One might be pardoned for thinking that the convoy belonged to a visiting head of state. As the long line of SUV’s rolled into the town square, people ran alongside, kissing the hand of its passenger and taking selfies, even as groups of Taliban guards kept the crowd at bay and sirens blared to make way for his car. The spectacled man smiling delightedly was none other than Amin-ul-Haq, a prominent al-Qaeda leader who returned to his native Nangarhar.
In Washington, former Defence Secretary William Cohen was heard saying, “I think the Taliban will need our help. They are economically unsure and they may come under attack by al-Qaeda or ISIS.” He added, “So, it may be ironic that the very people that have been fighting us will need us in order to stay safe and in power themselves.” That’s a surprising statement, especially since US generals have been saying for years that al-Qaeda was decimated, which, in turn, was the reason why US President Joe Biden himself declared ‘mission over’. But the Senator’s statement, perhaps unwittingly, seems to indicate not just that al-Qaeda is undefeated, but also that it could actually overwhelm the Taliban itself. This needs some analysis.
The al-Qaeda In Afghanistan
Meanwhile, there’s enough and more to show that al-Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan and in concert with the Taliban. In the present instance, the Senator should take note that the Treasury Department has designated Amin as a terrorist with the detail that he was security coordinator for Osama Bin Laden, that Nangarhar was handed over to the Taliban without a shot being fired, that the Taliban governor for the area at present is Sheik Nida Mohammad, and that the guards protecting the convoy of this hugely important al-Qaeda head are the Taliban. He’s a prize target since he’s been associated with the Maktab Al Khidmat lil Mujahideen, or the Service Offices of Arab Mujahideen, the precursor to al-Qaeda created by a true ‘international’ jihadi called Abdullah Azzam, who was killed in mysterious circumstances in Peshawar in 1989.
His meticulous records of hundreds of mujahideen were taken over by Osama bin Laden, and that includes the precursors to the present Lashkar-e-Taiba. This man knows all the tentacles that made up al-Qaeda. And yet, he’s basking in the warmth of his welcome in Taliban-controlled territory.
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
A second illustration of the proximity between the two is the reported congratulatory message from al-Qaeda through its media arm, which while celebrating this “third victory” (at whose cost) over the occupying forces, references Mullah Omar, Mullah Mansour (killed in a US drone strike, and believed to be assisted with Pakistani intelligence) and Sheikh Jalaluddin Haqqani, father of the present deputy leader of the Taliban, Sirajuddin.
All three were blood brothers of the group, and that should tell the US something about the present situation. For India, the main concern is that the message also mentions freedom for Kashmir, among other “occupied” areas like Palestine.
This cry of victory is enough to unnerve anyone but US officials, who have declared time and again that al-Qaeda has been “degraded” to a force of mere 200 cadres. That assessment made up the argument for the US troops’ withdrawal, with President Biden most recently reiterating this.
Don’t blame the US president though. The “degraded” argument has been around at least since 2009, and, as the Long War Journal points out, has had holes poked in it by its own estimates, particularly on account of a 2015 raid on a large camp that held more than 150 cadres. Clearly, the numbers didn’t add up then. They won’t add up now either. The al-Qaeda, in its own publication Thabat, claimed hundreds of attacks. Even if these are reduced by half, the numbers operating are far more.
An Organic Part Of the Taliban
The United Nations’ (UN) Report of April 2021, quoting its own earlier reports, notes no cessation of ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban — ties reinforced through marriages — and the fact that a second generation is now operating together. It notes that al-Qaeda is resident in at least 15 provinces, with a total of some 500 cadres, quite far from the “less than 200” theory.
Also present is al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, which, unsurprisingly, operates along the Pakistani border and has mostly Afghan and Pakistani nationals, together with cadres from India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. That’s disquieting enough.
Worse, the report notes that al-Qaeda is such an organic part of the Taliban that it’s difficult to draw lines between them. The group is assessed to be “lying low” until it can once again strengthen itself to attack internationally. Don’t forget that underlying all this is the firm belief that one day, the entire world will be part of the Muslim Ummah.
The World Must Pay Heed
The trouble is that that is not actually the Taliban’s worldview. The Taliban are Afghan and have so far shown no inclination to go beyond the desire to control their own lands, even if by a thoroughly debased and unfair system. They have and will probably continue to shelter all shades of terrorists, as they themselves have been sheltered by Pakistan, a state that prides itself on this as a ‘strategic concept’.
However, al-Qaeda seems to want more. For one, there are the deliberate and detailed claims of attacks immediately after the Doha agreement in March 2020, after lying quiet for years in deference to its host. Then there is the fact that al-Qaeda was always far more sophisticated technologically and otherwise than the Taliban, not to mention, with access to far more funds. Given the assessment that it has been defeated, there is now no clear picture about its funding sources and extent.
The attention has shifted entirely to the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), a group that many doubt exists even independent of the Haqqani network. Take a look at the writings of Abdullah Azzam himself. It takes the concept of ‘takfir’ further to its logical conclusion: even Muslims who oppose jihad deserve death. For al-Qaeda and its patrons — and there were once many — Afghanistan is the prize, the actual ‘base’ to launch its vision of worldwide jihad.
It seems operationally possible, especially with Afghanistan’s neighbour bursting into loud, raucous calls of celebration and with the US looking everywhere else but at the actual target.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)