Analysis

Taliban takeover likely to drive regional, global terrorism threats

  • Political & Economic Risk Consulting
  • Global
Jonathan Wood

Jonathan Wood

Taliban takeover likely to drive regional, global terrorism threats


The Taliban has taken effective control of Afghanistan on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

  • The Taliban is under significant international pressure from the US, China, Russia and other stakeholders to deny safe haven for transnational terrorist groups. Its position towards and handling of regional militant groups remain unclear.
  • Nonetheless, emboldened by the Taliban’s success, regional militant groups are likely to seek to re-establish their presence in Afghanistan, likely driving an increase in regional (and potentially global) terrorism threats over the next few years.
  • Immediate security impacts will be most significant in neighbouring countries. Small arms proliferation and mass prison releases are likely to augment the capabilities of both the Taliban and regional militant groups.
  • US and allied counter-terrorism capabilities in Afghanistan are reduced due to the lack of an on-the-ground military and diplomatic presence, and will take time and effort to rebuild.

Propaganda win

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of an expensive, Western-backed military is a dramatic propaganda win for militant Islamist groups worldwide. It will almost certainly increase their intent to maintain attacks against local government and military targets, rather than participate in ceasefires or political negotiations. It will also sharpen their arguments to local communities that Western governments are unreliable and vulnerable partners.

Regional and international militant groups applauded the Taliban takeover, and some have sought to align themselves with the prospective Taliban government. While rival militant groups in Afghanistan – such as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) – may stake claims to power and seek to control territory or economic activity, they are unlikely to seriously threaten the Taliban’s dominance. The Taliban for now is relatively cohesive and enjoys local support, influence among tribal warlords, and alignment with militant groups including the Haqqani Network and al-Qaida.

Taliban fighters patrol a street in Kabul, 17 August 2021 (Photo credit: by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Weapons proliferation

The US has confirmed that the Taliban captured large quantities of small arms and ammunition from Afghan security forces, as well as armoured vehicles, military aircraft and heavy weapons systems. These weapons will augment the Taliban’s capabilities, particularly if the group is able to recruit or coerce trained operators. Some inevitably will be acquired by other militant groups or trafficked into neighbouring countries, and this will be even more likely if Afghanistan’s domestic conflict persists.

The Taliban does not have an air force and there is no indication that it captured sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. As a result, the Taliban currently does not pose a significant threat to high-altitude civil or military aircraft. However, it may seek to acquire anti-aircraft weapons or other sophisticated weapons systems to consolidate control and deter future military threats.

Jailbreak

The Taliban reportedly released thousands of prisoners – including Islamist extremists – from prisons captured during its advance through Afghanistan. Media reports indicate that the Taliban released inmates from Sarpoza prison in Kandahar on 11 August and Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul (which housed high-security terrorist suspects) on 15 August.

Prison breaks and releases, especially of experienced militants, have incubated persistent terrorism threats in Yemen, Nigeria and Iraq within the last 20 years, and are likely to swell the Taliban’s ranks as well as contribute experience and technical abilities to the Taliban and other militant groups.

Regional terrorism threats

The Taliban takeover poses an immediate terrorism threat within Afghanistan, as local groups exploit instability and insecurity. Some reports suggest that the Taliban has concentrated its forces in urban areas, potentially creating space to operate in more rural and remote areas. The international evacuation itself is an attractive terrorist target, as bombings targeting Kabul airport on 26 August indicate. (Several countries subsequently suspended evacuation efforts citing the elevated terrorism threat.) The attacks claimed by IS-K, raise questions about the Taliban’s ability to maintain security in Kabul and other locations.

Meanwhile, regional militant groups and networks are likely to seek to re-establish operations in Afghanistan, including recruitment and training activities. Many of these have roots in ethnic, sectarian or political conflicts in neighbouring regions and countries, including Central Asia, China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and India. Indeed, as with the escalation of the conflict in Kashmir during the 1980s, a conclusion of the conflict in Afghanistan could focus increased attention on other regional or international jihadist fronts.

Despite the Pakistani government’s attempts to position itself in support of the Taliban takeover, security threats to Pakistan are likely to increase in the coming months. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, Pakistani Taliban) leader Mufti Noor Wali on 16 August pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban. TTP attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas have increased since late 2020 and a further increase in attacks inspired by events in Afghanistan is likely, including against infrastructure projects.

A renewed terrorism threat to Central Asia – for example, by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – is likely to take time to materialise. However, the likelihood of militant groups targeting Central Asia would increase if Taliban control is – as appears likely – effectively uncontested in northern Afghanistan.  

Global terrorism threats

Al-Qaida has been significantly degraded through years of counter-terrorism activity and rivalry with Islamic State (IS), during which it evolved into a more grassroots, regionalised network (in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel and elsewhere). Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has not been seen in nearly a year, amid rumours of his death in 2020, and many prospective successors have been killed in recent years. Nonetheless, al-Qaida remains active in at least 15 Afghan provinces, according to the UN.

Al-Qaida undoubtedly views the Taliban’s conquest on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks as auspicious – and an opportunity for al-Qaida to rebuild and regain influence within the global jihadist movement. While al-Qaida has minimised overt relations with the Taliban in recent years, the US as of early 2021 claimed that al-Qaida maintains some operational linkages and “mutually beneficial relations” with the Taliban. As a result, it remains unclear if the Taliban will uphold or how it could demonstrate its February 2020 agreement with the US to deny safe haven to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. (US law requires quarterly reporting to the US Congress on Taliban compliance with the agreement.) One plausible scenario is that the Taliban turns a blind eye to al-Qaida without actively opposing its presence in Afghanistan.

IS-affiliated groups, meanwhile, remain active in Afghanistan and worldwide, constituting the primary terrorism threat in several regions. IS also continues to incite and motivate attack activity by homegrown violent extremists in Western countries. Within Afghanistan, however, IS-K has often been at odds with the Taliban and is likely to remain under sustained pressure.

Regime change in Afghanistan will not immediately generate new global terrorism threats from either group, but is likely to contribute to an evolving terrorism threat over the next few years. Indeed, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in June stated that there was a moderate likelihood that a transnational terrorism threat would re-emerge in Afghanistan within two years – likely faster now that the government and security forces have collapsed.

Over-the-horizon

US President Joe Biden, in a public address on Afghanistan on 16 August, touted so-called “over the horizon” counter-terrorism capabilities in lieu of “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan. US military officials describe these capabilities – which include communications intercepts, satellite surveillance and regional drone bases – as far more sophisticated than what was available before 2001 and sufficient to detect and disrupt transnational terrorism threats.

However, US officials also acknowledge that intelligence collection will be much more difficult and no substitute for on-the-ground networks and rapid response capabilities. The US withdrawal of military and diplomatic personnel is likely to disrupt existing human intelligence networks, while Taliban control will significantly limit future intelligence collection in much of Afghanistan. It is likely to take considerable time and resources for the US and its allies to rebuild intelligence networks in Afghanistan. The US is reportedly attempting to negotiate basing rights in one or more neighbouring countries, but may need to make political or operational concessions to host countries (such as approving strikes). 

 

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