On August 15, 2021, exactly one year ago, the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, thus completing the reconquest of the country. Among the main fears of many foreign governments, especially Western ones, there was the possibility that the Taliban would return to offer hospitality and protection to terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, turning the country back into a base of international terrorism: it was just under the first regime Taliban, which lasted from 1996 to 2001, which al Qaeda managed to plan and organize some of its most serious attacks, including those of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington.
A year later, that fear seems to be at least partly founded: several al Qaeda leaders have returned to take refuge in the country, including Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of the organization who succeeded bin Laden, killed less than two weeks ago by the CIA in the downtown Kabul, in a residential neighborhood frequented and inhabited by Taliban government officials. Not only that: ISIS-K is also expanding and strengthening in Afghanistan, which can be defined with a certain simplification as the Afghan division of the Islamic State, and a series of other smaller terrorist groups are also operating.
The Taliban have never stopped maintaining their relations with al Qaeda, not even during the twenty years of the American occupation of Afghanistan. But a year ago, immediately after their reconquest of the country, there were conflicting views on how willing they would be to protect and host members of the organization again.
On the one hand, there seemed to be all the conditions for them to decide to do so: the Haqqani network, a powerful Afghan armed group that has very close ties with al Qaeda and is considered the main link between the organization and the Taliban, plays a very important role in the government of the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the network and son of the founder, is the equivalent of the interior minister of the Taliban government: he is in control of law enforcement and intelligence, and other members of the group have important posts in the regime.
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On the other hand, however, there were also those who thought that things could have gone differently than they were 20 years ago. The withdrawal of US soldiers from Afghanistan, as agreed in the 2020 Doha agreement, was granted in exchange for the guarantee that the Taliban would no longer allow al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to use Afghan territory to organize attacks against Afghanistan. West.
The agreement was basically based on the sole word of the Taliban, who in the first days after the conquest of Kabul did everything to present themselves as a reliable, credible and more moderate government, seeking legitimacy and international recognition. According to some analysts, it was unlikely that they would decide to offer refuge to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which previously had cost them twenty years of foreign occupation.
There were also those who hypothesized a middle ground between the previous hypotheses: that is, that the Taliban would continue to give support to al Qaeda and other organizations, but in a more hidden and prudent way.
With the killing of Ayman al Zawahiri in central Kabul, it became very clear that al Qaeda continues to enjoy excellent protection in Afghanistan, and that the promise to keep the organization out of Afghan territory has not been respected: the head of the organization did not live hidden in some remote and mountainous area, but in the heart of Kabul, where it was possible to identify him also thanks to the fact that, according to an official of the administration a Politic, “He moved calmly and used to look out onto the balcony.” According to American intelligence, the house where he was killed belonged to Sirajuddin Haqqani.
It seems that al Zawahiri had been living in Kabul for several months already. After killing him, the Taliban claimed they did not know he lived there and blamed the Haqqani network, arguing that Kabul’s security depended primarily on them. Thus the divisions in the Taliban government itself emerged, probably split between those who intend to continue to openly give protection to al Qaeda and those who would not want the links with the organization to be so evident. The divisions, says Daniele Raineri on Republichad also emerged on the possibility of organizing conspicuous state funerals for al Zawahiri: some Taliban had asked for them, others had opposed them.
According to a report released a month ago by the United Nations Security Council, it appears that the leadership of al Qaeda is still quite influential on the Taliban government. To Associated Press, US General Frank McKenzie, who led the US military in Afghanistan until last year, said the organization is trying to rebuild a series of training camps for its members. It will take time to return to being able to organize attacks in the West, but it seems that there are at least the conditions for equipping oneself to do so.
In addition to al Zawahiri, it seems that other leading figures of al Qaeda also reside in Afghanistan, including Saif al Adel and Amin Muhammad ul Haq Saam Khan: the former is wanted for the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania ( which killed more than 200), the second for having worked closely with Osama bin Laden, in the planning, organization, financing and arming of a series of attacks.
AQIS, an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, also has its headquarters in Afghanistan, as well as its leader Osama Mahmood, recently included by the European Council in the list of subjects sanctioned for its terrorist activities.
At the beginning of 2021, US intelligence had estimated that the AQIS members in Afghanistan were less than 200: according to a report published last February by the UN Security Council, the members increased or even doubled, with 200-400 subjects active in Afghanistan, who arrived in the previous months from a series of neighboring countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.
In addition to al Qaeda and its affiliates, ISIS-K, or ISKP (Khorasan Province of the Islamic State), present in the country for several years and responsible for very serious attacks, is also proving to be very active in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks, both in Kabul and elsewhere. An estimate made by the Wilson Center studies center spoke of 77 attacks in the first four months of the Taliban government alone (in the whole previous year he had completed 21), which continued in the following months, with numerous deaths (at least 100 in April alone ).
The attacks by ISIS-K are explained by the fact that, although it is a Sunni extremist group like the Taliban and al Qaeda, it rivals both for supremacy in the jihadist world. Al Qaeda and ISIS, in particular, have long been enemies: by hitting civilians in a country ruled by the Taliban with the support of al Qaeda, ISIS-K aims to delegitimize that same government, which on the ability to guarantee security in the country has always insisted on imposing and strengthening its presence.
Again, it seems that in the last year the group has succeeded: according to estimates made by the UN Security Council in February, the members of ISIS-K in Afghanistan have practically doubled, from 2,200 to about 4 thousand. Many have come out of the prisons that the Taliban had reopened in the course of their reconquest of the country, others are fighters who have arrived in Afghanistan from other countries.
ISIS-K is also managing to expand beyond the few provinces in the east of the country where it was possible to confine it in recent years: according to the United Nations mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), since Afghanistan has controlled by the Taliban, ISIS-K has expanded to almost all Afghan provinces, and is “increasingly active”. According to the US Department of Defense, if things continue in this direction, the group may be able to organize attacks on Western countries within a year and a half.
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Then there are a number of other minor terrorist groups currently active in Afghanistan: the Council on Foreign Relations study center mentioned the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, but also the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, that of the Uzbekistan and other smaller groups, invigorated by the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The catastrophic social and economic situation in Afghanistan also contributes to the strengthening and proliferation of terrorist organizations.
After the Taliban seized power, many foreign governments stopped the funding and aid on which the country was extremely dependent. The consequences were immediately disastrous: today millions of people suffer from hunger, there are very serious problems of malnutrition and almost all basic services have substantially collapsed. All this offers terrorist organizations ample opportunities to recruit new members, in a state so weak that it has become, writes the Council on Foreign Relations, an ideal “sanctuary of terrorism”.
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