The rise of the Taliban is providing living space for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan

Radical Islamist operators around the world view the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan as a significant propaganda victory over the West.

Finnish Ambassador to Afghanistan Heli Kanerva.

Radical Islamist actors have celebrated the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021 as a portent of future victory in their sustained and patient struggle against the West. The return of the Taliban to power provides living space for the al-Qaeda global terrorist organisation. Supo nevertheless considers that this organisation will probably benefit from keeping a low profile in Afghanistan for the time being in order to reinforce the international status of the Taliban. 

Taliban’s status in Afganistan has been strengthened by the Doha agreement. Under this agreement, the Taliban has pledged to prevent terrorist organisations from operating in Afghanistan against the USA or its allies. This was agreed despite the presence of key al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It constituted a political victory for the Taliban, as the agreement also set a deadline for the withdrawal of US forces.

Supo continually monitors the state of radical Islamist terrorism, and accordingly takes an interest in the global impact of the situation in Afghanistan and changes in the activities of terrorist organisations.

Afghanistan now controlled by an internally divided Taliban 

The Taliban faces a new situation now that it has regained power and its diverse factions are no longer united by a common enemy.

Finnish Ambassador to Afghanistan Heli Kanerva explains that “the power of the Taliban rests on its ability to maintain order. While it has reduced corruption and allegedly increased customs revenues, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains catastrophic. The weak economy and restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms could lead to unrest.”

The international community is working to deliver massive humanitarian aid to the Afghans without using Taliban intermediaries. Foreign powers are seeking to improve regional stability, curb uncontrolled emigration, and prevent the growth of terrorism, organised crime and the drug trade.

“Moreover no state has recognised the current regime in Afghanistan,” Ambassador Kanerva points out.

It remains to be seen how the most radical members of the Taliban will respond to the efforts of its leadership to strengthen its foreign policy position and secure international legitimacy for the regime.

Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghanistan branch of the ISIL terrorist organisation, is one of several local terrorist factions that may attract fighters. ISKP is fighting the Taliban, and has stepped up attacks to weaken the regime. These tactics are very similar to those of the Taliban before it came to power.

Al-Qaeda-linked regional terrorist organisations remain active globally

Radical-Islamist terrorism is the most significant terrorist threat worldwide, with conflict zones and fragile States such as Afghanistan beset by multiple internal and social problems often serving as breeding grounds for radicalisation. The weakness of security authorities also often allows terrorist organisations to operate in fragile States.

Al-Qaeda has managed to maintain significant status as an ideological leader of radical Islamist terrorism. Its activities in recent years have focused on supporting regional allies around the world in several regional conflicts. Al-Qaeda-linked groupings are al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in the Western Sahel and Mali. Terrorist violence is ongoing in these areas.

The long-term goal of al-Qaeda is a universal caliphate, beginning with the establishment of regional emirates. The fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban is in line with this goal. Regional terrorist organisations linked to al-Qaeda may seek to negotiate solutions to local conflicts along the lines of the Doha agreement.

The stabilisation of Afghanistan will determine the impact on Europe

Supo believes that the repercussions of the Afghanistan situation in Europe will depend on how the country stabilises.

Afghanistan is unlikely to host a conflict that attracts Western foreign fighters in the same way as Syria and Iraq. Travelling to Afghanistan is difficult, and the Taliban are not seeking to recruit foreign fighters. The country has nevertheless remained symbolically important to global radical Islamist ideology for more than four decades, with foreign fighters coming especially from neighbouring regions.

The longer term impact of the situation in Afghanistan for Europe and Finland will depend on the global and regional development of ISIL and al-Qaeda operations. The main terrorist threat in Europe nowadays arises from lone European attackers, who may be inspired by radical Islamist propaganda.

“The future of Afghanistan is very difficult to predict. The Afghans are tired of continual wars, and the most important thing for them is to meet their own basic needs and those of their loved ones. It remains to be seen whether international diplomacy can find a solution for the future of Afghanistan,” Heli Kanerva observes.