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On August 15, 2021, exactly one year ago, the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, completing the retake of the country. Among the main fears of many foreign governments, particularly Western ones, 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 close to that first Taliban regime, in existence from 1996 to 2001, that Al Qaeda was able to plan and organize some of its most serious attacks, including those of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington.
A year later, that fear appears to be at least partially justified: several al Qaeda leaders have returned to seek refuge in the country, including Ayman al Zawahiri, the organization’s head, bin Laden’s successor, who died less than two years ago Weeks was killed by the CIA in downtown Kabul, in a residential area frequented and inhabited by Taliban government officials. Not only that, ISIS-K is also expanding and strengthening in Afghanistan, which can be defined, with some simplification, as the Afghan division of Islamic State, and a number of other smaller terrorist groups are also operating.
The Taliban have never stopped nurturing their ties with al-Qaeda, even during America’s twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan. But a year ago, shortly after their retaking of the country, there were conflicting views on how willing they would be to shelter and take in members of the organization again.
On the one hand, all the conditions seemed to be in place: the Haqqani network, a powerful Afghan armed group that has very close ties to al-Qaeda and is considered the main link between the organization and the Taliban, plays a very important role in the Taliban government. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the network and son of the founder, is the equivalent of the Taliban government’s interior minister: he controls law enforcement and intelligence, and other members of the group hold important posts in the regime.
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On the other hand, there were also those who thought things could have gone differently than 20 years ago. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, as agreed in the 2020 Doha Accords, was granted in exchange for guarantees that the Taliban would no longer allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to use Afghan territory to launch attacks against Afghanistan to organize.
The settlement was essentially based on the sole word of the Taliban, who in the first few days after conquering Kabul did everything they could to present themselves as a reliable, credible and more moderate government striving for legitimacy and international recognition. According to some analysts, they were unlikely to decide to offer sanctuary to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which had previously cost them twenty years of foreign occupation.
There were also those who took a middle ground between the previous hypotheses: that is, the Taliban would continue to support al-Qaeda and other organizations, but in a more covert and circumspect manner.
With the assassination of Ayman al Zawahiri in central Kabul, it became very clear that al Qaeda continued to enjoy excellent protection in Afghanistan and that the promise to keep the organization out of Afghan territory was not being kept: the head of the organization was not hiding in living in a 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 administrative official in Politico, he “moved calmly and looked at him from the balcony “. According to American intelligence, the house where he was killed belonged to Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Al Zawahiri appears to have been living in Kabul for several months. After his assassination, the Taliban claimed they were unaware he lived there, blaming the Haqqani network for it. They argued that Kabul’s security primarily depended on them. Thus arose the divisions within the Taliban government itself, likely divided between those who intend to continue openly providing protection to al Qaeda and those who do not want ties to the organization to be so obvious. The divisions, says Daniele Raineri in Repubblica, also surfaced over the possibility of organizing conspicuous state funerals for al-Zawahiri: some Taliban asked for it, while others opposed it.
According to a report released a month ago by the United Nations Security Council, the leadership of al-Qaeda still appears to be quite influential over the Taliban government. US General Frank McKenzie, who headed the US military in Afghanistan until last year, told the Associated Press that the organization is trying to rebuild a number of training camps for its members. It will be some time before attacks can be organized again in the West, but it seems that the conditions are at least in place to equip oneself for them.
In addition to al Zawahiri, other al-Qaeda leaders appear to be 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 is more than 200 years old). killed), the second for his close collaboration with Osama bin Laden in planning, organizing, financing and arming a series of attacks.
AQIS, an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, is also based in Afghanistan, as is its leader Osama Mahmood, who was recently added to the list of people sanctioned for their terrorist activities by the European Council.
As of early 2021, US intelligence had estimated that AQIS members in Afghanistan were fewer than 200: According to a report released by the UN Security Council last February, membership was increasing or even doubling, with 200-400 people active in Afghanistan. who have arrived from a number of neighboring countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India in recent months.
In addition to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, ISIS-K or ISKP (Islamic State’s Khorasan Province), which has been present in the country for several years and is responsible for very serious attacks, is also proving to be very active in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban retook Afghanistan, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks, both in Kabul and elsewhere. An estimate by the Wilson Center said there were 77 attacks in just the first four months of the Taliban government (it had completed 21 in all of last year), which continued in the months that followed, with scores of deaths (at least 100 in April alone).
ISIS-K’s attacks are explained by the fact that while it is a Sunni extremist group like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it competes with both for dominance 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 al Qaeda support, ISIS-K aims to delegitimize the same government that relies on the ability to maintain security in the country has always insisted on impressing and strengthening its presence.
Here, too, the group seems to have been successful in the past year: According to estimates by the UN Security Council in February, the number of members of ISIS-K in Afghanistan has practically doubled, from 2,200 to around 4,000. Many come from the prisons that the Taliban reopened in the course of their retake of the country, others are fighters who have come to Afghanistan from other countries.
ISIS-K also manages to expand beyond the few provinces in the east of the country where it has been possible to contain it in recent years: According to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), since Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban, ISIS, controlled -K has spread to almost all Afghan provinces and is “increasingly active”. According to the US Department of Defense, if this continues, the group could be able to organize attacks on Western countries in a year and a half.
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Then there are a number of other smaller 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, which is run by Uzbekistan and other smaller groups bolstered by Taliban success in Afghanistan.
The catastrophic social and economic situation in Afghanistan also contributes to the strengthening and spread of terrorist organizations.
After the Taliban seized power, many foreign governments cut off the funding and aid on which the country was extremely dependent. The consequences were immediately catastrophic: today millions of people suffer from hunger, there are very serious problems with malnutrition and almost all basic services have collapsed significantly. All of this offers terrorist organizations ample opportunity to recruit new members in a state so weak it has become, writes the Council on Foreign Relations, an ideal “sanctuary of terrorism”.
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