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American Exit from Afghanistan Gives Global Jihad a Boost
Members of Syria's top jihadist group the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, led by al-Qaida's former Syria affiliate, parade with their flags and those of the Taliban's declared "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" through the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib on Aug. 20, 2021. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

American Exit from Afghanistan Gives Global Jihad a Boost

Washington’s allies in the Middle East worry as US presence shrinks and security threats grow

TV screens and newspapers have filled in recent days with images of Afghan men and women crowding Kabul’s airport and its surroundings, hoping to board a plane and escape the Taliban’s rule. As US forces hastily withdraw from the war-battered country, the Islamist organization was able to rapidly reconquer its former kingdom and regain its supremacy. The establishment of a Taliban regime in place of the US-backed government now appears to be a settled fact.

While the Taliban’s return to power does not bode well for Afghans, the return of the Islamist regime may also cast a shadow on other countries. Two decades ago, prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11, Afghanistan – then ruled by the Taliban – acted as a haven for jihadis. Its difficult terrain and Islamist overlords provided militants from around the world, bent on jihad, a place in which to train and a base for operations.

Most famously, the leadership of al-Qaida, which stood behind a series of attacks on American targets that culminated in downing the twin towers in September 2001, resided in Afghanistan; among them was Osama bin Laden.

Al-Qaida is the offspring of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s and the mujahedeen, Afghan locals and foreigners who fought against the Soviet Union and the Afghan regime then in power. Foreign fighters in Afghanistan who wanted to widen the breadth of their Islamist fight created al-Qaida, as well as other organizations.

Now, with the turbaned leaders of the Taliban back in power in Kabul, concerns are being voiced across the globe that Afghanistan will once again become a hub and launching pad for worldwide Islamist terror activities.

In February 2020, the Trump administration signed a deal in Doha with the Taliban titled “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” The Afghan group’s side of the deal revolved solely around ensuring that it would not allow the country to once more become a base for organizations that “threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

Seemingly in accordance with this, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said on August 17, “We assure the international community and especially the US and neighboring countries that Afghanistan won’t be used against them.”

However, a May 2020 UN report – written after the agreement was signed with the Trump administration – notes that the relations between the Taliban and al-Qaida “have remained strong since the removal of the Taliban regime 18 years ago.” It further says, “Al-Qaida is quietly gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under their protection.”

At present, the UN estimates that the number of al-Qaida militants in Afghanistan is in the hundreds and includes the organization’s senior leadership.

The agreement between the US and the Taliban, the report said, was celebrated by al-Qaida as “a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy.”

Al-Qaida has enjoyed a place of prominence in discussions about the possible rise of jihadi organizations in Afghanistan, but Micky Aharonson, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former head of the Israeli National Security Council’s foreign relations directorate, says that jihadi organizations around the world received a morale boost from the Taliban’s return to power.

The organizations “all crawled out of their lairs. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad applauded the Taliban, and other terror organizations around the world … congratulated the Taliban on freeing the lands from imperialists,” she told The Media Line.

The American withdrawal has been compared to the harried evacuation of Saigon in 1975. However, Aharonson notes, the existence of social media creates a key difference, contributive to the global effect of the Taliban’s victory.

Reporting on events in Saigon was delayed and provided by mass media, but “today, because of social media, everyone sees [the reality on the ground] and many terror organizations receive inspiration [from what they’re seeing]. They’re saying, ‘Look, if we wait enough time and act militarily, we’ll be able to expel the Westerns from a lot of other places.’ It is a major source of inspiration,” she said.

Speaking about the possibility that Afghanistan will once more become a prime location for jihadi training camps and launching bases, Aharonson stressed that it is impossible to predict how things in the Central Asian country will develop. However, “we are already seeing large gaps between the Taliban’s declarations and what occurs on the ground,” she said.

“There are no ideological disagreements between … al-Qaida and the Taliban,” Aharonson explained, and at present, she said carefully, “they will let them continue with their activities” in Afghanistan.

The central goal of the Taliban at present is to facilitate their metamorphoses from a guerilla organization to a ruling government and further to this, to preserve their position of power. Two complementary factors stemming from this will influence al-Qaida’s ability to act freely in Afghanistan: the amount of Western attention it will draw toward the country, and the American willingness to continue to pursue jihadi militants after the withdrawal.

If al-Qaida decides to carry out major attacks against Western targets, and the US shows that its presence will continue to be felt, bin Laden’s brainchild may become a liability for the Taliban, which will force it to limit al-Qaida’s freedom of movement.

Rasha Loai Al Joundy, a research supervisor and Gulf security expert at B’huth − The Dubai Public Policy Research Centre, expects ISIS and al-Qaida to now try and regain power.

Interestingly, she told The Media Line that another possible consequence of the withdrawal is “the emergence of a new terrorist organization backed by Iran in Afghanistan.” Liwa Fatemiyoun, or the Fatemiyoun Division, also known as Hizbullah Afghanistan, an Afghan Shi’a organization, “is already in play and will be a base of something bigger,” said Al Joundy.

Growing this organization, she explained, will give Tehran an additional card in its negotiations with the international community, and an additional threat in its conflict with US allies.

Yet another repercussion of America’s step back that Aharonson emphasizes is that it created a vacuum to be filled by other significant powers.

“China becomes much stronger, and so does Iran, because those countries are precisely those able to stabilize the situation with the Afghans. You [the US] want to weaken the Russians, and you are in fact giving them a gift,” she said.

The withdrawal also affects countries in the region.

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on Gulf politics and security, explains that American allies in the Gulf see the recent evacuation as part of a known trend of the US reducing its presence in the Middle East in its entirety, as the White House’s priorities change.

“The Gulf countries are very anxious about what the future holds, and what will happen to their national security without sufficient American support,” Guzansky told The Media Line.

Al Joundy agrees and predicts, “Security cooperation will be on the top of everybody’s list for years to come. Thus, differences would be overcome between competing players” and the crisis facing each of the countries in question averted with the least possible loss of security.

“Opening the door to negotiations with Turkey and Iran should help, but I would recommend employing the highest level of caution,” she said.

Al Joundy points to meetings that already took place before the American exit from Afghanistan, held by Emirati and Saudi officials with Egyptian, Turkish and Jordanian government representatives, as indicative of a quest for greater cooperation. Talks with Iran are also a sign of the times.

Relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan will also prove crucial and should be nurtured, the Emirati expert said. “Pakistan and Iran will be the most important players on the ground,” and good ties with the Taliban will be vital if the Gulf states wish to be able to “continuously evaluate the situation” vis-à-vis the development of a terror infrastructure in the country, Al Joundy said.

Guzansky said another cause for concern for countries in the Gulf is the possible flourishing of “al-Qaida and the establishment of terror there [in Afghanistan], that could be directed at the Gulf states.” Difficulties in the relations between the Taliban and Saudi Arabia in recent years, and efforts “to modernize the country and [advance] ‘a different kind of Islam’” lend additional credibility to this threat.

He agrees it is far from clear that the Taliban will allow jihadi organizations to establish themselves under its auspices, but if the Afghanistan of the ’90s and early 2000s does return, it carries an additional danger causing worry in the Gulf. Two decades ago, al-Qaida and its ideology proved attractive to some young men in the Arabian Peninsula. Most notorious of them was, of course, bin Laden, but notably, out of 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks, 17 had either Saudi or Emirati citizenship.

“Terror that would be directed at them is not all that worries” the Gulf countries, said Guzansky, “[they also fear] that suddenly, their youth will travel to Afghanistan and ultimately, go on to carry out terror attacks.”

Post-9/11, the actions of young Saudis put a significant amount of pressure on the US-Saudi alliance. With relations between the Biden administration and the Saudi government strained as they are, an attack on Western targets either sponsored or carried out by Saudi citizens is the last thing that the controversial crown prince of the Saudi kingdom, Muhammed bin Salman, needs.

Speaking of the Emirates, Al Joundy explains that “for the UAE, which has traditional nationals and an untraditional diverse population [of expatriates], the rise of extremist views is a challenge and a threat risk by itself since the UAE is building on values like tolerance and acceptance. Emboldened extremists in the Middle East would be and should be dealt with firmly.

“A re-emerging role of the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition [IMCTC] is the best choice to curb this rise, primarily if it results in widespread terrorist cells in weaker countries,” Al Joundy said.

(The IMCTC is an alliance of Muslim countries, united around military intervention against ISIS and other counter-terrorist activities. Its creation was announced by Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, now also crown prince, in December 2015.)

The Gulf states “certainly need to prepare themselves,” Guzansky said.

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