Afghanistan: A Safe Haven for Global Jihadism Once More?

The White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan, the location of the Tora Bora cave complex where Al-Qa'ida fighters held out during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Courtesy of Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The makeup of the Taliban’s first cabinet raises questions about the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming a base for Al-Qa’ida again.

Being a safe haven for global jihadists and acting as a launchpad for attacks against the West are not the same thing. Under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban have committed to preventing attacks being launched from Afghanistan, but they have not pledged to cut off relations with foreign jihadist groups altogether, nor to expel them from Afghanistan. The administration of former US President Donald Trump went ahead with signing the deal, so it did accept this differentiation.

Indeed, the Taliban have proceeded to negotiate new agreements with jihadist groups after signing the deal. According to Taliban sources, three jihadist groups (Lashkar-e Taiba, Lashkar-e Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) agreed to sign such deals which placed them under greater Taliban control, restricted their freedom of movement and banned them from carrying out activities against other countries. Other groups, which are more numerous, refused to sign or indulged in protracted negotiations, clearly trying to buy time. Among the latter, the most noteworthy were Al-Qa’ida and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The draft agreement proposed by the Taliban to the TTP even surfaced on social media and it was later confirmed as genuine by TTP sources.

Relations between the Taliban and the Trump administration started deteriorating in the summer of 2020, as the Taliban expected a confirmation that the withdrawal would be completed and a date for it. The Taliban suspended all negotiations with the foreign jihadists and only resumed them after the administration of Joe Biden finally indicated 11 September as the date for the completion of the withdrawal. However, various personalities and groups within the Taliban were and are still maintaining close relations with the foreign jihadists, among them the Haqqani network.

The Al-Qa’ida Exception

Al-Qa’ida praised the Doha Agreement as a victory for the Taliban, but ignored the part of the Agreement about the confinement of foreign jihadists and celebrated the US withdrawal and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. This is hardly surprising, given that the majority of the few hundred Al-Qa’ida members in Afghanistan are hosted by the Taliban – Al-Qa’ida could not denounce the US–Taliban deal.

However, several sources within both the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida confirmed that the latter was far from happy with the deal. The apparent effort by the Taliban and the US to build a working relationship beyond the withdrawal, highlighted by the promise of ongoing US aid even in the event of a Taliban takeover, unnerved Al-Qa’ida.

In fact, Al-Qa’ida was already getting nervous in the months preceding the signing of the deal, as killings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures in Afghanistan were mounting. It started with Hamza bin Laden in the summer of 2019, and continued with the death of Asim Umar, head of Al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent.

Sources in Al-Qa’ida and in the Taliban say that Asim’s killing was particularly controversial because he had been in Pakistan shortly before the incident and was asked to attend a meeting in Musa Qala, an area already under complete Taliban control in Helmand. Asim questioned the need for such a meeting there, given that both he and the Taliban leaders were in Pakistan, but eventually agreed. Once there, an Al-Qa’ida source says that he was kept waiting under various pretences, until a raid killed him. Hence the allegation of complicity by elements in the Taliban leadership, as the killings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures continued.

At least one senior source in the Afghan security forces confirmed that they were receiving tip-offs from Taliban members about Al-Qa’ida. Al-Qa’ida members were feeling threatened, and so were other foreign jihadists, especially after the killing in November 2020 of Aziz Yuldash, an Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader, who may have been killed by the Taliban themselves. Aziz had abandoned the IMU just three weeks earlier in protest at the deal signed by the Taliban and had joined a rival Central Asian group, which may have been Imam Bukhari Jamaat.

Al-Qa’ida and allied groups had options for disrupting the US–Taliban agreement. Al-Qa’ida was embarrassing the Taliban by making its presence in Afghanistan, usually very low key, more obvious. Apart from Al-Qa’ida’s endorsements of the Taliban’s ‘victory’, Al-Qa’ida advisers and specialists seem to have appeared in unusual numbers alongside Taliban fighting units in 2020–21, judging from media reports of Al-Qa’ida members being killed. Imam Bukhari Jamaat, which never significantly advertised its presence alongside the Taliban before, released a video of joint operations with the Taliban, who then tried to cover it up.

Indeed, these efforts might have contributed to bureaucratic resistance to the US–Taliban deal within the Trump administration, which was left in a limbo as of early 2021, with the final decision about the withdrawal left for the Biden administration to take.

The Pro-Jihadist Lobby

According to hostile Taliban voices, the main effort of Al-Qa’ida appears to be forming a pro-jihadist, anti-deal lobby, including other Taliban elements. This is to ensure that a foreign jihadist presence and freedom of action in Afghanistan are maintained, given the risk of the Taliban colluding not just with the US, but also – as was appearing likely in May–July 2021 – with the Russians and with the Chinese governments. Al-Qa’ida and the other foreign jihadists can expect no quarter from any of these governments and it was essential for them to prevent their alignment with the Taliban taking place.

According to the ‘pragmatic’ and moderate Taliban, this pro-jihadist lobby was behind a series of violent incidents since May including dozens of attacks against NGOs and journalists, which were not authorised by the command system of the Taliban, and provocations such as the appearance of the Tajikistani jihadists Jamaat Ansarullah on the border with Tajikistan. The ‘pragmatic’ Taliban are likely trying to scapegoat their hardline colleagues and deny responsibility for having lost control of the situation. An as yet unpublished analysis of the available data about violence against NGOs, however, does at least suggest that it was mostly concentrated in areas with a strong presence of foreign fighters (such as Kandahar, Badakhshan and Herat).

The Taliban’s leadership still seems to want to proceed with its policy of confining foreign jihadists in ‘reserves’ where their movements can be controlled. Taliban sources in Badakhshan say that just days ago the Central Asian jihadists clustered near Jurm were told to get ready to be transferred to their assigned areas and registered. The possibility of taking away their weapons was also raised, to their dismay.

Still, the pro-jihadist lobby has fairly good hopes of prevailing in Kabul. The Haqqani network has a powerful presence in the cabinet, with four ministerial posts – including the minister of the interior – and has obvious influence on government activities due to its control over Kabul. In any case, Al-Qa’ida is not trusting its fate to the uncertain outcome of power struggles in Kabul and has been preparing back-up options in case its allies within the Taliban lose out. In recent months it has encouraged the TTP to move to the Loya Paktia region, under the protection of the Haqqani network. Now old members of Al-Qa’ida are moving from Waziristan to the Afghan province of Paktia, local sources say, a further sign that it might be seeking to turn the area into its new safe haven.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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