the Uyghurs, we know about the Tajikistanis, we know about significant numbers of Turks -- their presence is well-known,” he said.
A Shared History
A June UN report noted that “large numbers of Al-Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan.” It said the primary arbiter between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is the Haqqani network. “Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.”
Analysts see the alliance between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as partly rooted in their shared history. Al-Qaeda has pledged allegiance to Taliban leaders since Osama bin Laden first pledged it to Mullah Mohammad Omar in the 1990s. Omar’s successors Mullah Akhatar Muhammad Mansur and Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada received it, too, from their counterparts in Al-Qaeda. While the Taliban follows the conservative Deobandi subsect and most Al-Qaeda leaders and members are puritanical Salafis, both organizations have worked hard to prevent doctrinal differences from fissuring the alliance. The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) militants, an ultra-radical Salafi group, appears to have cemented their alliance in seeking to prevent IS from hijacking jihadist fronts.
Semple said it’s likely that Al-Qaeda’s Arab core leadership will relocate to Afghanistan after sheltering in neighboring Iran and Pakistan during the past two decades. “I would expect more of them shifting to Afghanistan now that the U.S. counterterrorism operation has been so thoroughly disrupted and the Taliban are in control,” he added.
The Taliban, however, is adamant that Al-Qaeda is not present in the country. "We do not see anyone in Afghanistan who has anything to do with Al-Qaeda,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told journalists in Kabul last week. "We are committed to the fact that, from Afghanistan, there will not be any danger to any country."
The Taliban has forcefully opposed the “over the horizon” attacks that U.S. officials hope they can employ against possible terrorist threats from Afghanistan. On September 28, the Taliban accused Washington of violating international laws and their February 2020 Doha agreement by operating drones in Afghan airspace.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that same day, General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared the Taliban a terrorist organization that has not broken ties with Al-Qaeda. "A reconstituted Al-Qaeda or ISIS [Islamic State militants] with aspirations to attack the U.S. is a very real possibility, and those conditions to include activity in ungoverned spaces could present themselves in the next 12-36 months," he said.
The 'Near Enemy'
Earlier in September, David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA, said Washington is “already beginning to see some of the indications of some potential movement of Al-Qaeda to Afghanistan.”
Abdul Sayed, a researcher following Islamic radical groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, said Al-Qaeda has little incentive to make Afghanistan its global base.
“Before 9/11, Al-Qaeda wanted to spread the jihadist movement in the Muslim world by launching terrorist attacks globally,” he told Radio Mashaal. “But in recent years, it focused on supporting and strengthening regional jihadist networks such as returning the Taliban [to power] in Afghanistan or the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, which it created and strengthened.”
Sayed argued that unlike in the 1990s, when Al-Qaeda’s global jihad created problems for the Taliban and ultimately led to the demise of its regime as a result of the U.S.-led military attacks in retaliation for 9/11, the group will take a new approach. “Al-Qaeda will try to keep a close contact with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, but it would like to avoid doing anything that could create problems for the Taliban,” he said.
Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, agreed. He predicted that Al-Qaeda is unlikely to pursue any large-scale attacks.
“Al-Qaeda would not like to waste the Taliban’s victory again but might like to use their presence in the country to strengthen their regional affiliates in the subcontinent, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahil,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Based on the recent statements of its central leadership, Basit said, Al-Qaeda is focused on a new goal.
“They are eager to concentrate on the near enemy, which means they will focus on the government of some Muslim countries instead on attacking the far enemy, which is the United States,” he said.