Abstract: President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan depended on a critical assessment of the terrorism landscape in Afghanistan. At the time of his decision, he argued that the terrorism threat from Afghanistan was both low and manageable for the foreseeable future. This article argues that the Biden administration’s assessment of the terrorism threat was flawed, and with the Taliban’s return to power, the threat is growing. Afghanistan’s dynamic terrorism landscape is dotted by the significant presence of al-Qa`ida and its local units, the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Central Asian jihadis, anti-India jihadis, and anti-China jihadis. Part of this landscape benefits from the Taliban’s support to a number of groups in the country, as well as the ties of some of the groups with each other. The perception of the Afghan Taliban’s total takeover of the country amid a humiliating U.S. withdrawal is iconic for jihadis, and it is likely to substantially bolster their morale and strength. Contrary to claims of the Biden administration, U.S. counterterrorism capacity in the region is likely to remain weak for the foreseeable future. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan endures for the United States and the rest of the world.
Early in his presidency, President Joe Biden faced a major decision on Afghanistan: to end America’s involvement in the war that started due to the 9/11 attacks 20 years earlier, or to keep U.S. military forces in the country. Having long defined the core U.S. goal in Afghanistan as countering terrorism, Biden’s decision came to depend on a critical assessment of the terrorism landscape in Afghanistan.a His administration appears to have made four major judgments. First, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan to the United States was assessed as being minimal.b Second, future threats may emerge on a long enough time horizon that they can be dealt with by utilizing offshore counterterrorism approaches.c Third, the Afghan Taliban can be compelled into complying with their commitment to not provide safe haven to jihadis.d Finally, the United States can afford to be indifferent to locally and regionally focused threats in and around Afghanistan.e With these judgments, Biden decided in favor of withdrawing U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.
As will be argued in this article, these judgments by the Biden administration were flawed, and the Taliban’s return to power has exacerbated the terrorism threat beyond the level that existed when the decision to withdraw the U.S. forces was made. A close look at Afghanistan reveals that the United States has left the country with a dynamic terrorism landscape posing local, regional, and transnational threats. Much of this situation benefits from the Taliban’s enduring relationships with various jihadi groups in the country despite the Taliban’s commitments to curtail terrorist groups under the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. Groups that benefit from the Taliban’s support include al-Qa
ida and its local units, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), various Central Asian jihadis, anti-India jihadis, and anti-China jihadis like the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). There is also a sizable cadre of foreign fighters across various groups, including in the ranks of al-Qaida.1 Separately, the Islamic State of Afghanistan, a rival of the Taliban, appears to be recovering after military losses—and remains committed to targeting Afghan civilians. Most of these groups face constraints, but they retain important strengths despite years of U.S. counterterrorism pressure. This overall landscape does not lend to the interpretation of major terrorist degradation that the administration has offered.
Looking ahead, the U.S. withdrawal and the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Kabul are iconic milestones for global jihadis, and both are likely to bolster their morale and strength substantially. This will increase the threats groups in Afghanistan pose locally, regionally, and to the United States. Additionally, factors like weak U.S. counterterrorism capacity, the Afghan Taliban’s enduring relationships with foreign jihadis, inter-militant competition, China’s growing regional footprint, Pakistani state policies, and great power competition are likely to further aggravate the threat landscape. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. decision to topple the Afghan Taliban regime, not only is the Taliban back in power but also the terrorism threat from Afghanistan endures for the United States and the rest of the world.
These arguments are developed in three steps. First, the article describes the Afghan Taliban’s position on, and politics toward, jihadi activities in Afghanistan, particularly in light of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. Second, the article assesses the terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan. Third, the author identifies factors that will likely worsen the threat landscape going forward. The concluding section discusses the implications for counterterrorism policy. The author draws on a combination of open-source materials and interviews in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States conducted between 2018 to 2021, including on a research trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in July 2021.
The U.S. Withdrawal and Politics of the Afghan Taliban
With the Afghan Taliban having taken control of Afghanistan, the future of the terrorism landscape in the country depends on the Taliban’s political preferences and policies toward terrorist groups in the country.2 Amid plans to withdraw U.S. military forces from the country over the last few years, American policymakers have recognized this fact. One major argument has suggested that the Taliban have learned their lesson on giving refuge and support to terrorist groups, and that they will not allow terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan. Some policymakers point to the guarantees the Taliban have provided against international terrorists as part of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement.3 The agreement contains a number of detailed commitments on actions the Taliban must take to prevent the use of Afghanistan’s territory by terrorist groups. In the language of the agreement:
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct members of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban is committed to deal with those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of this agreement, so that such persons do not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies to enter Afghanistan.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the U.S.-Taliban agreement, has been a leading proponent of the view that the Taliban are receptive to American concerns on terrorism and remain on track to comply with the counterterrorism provisions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. During a congressional hearing in September 2020, he observed that the Afghan Taliban were implementing some of their counterterrorism commitments: “… with regard to terrorism and al-Qaeda, in this setting, what I can say is the Talibs have taken some steps, based on the commitment they have made, positive steps, but they have some distance still to go.”4
Some analysts tie apparent Afghan Taliban efforts to uphold their counterterrorism commitments to their desire for international legitimacy, as well as the costs that being perceived as enabling international terrorism create for their domestic political agenda.5 A proponent of this view is analyst Thomas Ruttig, who served with the United Nations in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s last stint in power before 9/11.f Writing in this publication, he argued that the Taliban understand that “they cannot afford for Afghanistan to again become a security threat to the international community and cannot rule Afghanistan against the international community, particularly when they openly cooperate with internationalist-jihadi terrorists.”6 He further adds that the “Taliban are primarily a movement of a ‘national Islamist’ character, and that their project is to run Afghanistan as an ‘Islamic’ state. Support for wider jihadi aims would bring them into an undesired antagonism with the international community again and actually jeopardize the implementation of their (still unclear in detail) home agenda.”7
Yet, an enduring puzzle for this argument is that major international terrorist groups have remained in the country during the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency, often co-located with the Afghan Taliban’s battlefield cadres or operating in areas under the Afghan Taliban’s strong influence. In addition, a variety of evidentiary sources suggest that the Afghan Taliban both shield and instrumentalize relationships with various jihadi outfits, including al-Qa
ida and its South Asia affiliate al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), and anti-China jihadis such as the Turkistan Islamic Party. Recently, in a bid to assert control, Taliban leadership has reportedly sent instructions to various groups of foreign fighters, including al-Qa`ida, to register them, which on the one hand indicates the Taliban’s willingness to apply some constraints on terrorist groups in the country but also points to the presence of foreign fighters.8
This pattern of Taliban alignment with jihadi groups in the country is concerning as it has prevailed despite intense U.S. and international pressure on the group. Both the U.S. government and the international community have offered the Taliban multiple off-ramps for disassociating from jihadis in general and al-Qa
ida in particular, notably during the negotiations that preceded the February 2020 Doha agreement. Since the agreement, Taliban leadership publicly insist that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used as a safe haven for terrorist plotting against other countries. But they do not clarify why they were not able to uphold such a commitment before 9/11. They also offer little clarity on their current relationships with various jihadis and, in particular, why al-Qaida and other jihadis continue to pledge allegiance and remain in Afghanistan, often co-located with the Taliban. According to the International Crisis Group, “the Taliban have made no public demonstration or assertion that they have acted on commitments to prevent their membership from interacting with or hosting al-Qa`ida figures – a number of whom have been killed in airstrikes and raids in the company of Taliban fighters since the agreement in February .”9 And according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s last report before the collapse of the Afghan government, “Taliban continued to support al-Qaeda” and there was “no change in the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”10
American interlocutors who have engaged with the Taliban’s senior leadership in recent years note with concern that the Taliban remain resistant to any meaningful crackdown against foreign jihadis, especially al-Qa
ida. A Kabul-based Afghan political intermediary assisting with the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in 2019 told the author that, during the negotiations over Taliban ties with al-Qaida, the discussion broke down with the Afghan Taliban insisting that there is no proof that al-Qa
ida carried out the 9/11 attacks.11 Ever since, while the Taliban condemn the 9/11 attacks themselves, they are careful to not link them to al-Qaida in their public remarks. More recently, the Afghan Taliban leadership has taken a more explicit approach. Senior Afghan Taliban leader and a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, Amir Khan Motaqi, has noted that the Taliban are not going to break with al-Qa
ida, or any group, under U.S. or international pressure.12 And in an interview to Tolo News, the Afghan Taliban’s battlefield spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, noted that the Doha agreement does not require the Taliban to break from al-Qaida.13
Another counterterrorism concern is that a breakdown in the political cohesion of the Afghan Taliban could affect Afghanistan’s future terrorism landscape. Some analysts argue that the group is deeply factionalized, and these cleavages are likely to calcify with the Taliban’s return to power.14 There are various scenarios of Taliban fragmentation. One scenario foresees some fragmenting Taliban factions joining forces with the Islamic State, paralleling the 2014-era trajectory of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A different scenario foresees select Taliban leaders who support individual jihadi groups and leaders housing them in their local fiefdoms. A third potential scenario is that of a power struggle in which various Taliban factions may jostle for the political backing of major jihadi entities, like al-Qa`ida, for legitimacy purposes.
For now, though, the Afghan Taliban leadership appears to have kept a lid on factionalism. The Taliban’s conduct suggests substantial internal political strength, with the leadership able to manage various factions. Publicly available indicators suggest that the Taliban leadership is able to forge consensus among major political and military elites on key issues—for example, the terms of the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the sequencing of the intra-Afghan peace process, and military strategy. Significantly, there have not been any signs of major dissent. Yet, given previous instances of Taliban infighting during a major transition, fragmentation risks remain.
The Threat From Afghanistan
What are the specific terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban takeover? Which threats deserve continued international attention? Who is threatened, and why? Four Afghanistan-based jihadi threats in particular are salient and require sustained attention: 1) the persistent al-Qa`ida presence, 2) the resurging TTP, 3) metastasizing regional jihadis, and 4) a revived Islamic State.
ida in Afghanistan Many accounts suggest that al-Qaida in Afghanistan is either too weak or inconsequential to play a significant role in the terrorist network’s fight against the United States. Some policymakers and analysts point to the lack of al-Qa
ida attacks and plots in the West in recent years that can be traced back to Afghanistan as evidence.15 Yet, 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida not only remains in Afghanistan but also considers the insurgency the Afghan Taliban successfully waged against U.S. forces and the Afghan government to have been a critical component of its broader strategic objective of eroding U.S. hegemony.16 On August 31, 2021, al-Qa
ida released a statement hailing the Taliban’s return to power, praising it “for breaking America’s back, tarnishing its global reputation and expelling it, disgraced and humiliated, from the Islamic land of Afghanistan.” It also called upon the “Islamic Ummah” to extend “its total support” to the Taliban.17 On March 12, 2020, al-Qaida’s “general leadership” released a statement hailing the U.S.-Taliban deal as a “great historical victory” for the Taliban and al-Qa
ida.18 After the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, multiple al-Qaida affiliates also issued statements lauding the Taliban’s return to power and victory over the United States.
The discernible activities of al-Qa
ida’s central organization and regional affiliates in Afghanistan suggest that it is doggedly persistent despite sustained U.S. counterterrorism pressure over the last two decades and with the Taliban’s return, poised to benefit from ongoing developments in Afghanistan. For one, al-Qaida Central’s top leadership is in Afghanistan. It is assessed that al-Qa
ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, despite being ill, has remained in Afghanistan for some years now. In June 2020 and July 2021, respectively, U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth McKenzie19 and the United Nationsg stated as much. Additionally, while a number of al-Qaida Central senior leaders remain in Iran, other senior leaders continue to remain in Afghanistan. Until his reported targeting in the province of Ghazni last year, senior al-Qa
ida Central leader Husam Abdur-Rauf was operating from eastern Afghanistan, from where he was coordinating with al-Qaida affiliates in the Middle East.20 h
Although there are no signs of Western al-Qa
ida foreign fighters currently in Afghanistan, independent sources the author has spoken to in Afghanistan and U.S. government sources suggest the continued presence of senior Saudi and Egyptian leaders in the country. These sources suggest that a top leader of al-Qaida Central in Afghanistan after al-Zawahiri is Saudi citizen Awab bin Hassan al-Hassani, also known as Qahtal. In 2019, the United Nations reported the presence of al-Qa
ida Central leaders Ahmad al-Qatari, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, Husam Abdur-Rauf, and Abu Osman. With Abdur-Rauf’s 2020 targeting in Ghazni, part of this information was proven correct.21 In 2020, according to the United Nations, a special al-Qaida Central unit, Jabhat al-Nasr, also operated on Afghan soil under the leadership of an operative named Sheikh Mehmood.22 In July 2021, Afghan government sources offered even more specific details. They asserted that one of the senior leaders of the organization for Afghanistan is Sheikh Farooq Masri.23 Other al-Qa
ida Central leaders who remain in the country include Maulvi Farooq, Sheikh Abu Omar Khalid, Shaikh Nasir Gillani (aka Abu Ibrar), Sheikh Abu Yusuf (liaison to Ayman al-Zawahiri), Abdullah Iraqi, Abu Omar Khittab, and Abu Sulaiman Qureshi.24 Separately, a Pakistani government source told this author that senior Pakistani al-Qaida Central leaders, such as Khalid Maqashi, move between Afghanistan and Karachi.25
Additionally, since the Taliban’s takeover, the strength of al-Qa
ida’s central leadership has increased due to the release of al-Qaida prisoners from Pol-e-Charkhi, Bagram Air Base, and Nangarhar prisons by the Taliban. Following the release of prisoners by the Taliban, former CIA counterterrorism chief for South Asia Douglas London noted that “Bagram Air Base included a number of al Qaeda personalities.”26 One leader plausibly released is Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, an Egyptian al-Qa`ida financier and advisor who moved between Afghanistan’s Kunar province and Pakistan’s Bajaur agency until his arrest in 2010.27
Relatedly, al-Qa`ida’s South Asia affiliate AQIS’ leadership is also reported to be in Afghanistan. The group was founded in Pakistan and, in 2014, attempted an audacious attack to capture multiple Pakistani naval frigates to attack U.S. naval assets. Over the last six years, it has focused most of its efforts in Afghanistan. The founding leader of AQIS, Asim Umar, was targeted and killed in Musa Qala, Helmand, in 2019.28 Another senior leader of AQIS, Mohammad Hanif Abdullah, was killed in Farah province in November 2020.29 The current leader of the group, Osama Mehmood, is reported to be in Afghanistan.30 In a June 2020 message, Mehmood applauded the Afghan Taliban for forcing the U.S. government to sign the Doha agreement, calling it a document of America’s “humiliation and defeat.”31
Most available indicators suggest that al-Qa
ida has improved its political strength by focusing on internal cohesion, countering rivals, and supporting the Taliban’s overall political strategy.32 First, al-Qaida Central in Afghanistan and AQIS have not splintered. There have been no reported surrenders or demobilizations of al-Qa
ida cadres over the last few years in Afghanistan. Second, both the central and AQIS leadership continues to affirm their loyalty to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. AQIS leader Osama Mehmood reiterated this allegiance in his post-Doha agreement message published in June 2020.33 Third, AQIS forces have worked to reduce the influence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, including by participating in the Taliban’s military operations against the Islamic State in Afghanistan.34 Fourth, al-Qaida has concealed its presence and calibrated its overall operational tempo to support the Taliban’s political strategy of securing a U.S. withdrawal. According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, “al-Qaeda leaders support the U.S.-Taliban agreement because it does not require the Taliban to publicly renounce al-Qaeda and because it includes a timeline for U.S. and coalition forces’ withdrawal, the latter of which accomplishes one of al-Qaeda’s main goals.”35
ida had a spread-out presence across various provinces before the Taliban’s takeover of the country. From these outposts, it was able to support the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency. The United Nations Security Council’s monitoring team estimates that the group has recently operated in at least 15 provinces.i Some analysts question the judgments of the U.N. monitoring team due to what they believe is its reliance at least to some degree on information provided by the former Afghan government.36 Yet, notably, al-Qaida’s own sources have asserted a substantial presence of the group to support the insurgency of the Taliban in a number of provinces. According to dozens of essays in al-Qa
ida’s publications, Hiteen, Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad, and Nawa-e-Ghazwa Hind, the group actively supported the Afghan Taliban insurgency in Paktika, Kandahar, Ghazni, Zabul, Uruzgan, Nangarhar, Kunar, Helmand, and Nimroz.37 Furthermore, in raids against al-Qaida leadership over the last few years, U.S. and Afghan forces have killed senior al-Qa`ida leaders in Paktika, Farah, Helmand, and Kunar.j
Size-wise, too, al-Qa
ida has been resilient despite sustained leadership targeting and losses. Pre-9/11, al-Qaida’s core membership was reportedly only 170 members, even though, in its camps, it trained thousands of fighters who remained formally unaffiliated with the group.38 While the number of fighters is an imperfect measure of strength, today’s reported figures are higher than earlier years. The United Nations estimates that al-Qa
ida strength in Afghanistan is in the range of several dozen to 500 persons.39 The former Afghan government assessed that the total number of al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan was between four and five hundred;40 the Russian government offered a similar estimate;k the U.S. government’s Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that there were around 200 members of the group at the end of 2020.41
With the release of al-Qa
ida members by the Afghan Taliban, the group’s numbers have likely gone up. If the size of al-Qaida forces is close to 500, that is significant since al-Qa`ida has never sought to build up a mass army. Instead, it has operated as a vanguard, seeking to guide and mentor local jihadi factions while leaning on these factions’ manpower. In the post-9/11 period, it leaned on fighters from Pakistani tribal areas, including from forces of the Pakistan Taliban.
ida in Afghanistan appears to have continued sources of cash. By the end of 2020, al-Qaida Central continued to raise cash to support AQIS and pay off the Afghan Taliban. According to the U.S. Treasury, al-Qa
ida in Afghanistan draws on “donations from like-minded supporters, and from individuals who believe that their money is supporting humanitarian or charitable causes.”42 Additionally, according to a well-positioned independent researcher, al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban cooperate in drug and weapons trafficking through networks operating out of major black markets in southern Afghanistan, largely to support the Taliban’s operations. This revenue is also believed to be a source of funds for al-Qa`ida.43
Beyond manpower and funding, al-Qa
ida retains key combat capabilities in Afghanistan, some of which allow it to project power outside the country as well. As per al-Qaida’s magazine Nawa-e-Ghazwa Hind, AQIS has provided specialized personnel and technical capacity to support the Taliban’s anti-Islamic State campaign.44 Capabilities provided by AQIS reportedly included night operations advisors and experts for placement of mines and development of IEDs.45 There is also some evidence that al-Qa`ida fighters trained in Afghanistan have traveled as far as Indian-controlled Kashmir to take part in fighting against Indian forces in recent years.l
Al-Qa`ida also retains a chemical, radiological, biological, and nuclear (CRBN) cell in Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, which was created before 9/11 under Abu Khabab al-Masri. As per interviews conducted by this author, this cell is reportedly led by Luqman Khubab, who is the son of Abu Khabab al-Masri, and as recently as 2017 attempted to trade in the black market for loose nuclear materials and appears to be still at large.46 m
Separate from the CBRN issue, of particular concern, al-Qa`ida also has personnel capable of moving material aid and manpower via geographic routes through Iranian territory into Afghanistan and Pakistan.47 The group may have also obtained access to some of the military equipment and materials left behind by the Afghan government and military.48
ida is well-positioned to ramp up its capabilities in Afghanistan. The question is how visible those capabilities may or may not be, and what strategy the group might use these capabilities for. International terrorism plots directed against the United States and Europe, which al-Qaida prepares for years in advance, are one of multiple options the group has at hand.49 There are no indicators that the group has engaged in plotting against U.S. territories from Afghanistan in recent years. Until his death in 2016, al-Qa`ida’s Kunar-based senior operative Farouq Qahtani concerned U.S. policymakers for potential involvement in transnational terrorism plotting, partly because he was hosting Pakistani recruits with British passports—a plausible capability for external operations. The current status of such Western foreign fighters is not clear.50
ida’s external plotting strategy could change, though, as the centrality of the fight against the United States remains an abiding feature of al-Qaida’s political direction.51 The Taliban’s return to power provides al-Qa
ida one of the more permissive environments since the pre-9/11 era to build up an external operations capability. In addition to the Taliban’s willingness to restrain al-Qaida, there is also a question over the Taliban’s capability to rein in al-Qa
ida. Parts of the U.S. government believe that the Taliban may not have the capability to restrain al-Qaida. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, “… the compartmented nature of al-Qaeda’s command and control structure will likely make it difficult for the Taliban to monitor and curtail their activities effectively in the future.”52 In case al-Qa
ida decides to attack from Afghanistan, the group may not claim attacks in order to help the Taliban work around its commitments under the Doha agreement. The Taliban may also argue that any operation was planned by al-Qaida cells in Pakistan or that there is no proof of al-Qa`ida’s role in the attack/presence in Afghanistan. With such denials, the Taliban may be able to claim compliance with the Doha agreement.
- The Resurgence of the TTP
After some years of relative inactivity, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (also known as the Pakistani Taliban), currently the largest armed group in Afghanistan after the Afghan Taliban, is becoming a major threat with a range of capabilities.53 The group appears committed to a jihadi campaign against the Pakistani government, though its near-term goal remains unclear. Much of its messaging suggests the group wants to overthrow the Pakistani government and take control of the entire country, but recent comments by the group’s leadership suggests that it wants to create its own state in the Pakistani tribal areas.54
Founded in 2007 in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the TTP launched a brutal campaign of violence in Pakistan, killing thousands of civilians.55 By 2014, U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani military operations had degraded the TTP, and much of the group’s surviving organization moved to Afghanistan where it continued to splinter.56 Over the last two years, though, the TTP has regrouped and regenerated in eastern Afghanistan, amassing per one estimate a 6,000-strong fighting force based in Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar, and Paktika.57 The group achieved these numbers by engaging in a series of mergers and by reintegrating splinters and inactive factions, both of which have enormously boosted its political and material strength. It has also limited the attrition of its senior ranks, currently dominated by its chief appointed in 2018 Noor Wali Mehsud, and senior leaders Mufti Tariq Mehsud (known as Abu Hasham), Ahmed Hussain (known Ghat Haji), and Abdul Wali Mohmand (known as Umar Khalid Khurasani).58 In Pakistan, which is the group’s central theater of operations, the TTP has expanded its geographic presence beyond the Pakistani tribal areas, integrating units from Baluchistan, Karachi, and, more recently, establishing a chapter in the northern Gilgit Baltistan region.59
Under its current chief, Mufti Noor Wali, the Pakistani Taliban retains a range of relationships in the region, which give it capabilities for regional operations. For one, the group has long retained a strong relationship with the Afghan Taliban. TTP fighters have been co-located with Taliban bases in Paktika, Nangarhar, and Kunar.60 After the Taliban took Kabul, TTP leaders, including a former leader of TTP Bajaur (and close associate of al-Qa`ida’s leadership in and around Kunar province) Maulvi Faqir Muhammed, and a large number of TTP fighters imprisoned by the former Afghan government were released.61 Additionally, senior leaders of the TTP, including its chief Mufti Noor Wali and Faqir Muhammed, have reiterated their pledge of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban.62
The group has also maintained its relationship with al-Qa
ida, though its recent public position is to deny the ties.63 This is relevant to U.S. policymakers for two key reasons. For one, after 9/11, the TTP hosted al-Qaida’s external attacks operations, top central leadership, and a large contingent of foreign fighters in Waziristan. In 2009, the TTP cooperated with al-Qa
ida on a complex suicide bombing of a CIA forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan, which led to the largest loss of life the agency had experienced in its history.64 Furthermore, much like in the years after 9/11, the TTP’s zones of influence in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan offer potential insurance to al-Qaida in the event that the Afghan Taliban abandons them under international pressure. For its part, al-Qa`ida continues to see the Pakistani Taliban as an important partner in the region.65
The TTP has also displayed an ability to forge other relationships, operate in new geographic locales against novel targets, and conduct some external plotting. It has maintained an important relationship with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which it first developed in Pakistan’s Waziristan region.66 It has collaborated with the Baluch insurgent group the Baluchistan Liberation Army from bases in Afghanistan, though the overall extent of the partnership remains unclear.67 At one stage, it reportedly sought state support from both the Afghan and Indian governments, and there were some meaningful exchanges between the former Afghan government and the TTP.68
Moreover, the TTP has engaged in cross-border violence across Pakistan’s tribal areas, and some of its units have moved to the tribal areas and mainland Pakistan. Much of the TTP’s violence is geared toward Pakistani state targets, but a new and dangerous facet of the TTP’s platform is the targeting of Chinese personnel and officials.69 In April 2021, a TTP suicide bomber hit a hotel in the Pakistani city of Quetta where the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan was staying. The ambassador survived the attack and later the TTP spokesman denied that he was the intended target. Other targets have not been so lucky though. In July 2021, an IED attack in northern Pakistan killed 12 Chinese engineers—an operation the Chinese government assesses was carried out by the TTP with the TIP.70 Although not recently, the TTP has a history of limited external plotting. In 2008, it collaborated with al-Qa
ida on a plot to bomb the subway in Barcelona, Spain, and as per investigation, planned follow-up attacks in Germany, France, Belgium, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.71 And, in 2010, the TTP attempted a bomb attack on Times Square in New York City without al-Qaida’s approval or help, though the bomb failed to detonate.72
Most notably, the TTP has strongly resurged and is mounting a major campaign of violence against Pakistan. The Pakistani government appears to be leaning on the Afghan Taliban to restrain the TTP.73 In addition to regular raids along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and some artillery shelling, Pakistani authorities have also offered demobilization and financial compensation to wean away senior and mid-ranking leaders of the TTP from the group.74 However, these efforts have not been able to dent the TTP’s political and military recovery. More violence by the group in Pakistan, including from bases in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, appears likely.
- Metastasizing Regional Threats
Several other regional terrorist groups continue to persist and metastasize in Afghanistan. One of the most significant regional threats is the anti-China East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). The group maintains a robust relationship with the Taliban, as well as al-Qa`ida and the TTP in Afghanistan.n Senior leaders of the group Abdul Haq, Abdullah Mansoor, and Haji Furqan are reported to be in Afghanistan.75 The group is estimated to possess several hundred members according to the United Nations.76 These members are located primarily in northern and eastern Afghanistan.77 A 2019 estimate by analyst Franz Marty put foreign fighters under the command of Haji Furqan between 160 and 400 in the Badakhshan province.78 The TIP is also reported to move its fighters between northwestern Syria and Afghanistan.79 Independent sources in Afghanistan’s Paktika province confirm the presence of TIP fighters, as well as the arrival of fresh cadres from Syria over the last year; there are TIP units in the provinces of Kunduz and Logar as well.80 Since the Taliban’s takeover of the northern Badakhshan province, Uighur militant fighters have been spotted alongside the Taliban.81
Central Asian jihadis with political aims against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan continue to persist in Afghanistan, sometimes working in concert with the Afghan Taliban. A major group is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). With hundreds of fighters, the group includes some defectors from the Islamic State and has a presence in northwestern Afghanistan.82 Led by Jafar Yuldashev, the son of IMU founder Tahir Yulduchev, the group continues to work with the Afghan Taliban, but the relationship is not without problems. Since the IMU’s switching back to Taliban allegiance after remaining allied with the Islamic State for a period of time, the Afghan Taliban does not trust the IMU and is less accommodating of the group.83
Among other Central Asian jihadi organizations, the most significant is Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ). Founded by Kyrgyz citizen Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki in 2014, KTJ has maintained operations in both Syria and Afghanistan. After founding the group, Saloh focused its platform against both the United States and Russia: “Today in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq are based the military of the United States and Russia. They polluted these countries. Our task is to purify the sacred land of Islam from ‘garbage’ … we are conducting a jihad against the Crusaders in Afghanistan and Sham.”84 The group’s current leader Abdul Aziz Uzbeki is reported to be a veteran of the Islamic Jihad Union in Afghanistan, managing its operations in Syria and Afghanistan. KTJ also maintains a steady stream of funds for its cadres in Afghanistan, and in late 2020, the Russian government claimed to have foiled a plot linked to the KTJ.85 Relatively smaller groups, like the IMU breakaway Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari, Islamic Jihad Group, Jandullah,o and Jamaat-Ansarullah are also reported to be present in Afghanistan.86 Additionally, Uzbek militant fighters supported the Taliban’s military offensive in summer of 2021 in northern Afghanistan against the Afghan government.87 There are reportedly political proposals to unify Central Asian jihadis in Afghanistan, including potentially as an affiliate of al-Qa`ida, under influential Islamic Jihadi Group leader Ilimbek Mamatov.88
A third major grouping is of anti-India jihadis. The main anti-India group in Afghanistan is Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which has long been supported by Pakistan.89 Founded in the eastern province of Kunar, Lashkar-e-Taiba continues to operate in parts of the east and south of the country, draws from salafi constituencies in Kunar and Nangahar provinces, and supports the insurgent forces of the Afghan Taliban.90 In the past, the group has carried out attacks against India’s diplomatic outposts in Afghanistan.91 In 2020, the United Nations reported that LeT had a strength of around 1,000 fighters in Afghanistan, with nearly 800 in Nangarhar province and 200 in Kunar; this number was higher than the estimate provided by the U.S. military of 300 LeT fighters in 2019.92 Anti-India groups with a smaller presence in Afghanistan include Jaish-e-Muhammed,pwhich operates in the east of the country, as well as Tanzeem Selfiha (Al-Badr).93
- The Islamic State in Afghanistan
From 2016 to early 2020, the Islamic State in Afghanistan (also known as Islamic State–Khorasan, or ISIS-K) suffered back-to-back losses due to U.S. and Afghan military operations in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. This military pressure was compounded by the Afghan Taliban’s political and military onslaught against the group. As a result, the group suffered from the loss of leaders and rank-and-file fighters, shrinking territory, and the fragmentation of battlefield allies, such as the IMU.94
But over the last year, the Islamic State’s decline has plateaued. In fact, several indicators suggest that the Islamic State has been able to reduce its losses and is once again starting to build back up. First, the group’s violent attacks have steadily increased. In the first four months of 2021, claimed and attributed attacks by the Islamic State nearly tripled relative to the comparable period in 2020.95 Some of these attacks have been very brutal. In May 2020, gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked a maternity ward, killing newborn babies and mothers. The U.S. government attributed the attack to the Islamic State.96 In August 2020, the group conducted a complex attack against the Nangarhar prison to secure the release of hundreds of its prisoners, and it later claimed responsibility for the operation.97 On August 26, 2021, amid the American effort to evacuate U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans from the Hamid Karzai International Airport after the Taliban’s takeover, the Islamic State carried out a suicide bomb attack targeting U.S. and allied military soldiers and Afghan civilians at the airport, killing 13 U.S. soldiers and at least 170 Afghan civilians.98
Second, the Islamic State has not suffered leadership attrition over the last year , which has allowed the group to hone in on its Taliban-rejectionist political agenda. In early 2020, the group’s chief Abu Umar Khurasani and senior leader Aslam Farooqi were arrested.99 Since then, Shahab al-Muhajir has remained the leader, and he is positioning the group through a stepped-up media campaign targeting salafi constituencies across northern and eastern Afghanistan as “the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan to recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants to swell its ranks.”100 In line with that, an August 29, 2021, statement by the group condemned the Afghan Taliban as an “ally of the US,” adding the group has “deviated from the true jihadist path.” The statement also invited Afghan jihadis and Taliban fighters to “pursue the implementation of true Sharia” in Afghanistan by joining the Islamic State.101
Third, the group’s geographic area of operations has expanded compared to the last 12 to 18 months. In addition to the group’s core strength of 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, it has also been active in parts of Badakhshan, Faryab, Kunduz, Parwan, and Sar-e-Pol.102 Moreover, the group has a sizable cadre of foreign fighters, including Afghans, Pakistanis, Indians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Frenchmen, and Turks.103 After the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, Islamic State members imprisoned in Pol-e-Charkhi, Bagram Air Base, and National Directorate of Security (NDS) prisons were able to flee. One report suggests that out of the 2,000 ISIS prisoners who fled, around 150 were killed, including the group’s former leader Abu Umar Khurasani.104 As per some reports, Khurasani and some of the prisoners were killed by the Taliban.105
Finally, the Islamic State in Afghanistan remains a central node for the group’s regional strategy. Islamic State Central’s Al-Sadiq office—which covers the “Khorasan” region of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Central Asian republics—is based in Afghanistan and actively works with the Islamic State in Afghanistan. According to Islamic State in Afghanistan senior leader Aslam Farooqi’s testimony, at least until his arrest in early 2020, the group was receiving financial support from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.106 Separately, the Islamic State in Afghanistan continues to house and protect cadres of the Islamic State in Pakistan, in addition to conducting cross-border attacks into Pakistan against the leadership and associates of the Afghan Taliban.107 q
The Islamic State in Afghanistan continues to espouse transnational attack ambitions. There are indicators that the group has also plotted transnational attacks from Afghanistan. In July 2018, the United Nations reported that “recent plots detected and prevented in Europe had originated from [the Islamic State] in Afghanistan.”108 In 2019, the coordinator of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted continued transnational plotting by the group from bases in Afghanistan.109 In April 2020, the German government announced that it had foiled an Islamic State terrorist plot to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities by arresting four Tajik nationals who were in contact with senior Islamic State leaders, including a leader in Afghanistan.110 r
Factors Affecting the Threat Landscape
This is a dangerous threat landscape with the potential to threaten not just the United States and its allies, but also various regional governments. Several factors already in play are likely to worsen these trends.
Weak U.S. Counterterrorism Capacity
The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan has created substantial space for jihadis in Afghanistan. For years, the U.S. military presence in the country was a major source of intelligence collection—which depended on the infrastructure of the U.S. military—and counterterrorism pressure against a range of threats. The withdrawal has directly affected intelligence collection by reducing both technical and human sources. Before the collapse of the Afghan government, senior Afghan officials told this author that American and Afghan counterterrorism systems had already been scaled back—and the Taliban’s gains over the last six months reduced intelligence collection on major threats.111 Now, with the closure of the U.S. embassy in Kabul due to the Taliban’s takeover, the CIA’s intelligence gathering and targeting capacities has been reduced even further.112 As a result, counterterrorism pressure against terrorism threats in eastern, northern, and southern Afghanistan is at its lowest point in the last 20 years.
Future counterterrorism help from inside Afghanistan is likely to be highly constrained. In July 2021, Afghan officials noted that the feeling of American abandonment in the counterterrorism community was pervasive, due to which the willingness of important battlefield leaders to support American counterterrorism was down—including among those who are positioned to help covertly in the future.113 Key operatives and many members of strike forces who worked on counterterrorism were potentially evacuated in the U.S.-led evacuation effort after the Taliban’s takeover. As a result, there are few counterterrorism partners for the U.S. government to work with in Afghanistan, and building up a covert counterterrorism footprint inside the country will be enormously challenging.
The U.S. government also does not have a robust external counterterrorism capability based outside the country to monitor and target threats in Afghanistan, at least for now. The Biden administration is redirecting capabilities like high-endurance drones to bases in the Middle East for conducting operations in Afghanistan.114 But given the limited number of high-endurance drones, vast geographic scale of land-locked Afghanistan, and non-availability of a strong liaison providing intelligence from the ground, meaningful surveillance to detect threats is likely to be very constrained.115 Proximate military bases for counterterrorism assets can potentially offset such logistical challenges, but there appears to have been no breakthrough on obtaining bases in Central Asia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin rejecting President Biden’s request for U.S. counterterrorism bases in the region.116 The status of U.S. negotiations with Pakistan for a basing arrangement is uncertain after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s public opposition to hosting U.S. counterterrorism bases in-country.117 Even if a covert agreement is reached between the United States and Pakistan at the intelligence level, fear of exposure in Pakistani domestic politics will constrain the size and level of activity of any Pakistan-based posture, which will limit its efficacy.
The Politics of the Afghan Taliban
The Afghan Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in general and its political priorities in particular will enable aligned jihadis in multiple ways. On the one hand, as noted earlier, the Afghan Taliban remain supportive of several terror groups despite guarantees to the U.S. government under the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement. While they see the Islamic State and groups associated with it as a major threat and are open to taking military action against it, their approach toward al-Qa`ida, TTP, TIP, and various Central Asian jihadis is much more conciliatory. This may partly be because some of these groups have pledged allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Consequently, they likely do not plan on either expelling or cracking down on jihadis inside Afghanistan, which will create a highly permissive environment for these groups to gain further strength. To be sure, they may take further steps to formalize control of groups of foreign fighters—or give the appearance that they are taking such steps—in an attempt to allay international concerns.
Another factor, in some ways even more important, is that the Taliban’s return through a successful military campaign and the conditions-less U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are iconic political moments for jihadis across the world. The withdrawal is widely perceived as a victory for them. As noted in a BBC report on global jihadi reactions to the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal:
Jihadists in general and al-Qaeda in particular seem to be dazzled by the example of the Taliban, who ‘forced’ the US to negotiate and sign a peace deal … that stipulated the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the release of all Taliban prisoners.118
Jihadis are likely to leverage the Taliban’s return for propaganda purposes in order to convey to their bases of support that if defeating a powerful adversary like the United States on the battlefield is possible, then their respective state governments might also be within reach. This is likely to open new avenues of material and political support for jihadi factions around the world in general, and in Afghanistan in particular. There are signs that such an invigoration of jihadis worldwide is already underway.119 From Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s Idlib region to Hamas in Gaza to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, major jihadi and militant groups have offered effusive praise for the Taliban, proclaiming its methods a model for other groups to follow.120 Critically, al-Qa
ida’s central leadership and major affiliates/aligned groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa
ida in the Islamic Maghrib, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, Hurras al-Din, and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent have praised the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.121
Finally, factional politics in the Afghan Taliban remain to the benefit of regional and transnational jihadis. Senior Taliban leaders, such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Ibrahim Sadr, remain sympathetic to groups of foreign fighters, including al-Qa`ida.122 The Taliban have appointed Haqqani as the country’s interior minister, which is a powerful position in the Taliban’s new government.123 Additionally, the gaining of power of non-Pashtun Taliban leaders such as Qari Fasihuddin, Maulvi Amanuddin, Qari Salahuddin, and Qari Shamsuddin is to the advantage of jihadis, as some of these leaders have direct association with groups of foreign fighters.124 With more power and territory than ever before, each of these leaders are positioned to make their own decisions, including regarding how to deal with jihadis.
What, if anything, might ultimately push the Taliban toward fragmentation is challenging to project. Irrespective of the cause, the role of foreign jihadis can be crucial to any internal political struggle in the Taliban. For example, if factionalism worsens, major Taliban factions may seek al-Qa
ida and other regional jihadis’ allegiance. There is precedent for this. In 2015, when then-Taliban chief Maulvi Akhtar Mansoor faced an internal revolt after taking charge of the group, he publicly recognized the allegiance of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.125
Concurrent to policies that may enable other jihadis, there are some signs that the Afghan Taliban will continue to see the Islamic State as a major rival and might step-up efforts to limit the space for the group in Afghanistan. The Taliban may undertake targeted attacks against leaders and cells of the Islamic State as it has in the past. In Kunar and Nangarhar, where the Islamic State has territorial influence, the Taliban may even undertake military operations to combat the group. As already noted, imprisoned ISK leader Abu Umar Khurasani was reportedly killed by the Taliban after the Taliban took control of the prisons following the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15, 2021.126
Pakistan’s Support of the Afghan Taliban
The Pakistani state strategy of sorting its jihadi landscape into allies and rivals continues to complicate the terrorism landscape.127 So does Pakistan’s support and shielding of the Afghan Taliban. Firstly, it will likely undermine international efforts to pressure the Afghan Taliban, especially on their relationship with jihadi actors. Pakistan’s political support provides the Afghan Taliban—relatively insensitive to most forms of international opprobrium and sanctions—with crucial space to sustain its policies. Second, it will likely strengthen the jihadi threat against Pakistan itself. A major indirect beneficiary of Pakistani policy is the Afghan Taliban’s anti-Pakistan ally, the TTP. Over the last five years, the TTP has used many geographies under the influence of the Afghan Taliban to recover and re-strategize against Pakistan.
If the TTP continues to escalate its violence against Pakistan, it can create an additional complexity for the international community to convince and coerce Pakistan. A Pakistan imperiled by jihadis will be harder for the international community to pressure out of fear of the prospect of outright Pakistani state failure. For instance, in the critical period of the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, U.S. policy struggled to pursue the contradictory objectives of stabilizing violence-riven Pakistan, on the one hand, and fighting the Pakistan-allied Afghan Taliban on the other, thereby limiting U.S. and international options.
Inter-militant competition remains intense in Afghanistan, which is likely to aggravate terrorism threats. Scholars argue that when terrorist groups experience an increase in competition, they can adopt more offensive strategies, including through an escalation of violence, to “outbid” their competitors.128 They may do so to distinguish their brand from militant competitors, poach from rivals, or gain resources from fence sitters and supporters.
With the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power, the Islamic State may also ramp up violence against the Taliban and Afghan civilians—similar to the group’s August 26th attack at the Kabul airport against U.S. military personnel and Afghan civilians. It may do so to prove the group’s imprimatur as a major jihadi movement in Afghanistan, weaken the Taliban preemptively, and rally resources and recruits. If the Islamic State can sustain such violence, it will bring pressure on the Taliban to take even more extreme positions on issues that may otherwise expose it to criticism in the jihadi milieu, including on treatment of religious minorities in the country and ties with foreign jihadis. The Islamic State may put pressure on groups like al-Qa`ida and the TTP to demonstrate their relevance by escalating both the level of violence and the scope of their targets. Finally, given that the Taliban are giving assurances to the international community on not allowing anyone to use Afghanistan’s soil for terrorist attacks, nervous jihadis such as Central Asian jihadi groups in Afghanistan may seek an insurance against Taliban abandonment through a relationship with the Islamic State.
The Rise of China
Jihadis are increasingly drawn toward fighting China. Beijing has been a longstanding feature in jihadi propaganda for its repression of the Uighur Muslim population, which has intensified as of late.129 It is also a rising global power with a major presence through its Belt and Road Initiative in South and Central Asia, which brings China in closer contact with Afghanistan-based jihadis. Therefore, China presents an important target for jihadis in Afghanistan that some groups are keen to exploit to shore up their ranks and rally resources. In addition, there are indications that groups like the TTP want to continue targeting the Chinese—even though TTP denies this publicly—for its support of the Pakistani government.130
The Chinese government’s emerging relationship with the Taliban is an important pressure point against the group. For now, the Chinese government is conditioning the future of the bilateral relationship on the Taliban’s “clean break” from terrorist groups.131 If it enforces the condition, the Taliban might take steps to rein in at least some jihadi groups, like the Turkistan Islamic Party and parts of the TTP interested in targeting Chinese personnel and assets. In the best case from the Chinese perspective, this may reduce the terrorism threat substantially. Another potential trajectory is of the threats shifting to alternative safe havens, either in Central Asia, the Middle East, or Pakistan.
Great Power Competition
Intensifying great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia presents an opportunity for terrorists globally in general, and in Afghanistan in particular. Stepped-up competition limits the kind of military options that the U.S. government is willing to engage in inside Afghanistan, as well as the geopolitical compromises it may be willing to make to build and sustain a robust counterterrorism posture for Afghanistan. The geopolitical competition is also likely to impede international counterterrorism cooperation. In the past, counterterrorism efforts have benefited from bilateral and multilateral cooperation, especially intelligence-sharing. Sanctions and condemnations via the United Nations have also been important counterterrorism tools—which intensifying geopolitical rivalries could undermine.
Moreover, intensifying competition can open avenues that facilitate active—even if selective—state support for jihadis in Afghanistan, ranging from inaction by one or more states against specific jihadis to material aid. The Iranian government’s support to al-Qa`ida Central’s leadership inside Iran is another key comparative data point on direct state support.132 Even the perception of state support for an armed adversary may prove to be divisive and trigger escalatory spirals of political and material support to geopolitical rivals’ jihadi adversaries. Some U.S. intelligence officials with recent experience working on Russia believe that material aid by Russia to anti-U.S. terrorists is likely.133 The Chinese government openly speculates that the U.S. government is interested in backing Uighur jihadis.134
Usama bin Ladin returned to Afghanistan in May 1996 amid a raging civil war with little in terms of military capabilities.135 He firmed up his partnership with Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar by early 1997. By August 1998, he had bolstered the camps and units of foreign fighters that had existed in the country since the days of the jihad against Soviets, attracted foreign fighters and built new camps, and pulled off mass casualty attacks against two major U.S. embassies in Africa. Put differently, it took bin Ladin around two years to consolidate and project serious transnational terrorism capabilities from Afghanistan.
The bin Ladin timeline and trajectory in Afghanistan is instructive for the current moment. Of course, 2021 is not 1997—in more ways than one. American and international counterterrorism is stronger and poses a major barrier to international terrorism. Still, jihadis in Afghanistan today, at the least, have similar political momentum, capabilities, and experience than what bin Ladin had by early 1997. The iconic status enjoyed by the Taliban due to their late summer 2021 return to power in Afghanistan is to the benefit of jihadis in Afghanistan in general and al-Qa`ida in particular. Finally, the broader strategic environment is creating opportunities for jihadis to work around international pressure.
ida and other associated jihadis can leverage this opening in varied ways. They can step up the use of terrorism capabilities against more proximate state and regional adversaries, as some such as the TTP are already doing. Al-Qaida and its allies are strongly positioned to leverage improving capabilities against U.S. interests and assets in the region, as well as against the U.S. homeland in the future.136 Rival jihadis, such as those from the Islamic State, may also ramp up local, regional, and transnational violence to compete with the Afghan Taliban and outbid al-Qa`ida and associated jihadis. For now, the American counterterrorism posture for the region does not appear to be robust enough to forestall these possibilities.
Given such an enduring threat, what indicators do U.S. policymakers need to watch as they assess the intent and level of a regenerated threat from Afghanistan? For one, policymakers need to seriously consider the political significance of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The narrative of jihadi victory is likely to become entrenched in jihadi circles, and current policy assessments arguably overlook its significance. Second, if the jihadi victory narrative sets in, there is a strong possibility that the flow of material support from individuals and groups for the Taliban and its jihadi allies in Afghanistan will increase. The flow of foreign fighters from the region, the Middle East, and the West to Afghanistan will also be crucial to watch and contain. Movement of fighters from Afghanistan to other regions will be equally significant. A new factor to consider is the acquisition and build-up of emerging and traditional technologies in Afghanistan. In the late 1990s, bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida devoted capital to building up biological and chemical weapons in Afghanistan. There are signs that the current generation of non-state groups has its eyes set on newer forms of technology, such as more sophisticated drones.137 The chaotic American withdrawal and rapid collapse of the Afghan government has endowed the Taliban and terror groups with a range of technologies and capabilities, which are important to watch.
Policymakers should also attend to cross-border dynamics and regional spillovers of the situation in Afghanistan. Groups based in Afghanistan remain positioned to secure not just safe havens inside Afghanistan but also move outside, including to Pakistan and Central Asia. Cross-border terrorism operations can also escalate into regional and geopolitical hostilities. There is the potential for violence in Kashmir or attacks by jihadis in mainland India. Another India-Pakistan crisis due to attacks by terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains plausible. Finally, the Taliban’s relationship with the international community, including major powers like China, will shape the group’s ties with foreign jihadis. If the Taliban’s tenuous relationship with the international community breaks down, the Taliban may even overtly seek support from jihadi constituencies.
On the other hand, policymakers should be open to the possibility of a break in Taliban-foreign jihadi ties, even if that appears unlikely. Among indicators that might suggest the Afghan Taliban are taking a different approach toward jihadis would be meaningful criticism by al-Qa
ida and its ecosystem of the Afghan Taliban. If the Afghan Taliban renounce or reject the baya of al-Qa
ida, that too would constitute a major step. A crackdown like Abu Muhammed al-Julani-led Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham’s imprisonment of the al-Qaida loyalist Hurras al-Din cadres in northwest Syria would also be an important signal. Covert Taliban help through intelligence provision on international terrorism plots and against high-value jihadi leaders may also indicate a shift in Taliban strategy, though the political circumstances of the information provided will be important to consider.
The Biden administration must maintain high vigilance in Afghanistan, including through the development of strong counterterrorism platforms in South and Central Asia. The Taliban’s return to power has increased the stakes of such vigilance. Top al-Qa`ida central and regional leaders, as well as local hardliners espousing aspirations of plotting against the United States and regional states, need to be proactively contained through targeting, intelligence-sharing, and multilateral coordination, including sanctions. This requires compromises with geopolitical adversaries like China and Russia. To that end, the Biden administration should recognize that it does not have unconstrained leeway in pivoting away from counterterrorism. A strong counterterrorism regime is essential to keeping terrorist threats off-balance—and that requires ongoing commitment and persistence.