After decades of war in Afghanistan, ISIS and Al Qaeda can still wreak havoc

DOHA, Qatar – The nightmare that kept counterterrorism experts awake even before the Taliban returned to power is that Afghanistan would...


DOHA, Qatar – The nightmare that kept counterterrorism experts awake even before the Taliban returned to power is that Afghanistan would become fertile ground for terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Two explosions claimed by Islamic State that killed dozens of people, including at least 13 U.S. servicemen, in Kabul on Thursday heightened fears the nightmare would quickly become a reality.

“I can’t tell you how upsetting and depressing it is,” said Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo, one of Afghanistan’s most popular TV stations. “It’s like it’s back to business as usual – no more bombings, no more attacks, except now we’re going to have to deal with everything under a Taliban regime.”

Twenty years of military action by the United States and its international partners to eradicate terrorism has taken a heavy toll on Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, killing many of their fighters and leaders and largely preventing them from detaining terrorism. territory.

But both groups have proven their ability to adapt, according to terrorism experts, evolving into more diffuse organizations that continually seek new global hot spots to take hold and put their violent extremism into action.

The two suicide bombings near Kabul airport on Thursday underscored the devastating power these groups still have to inflict massive losses despite the US effort. And they have raised haunting questions about whether the Taliban can deliver on the central promise they made when the Trump administration agreed in early 2020 to withdraw US forces from the country – that Afghanistan would no longer be a preparation ground for attacks against the United States and its allies.

The flash takeover of the country by the Taliban does little to guarantee that all militants in Afghanistan are under their control. On the contrary, ISIS’s affiliate in Afghanistan – known as ISIS Khorasan or ISIS-K – is a bitter, albeit much smaller rival, which has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year. against civilians, officials and the Taliban themselves.

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 the Xinjiang region in western China flocked to Afghanistan, a United Nations Report concluded in June. Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, which are closely linked.

But others are allied with ISIS-K, posing a major challenge to the stability and security the Taliban promise to bring to the country.

While terrorism experts doubt ISIS fighters in Afghanistan have the capacity to launch large-scale attacks against the West, many say ISIS is now more dangerous, in more parts of the world , that Al-Qaeda.

“It is clear that the Islamic State is the greatest threat, in Iraq and Syria, in Asia or in Africa,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, expert on Islamic movements at the Amman Institute of Politics and Society. , in Jordan. “It is clear that ISIS is more widespread and is more attractive to new generations.”

Only on Wednesday, US officials warned of specific threats from the group, including that it could send suicide bombers to infiltrate the crowds outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

The threat appears to have been a factor in President Biden’s decision to meet his August 31 deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country.

“Every day that we are on the ground is another day that we know ISIS-K seeks to target the airport and attack both US and Allied forces as well as innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden Wednesday.

Created six years ago by disgruntled Pakistani Taliban fighters, ISIS-K has dramatically increased the pace of its attacks this year, according to the UN report.

The group’s ranks had fallen to around 1,500 to 2,000 combatants, about half of its peak in 2016 before US airstrikes and Afghan commando raids wreaked havoc, killing 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 fighters and other militants. ISIS-K “remains active and dangerous”, according to the UN report.

ISIS in Afghanistan has been primarily hostile to the Taliban. Sometimes the two groups fought for territory, especially in eastern Afghanistan, and ISIS recently denounced the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Some analysts say fighters from the Taliban networks have even defected to join ISIS in Afghanistan, adding more experienced fighters to its ranks.

The history of the Islamic State shows how difficult it can be to shut down and contain terrorist networks. The group began after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a branch of Al Qaeda, but later split up, establishing a so-called caliphate, an Islamic theocracy, across much of the country. Iraq and Syria which in its heyday was the size of Britain. .

The group’s extremist vision for global expansion, heavy use of social media, and cinematic violence have drawn fighters from around the world, inspiring deadly attacks in Arab, European and American cities, and prompting the United States to form an international coalition to fight it.

As the United States and its partners bombed the group’s main territories, ISIS branched out into other countries. Many of these subsidiaries have remained active since the group lost its last parcel of land in Syria in March 2019, particularly in West and Central Africa, Sinai and South Asia.

Al-Qaeda has also changed considerably since Osama bin Laden oversaw the organization and broadcast his views via videotaped statements delivered to television stations.

It has also established subsidiaries in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and parts of Africa and Asia, some of which have changed or even rejected the group’s ideology in pursuit of local goals. The group’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is elderly and reportedly ill and living somewhere in Afghanistan, after failing to match Bin Laden’s stature among Islamic radicals.

Generally speaking, Al Qaeda has not maintained the same operational control over its affiliates as ISIS, which may have given the latter an advantage, said Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book. on Islamic State and editor. from Newlines magazine.

For Al Qaeda, “it’s like opening a Domino’s franchise and sending someone in for quality control,” he said. ISIS, meanwhile, “would go further and appoint an official from the original organization.”

ISIS has also terrified cities around the world with its call for so-called lone wolf attacks, in which an unordered jihadist from the group’s commanders would record a video pledging allegiance to the group’s leader and then commit atrocities. The central group would then advertise and support the attacks.

The two groups remain bitter enemies, vying for recruits and funding, and have clashed directly, in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

Afghanistan could now become their main battleground, as the United States withdraws its troops and the Taliban expands its control.

In a deal with the Trump administration last year, the Taliban vowed not to allow Al Qaeda to use Afghan territory to attack the United States. But to what extent the Taliban will honor this pledge, and if it can, remain open questions.

ISIS has no such constraints, which could leave it in a better position to exploit the chaos surrounding the August 31 deadline for the US withdrawal and transition of a US-backed government. to the Taliban.

“Switching from one security force to another, by default, offers an opportunity for ISIS,” Hassan said.

How the Taliban choose to rule this time around is likely to affect the future of terrorist groups in Afghanistan. In their public statements since the capture of Kabul, Taliban officials have presented a more accommodating face, suggesting that they would not impose the same strict interpretation of Islamic rules with the same iron fist as before being ousted by the government. American invasion of 2001.

But the group is hardly united, said Mr. Abu Hanieh, the expert on Islamic movements, and restraint measures by the leadership could lead to defections of hard-line members to the Islamic State.

“It’s a big challenge for the Taliban,” he said. “Even if they wanted to get rid of the radical wing, it wouldn’t be easy.”

Ben Hubbard reported from Doha, Qatar, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Matthew Rosenberg from Mexico. Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Paris.

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Newsrust - US Top News: After decades of war in Afghanistan, ISIS and Al Qaeda can still wreak havoc
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