Andy Oppenheimer assesses renewed threats emanating from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

The US and its allies waged war for 20 years to try to defeat al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, only for the Taliban to retake the country just before NATO withdrawal. Only weeks later the ISIS Afghan affiliate and al-Qaeda were assessed as ready to launch strikes against the West sooner than previously thought.

The devastating suicide bombing outside Kabul airport on 26 August, killing at least 170 Afghans and 13 US troops and a double-suicide bombing in September in Kunduz – both by a variant of ISIS – was a clear sign that this deadly group remains a threat.

In late October, US Defense Department Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that intelligence suggested the active groups in Afghanistan had gained momentum, especially since the Kabul airport attack.

The new ISIS variant
This latest version of ISIS is the Afghanistan affiliate, IS-K – the Islamic State of Khorasan Province. The group had already launched 77 attacks in the country in the first four months of 2021 — an increase from 21 during the same period in 2020.

On 9 October, a suicide bomb attack on a mosque in Kunduz killed at least 50 and injured 100 in the deadliest assault since US withdrawal. It was claimed by IS-K, who target Shia Muslims since they believe them to be heretics.

IS-K emerged as far back as 2015 after ISIS declared its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. It pushed for mass-casualty attacks not only against civilians, but also aimed to topple the Pakistani government. The Afghan Taliban are not ‘pure’ enough for them either, which IS-K aim to topple. The Iranian government was also in their sights as the prime Shia power.

This group’s renewed capacity for mass-casualty attacks is further destabilising Afghanistan’s already precarious security situation. Despite military campaigns waged against IS-K by the Afghan government, previously supported by the US, IS-K has continued to build its ranks from the the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the post-Mullah Omar Afghan Taliban, and a sectarian minority of Salafis in eastern Afghanistan.

It has foreign fighters from South Asia, the Middle East and some European countries. In 2020 the German government charged four Tajik nationals with plotting to launch attacks on US and NATO military facilities.

IS-K has leveraged its rural networks to gain territorial control in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. It has since focused on fighting the Taliban and Afghan religious minorities, with prime targets being key urban areas, most notably the capital Kabul.

Also vulnerable are anyone who worked with the US and Afghan governments as well as international diplomats and developmental organisations.

The Taliban takeover
Only two weeks before the projected pullout of US and UK troops from Afghanistan, Taliban forces overran most of the country and took over the capital within days. In one week, Taliban forces had seized 12 provincial capitals in Afghanistan.

Hundreds of Afghan forces surrendered to the Taliban in northern areas. They took more territory in Afghanistan in two months than at any time since they were ousted from power in 2001.

The NATO pullout was scheduled to coincide with the landmark 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities by al-Qaeda – the very reason the US and its allies entered Afghanistan in the first place, to remove the force that had sheltered al-Qaeda and enabled it to launch those unprecedented attacks.

According to the UN, the Taliban’s military offensive was unprecedented in the past 30 years. Overall, the country suffers more terror attacks than most: since mid-April, more than 5,500 attacks – including the well-honed strategy of suicide bombings in the capital and elsewhere – have been launched in 31 of 34 provinces.

The cost
The cost to the United States has been 2,218 US military service personnel killed and 20,903 wounded in action with an estimated cost of at least $2.26 trillion.

Since UK operations began in 2003 until troop drawdown in 2014, 454 personnel were killed and 298 seriously injured. The cost of UK operations is believed to be more than £8.4 billion.

A terror boost
The Taliban’s blitz on much of the country that it formerly occupied can be interpreted as a rallying cry to jihadist terrorist groups worldwide – that they can gain power and territory through force. Military victory against two superpowers and their own home army speaks for itself.

The militants gained valuable equipment from the capitulating forces, including Humvees, weapons and other supplies. The Taliban have freed hundreds of fighters, replenishing their fighting capability.

According to the UN, the build-up to the final coup saw Taliban insurgents inflicting the highest level of violence on Afghan forces and civilians in 2020— more than 25,000 incidents, a 10% increase over 2019 – and this continued well into 2021.

Fears grow that mass-casualty terrorism will make a comeback now that the Taliban and their jihadist allies (and enemies) have taken over a remote and impenetrable country that has long been a hiding place for the world’s most dangerous terrorists.

MI6 warning

Last September former MI6 Director Sir John Sawers warned that there was a far greater risk of both foreign-based and homegrown attacks since US/NATO withdrawal, adding: “we will not be able to monitor terrorist groups and take action against them in Afghanistan itself.”

“Those extreme Islamists, violent people who take inspiration from the Taliban success in Afghanistan, might take it into their own hands to carry out attacks.”

Others, including former UK government security advisor Sir Mark Lyall Grant, believe despite the boost given to terror groups around the world that the Taliban are less of a threat to the UK as they are not an international franchise like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Much depends on how countries neighbouring Afghanistan can prevent the Taliban-controlled country from once again becoming a base for terrorism.

The Taliban’s role
The Taliban will, however, be occupied dealing with IS-K. Since the US pullout IS suicide bombers have struck mosques, sports clubs and schools, and has furthered its campaign of attacks against the Taliban.

It is not yet known what role the Taliban will play, if any, in limiting the threat of terror plots emanating from Afghan territory against the US and other Western countries.

The 9 October mosque attack indicated a notable expansion of IS-K into northern Afghanistan. The Taliban reportedly arrested an undisclosed number of IS and may have eliminated others, but publicly nothing is said officially about the rivalry and the IS threat within the country.

US officials now estimate the IS group has at least 2,000 ‘hardcore’ fighters in cells across Afghanistan, though some foreign intelligence services think the number may be higher.

The US has been conducting daily surveillance flights over Afghanistan while also using technical capabilities to obtain intelligence on IS-K and al-Qaeda. But this is far more difficult without a US presence on the ground and to successfully limit terrorism threats from “over the horizon.”

US Marines assist with security at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in August 2021.
©Staff Sgt Victor Mancilla/Wikimedia