The nightmare that kept counterterrorism experts from sleeping at night, even before the Taliban returned to power, was that Afghanistan would become fertile ground for terrorist groups, especially Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group. .
Two explosions claimed by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State that killed dozens of people in Kabul on Thursday (26), including American soldiers, raised fears that this nightmare could quickly become a reality.
“I can’t even say how scary and depressing it is,” said Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo, one of Afghanistan’s most popular TV stations. “The impression is that these people have resumed their normal activities – no more explosions, no more attacks – but now we will have to deal with all of this under a Taliban regime.”
Twenty years of military action by the United States and its international partners in an attempt to eradicate terrorism have inflicted heavy losses on al-Qaeda and Daesh, killing many of their fighters and leaders and, to a large extent, them. preventing control of the territory.
But, according to terrorism experts, both groups have shown themselves to be able to adapt, becoming more ubiquitous organizations that continually seek new local points of conflict where they can take root and put their violent extremism into action.
The double suicide bombings launched on Thursday near Kabul airport underscore the devastating power these groups still have to cause mass deaths despite the American effort. And they raise heart-wrenching questions about whether the Taliban will be able to deliver on the key promise they made when, in early 2020, the Trump administration pledged to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan: that the country would no longer function as a launching pad for attacks against the United States and its allies.
The group’s flash takeover of the country inspires no confidence that all militants in Afghanistan are under Taliban control. In contrast, EI’s Afghanistan branch – known as the Khorasan Islamic State, or IS-K – is a bitter but much smaller rival that has launched dozens of attacks this year in Afghanistan against civilians. , officials and the Taliban themselves.
A United Nations report in June concluded that in the months leading up to the withdrawal of US forces, some 8,000 to 10,000 jihadist fighters from Central Asia, Russia’s North Caucasus region, Pakistan and from the Xinjiang region in western China, went to Afghanistan. Most are linked to the Taliban or Al Qaeda, which are closely linked.
But other such fighters are linked to ISIS, posing a huge challenge to the stability and security the Taliban promise to guarantee the country.
While terrorism experts doubt that ISIS fighters in Afghanistan have the capacity to prepare large-scale attacks against the West, many say ISIS is now more dangerous than Al Qaeda in d ‘other regions of the world.
“It is clear that the Islamic State is the greatest danger in Iraq and Syria, in Asia and in Africa”, noted Hassan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic movements at the Institute of Politics and Society in Amman (Jordan) . “It is clear that EI is more widely distributed and that it is more attractive to new generations.”
On Wednesday (25), US officials warned of specific threats from the group, including the risk that it sends suicide bombers to infiltrate the crowd gathered around the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
This danger appears to have been one of the factors influencing President Joe Biden’s decision to meet his August 31 deadline to complete the withdrawal of all US forces from the country.
“Every day that we stay on the ground is another day that we know IS-K is looking to target the airport, attack US and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said Wednesday.
Created six years ago by disgruntled Pakistani Taliban fighters, Islamic State Khorasan has dramatically increased the pace of its attacks this year, according to the UN report.
The group’s ranks have shrunk to some 1,500 to 2,000 combatants, about half of what it had at its peak in 2016, before US airstrikes and Afghan commandos decimated many of its leaders.
But since June 2020, the group has been led by an ambitious new commander, Shahab al Muhajir, who tries to recruit disgruntled Taliban and other militants. IS-K “remains active and dangerous”, according to the UN report.
ISIS in Afghanistan has been primarily hostile to the Taliban. At times the two groups have fought for ground, especially in eastern Afghanistan, and recently ISIS has criticized the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Some analysts claim that fighters from the Taliban network have even defected to join ISIS in Afghanistan, adding more experienced fighters to the ranks of ISIS.
The history of ISIS reveals how difficult it can be to shut down or contain terrorist networks. The group emerged as an offshoot of Al Qaeda after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but later split off from Al Qaeda, creating a so-called caliphate, or Islamic theocratic regime, in a much of Iraq and Syria, which at its peak dominated an area comparable to that of the United Kingdom.
ISIS’s extremist vision of global expansion, its heavy use of social media and cinematic violence, has drawn in fighters from all over the world, inspiring deadly attacks on Arab, European and American cities and inciting the United States to form an international coalition to fight it.
As the United States and its allies bombed the group’s main territories, ISIS formed “branches” in other countries. Many of these branches – including in West and Central Africa, Sinai and South Asia – remain active after ISIS lost its last piece of territory in Syria in March 2019.
Al-Qaeda has also changed a lot since the days when Osama bin Laden led the organization and disseminated his ideas through statements filmed on video and delivered to television stations.
It has also established branches in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and parts of Africa and Asia, some of which have changed or even rejected the group’s ideology in favor of its local goals. The current leader of the group, Ayman al Zawahri, is elderly. He is believed to be ill and living somewhere in Afghanistan, failing to match Bil Laden’s stature among Islamic radicals.
Overall, al-Qaeda did not retain the same operational control as ISIS over its affiliates, which could have given it an advantage, according to Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book on the state. Islamic and editor of Newlines magazine.
For al-Qaeda, he said, “it’s like opening a Domino’s franchise and sending someone over there to do quality control.” ISIS, on the other hand, “would go a step further and appoint a manager from the home organization”.
ISIS has terrorized countries around the world with its call for so-called lone wolf attacks, in which a jihadist, without taking orders from the group’s commanders, recorded a video pledging allegiance to the head of ISIS and committing atrocities. The hard core then went public with the attacks and declared their support.
The two groups remain fierce opponents, vying for recruits and funding. They have already fought directly in Afghanistan, Syria and other countries.
Afghanistan could now become its main battleground as the United States withdraws its troops and the Taliban expands its control.
In a deal struck with the Trump administration last year, the Taliban pledged not to let al Qaeda use Afghan territory to attack the United States. But to what extent the Taliban will honor that promise, or whether they will even be able to do so, remain open questions.
ISIS does not need to stick to such restrictions, which could leave it in a better position to exploit the chaos surrounding the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops and the transition of a government. supported by the United States to a government supported by the United States.
For Hassan, “the passage of the guard from one security force to another offers a natural opportunity for the Islamic State”.
Translation by Clara Allain