The Taliban are back – will al-Qaeda follow?

In the wake of 9/11 attacks, the US went on the hunt for al-Qaeda, the stateless jihadist group led by Osama Bin Laden that became a global terror network.

Over the past 20 years, al-Qaeda unleashed attacks around the world, and inspired the emergence of other militant groups.

But where is it now – and could its terror threat creep up again? BBC Arabic’s Murad Batal Shishani explains.

Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates, aligned scholars and social media groups—all have voiced their elation and shared sense of victory. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called the Taliban’s conquest “the beginning of a pivotal transformation.” Al Qaeda’s North Africa and Sahel-based branches jointly called it proof that militant jihad is the only “path to glory.” Scores of new social media groups have popped up dedicated solely to these developments. Meanwhile terrorists the world over ponder a new jihadi hijra (migration) to Afghanistan, asserting the country to now indisputably be “the center of global jihad.”

The Taliban have multiple faces. There is the civil side they display to the international community, and the other one for the only audience that matters: aligned jihadists and radical Islamist supporters. And once the U.S. withdrawal began, the Taliban didn’t skip a beat to show their true colors to the latter.

On Aug. 31, during the final hours of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban released a new issue of their Arabic-language publication, al-Somood. In it, the group countered accusations levied by its regional foe, the Islamic State, that the Taliban have become an agent of the United States because of the Doha Agreement.

The Taliban unambiguously assured readers “the Taliban of today is no different from the Taliban of yesterday, with the same exact ideology since it took charge in 1996 and whoever says otherwise or markets it in a different image is either ignorant of the Taliban ideology from its beginnings or has wishful thinking of some kind of deviation and change.”

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The Taliban have multiple faces. There is the civil side they display to the international community, and the other one for the only audience that matters: aligned jihadists and radical Islamist supporters. And once the U.S. withdrawal began, the Taliban didn’t skip a beat to show their true colors to the latter.

On Aug. 31, during the final hours of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban released a new issue of their Arabic-language publication, al-Somood. In it, the group countered accusations levied by its regional foe, the Islamic State, that the Taliban have become an agent of the United States because of the Doha Agreement.

The Taliban unambiguously assured readers “the Taliban of today is no different from the Taliban of yesterday, with the same exact ideology since it took charge in 1996 and whoever says otherwise or markets it in a different image is either ignorant of the Taliban ideology from its beginnings or has wishful thinking of some kind of deviation and change.”

The Taliban in power: impacts for al-Qaeda and IS?

The Taliban leadership responsible for the Doha-based negotiations assured the US that it would not allow an al-Qaeda resurgence on its territory. There are major incentives for the Taliban not to renege on this promise. First, the new Taliban government will need international financial assistance. Since 2002, the EU has paid over four billion euros in development aid to Afghanistan – no other state has received more. Even if the Taliban regime seeks closer relations with non-Western powers –Russia, China, Iran or Pakistan – these countries also have a strategic interest in reducing the risk of terrorism against their own citizens and will thus push for the Taliban to contain al-Qaeda. Second, the Taliban do not depend on al-Qaeda’s support today, unlike in earlier years, when a more coherent and stronger al-Qaeda was able to provide them with millions of dollars every year. However, this was at a time when al-Qaeda itself had a robust fighting force of thousands of fighters, many of them foreigners, and had stable exchanges with allied groups across the world. This form of exchange has become much more difficult in recent years, as al-Qaeda’s own financial capabilities have become drastically reduced. Third, even though unlikely in the short run, a campaign of al-Qaeda-orchestrated attacks in the West could spark renewed military action to destabilize or topple the new Taliban regime, a scenario not in the latter’s strategic interest.

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However, there are also reasons to be cautious and not to take the Taliban’s statements as revealing the full picture of their interactions with al-Qaeda. To begin with, in recent years Taliban leaders and politicians affiliated with the movement have spoken very positively of al-Qaeda on several occasions, publicly memorialising the death of Osama bin Laden and glorifying common fighting experiences against foreign powers. The fact that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have collaborated over several decades, even in the years following the 2001 US-led invasion, means that there still are bonds between the two groups. It is also worth considering that both al-Qaeda’s top leadership around Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leaders of regional affiliates continue to highlight their allegiance to the Taliban, despite the latter’s formal guarantee to the US that they will not allow al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a safe haven.

IS constitutes the third jihadist actor on the scene in Afghanistan. Already in recent years the group has clashed with the Taliban, losing scores of its fighters in these armed confrontations, including several of its top leaders. The events in Afghanistan mirror those from other battlefields, such as the Sahel, Yemen or Somalia, where local IS affiliates have been fighting against al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Should the Taliban consolidate their grip on power in Afghanistan, the prospects for IS in the country appear grim. Only hours after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, images of a deceased former IS leader emerged, who was apparently killed by Taliban fighters during a prison raid.

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Various case-based studies have suggested that, in order to undermine public support for transnational jihadist groups, one strategy could be to integrate Islamist actors into the political system. The relative openness of political systems towards Islamist parties has been cited to explain why, despite a persistent insurgency in the Philippines, al-Qaeda and IS have struggled to expand more extensively in South and Southeast Asia. This points to the potential effects of integrating Islamists into political systems as a bulwark against transnational jihadism. Although the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may work to contain IS-related groups in the country, it can still inspire other jihadist movements. In the present case, there might be a regional spill-over effect, as the Pakistani Taliban were quick to renew their pledge of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leadership. Thus far, the Pakistani Taliban have operated as a sister organisation to the Afghan Taliban, with both movements having adopted a nationally oriented focus. Whether the Taliban takeover could lead to increased transnational cooperation between the two movements remains to be seen. In any case, the greater the Afghan Taliban’s willingness to share power and to attract the support of foreign states, the less probable it appears that they would be willing to strengthen their formal bonds with their Pakistani affiliates across the border, as such a step would likely spark both domestic and transnational opposition.