Colin P. Clarke
Last week, al Qaeda’s central media apparatus finally weighed in on the Taliban retaking Afghanistan with a triumphant proclamation: “This victory has demonstrated what the Islamic nation is capable of when it unites, takes up arms, and fights in the Way of Allah to defend its Religion. These events prove that the Way of Jihad is the only way that leads to victory and empowerment.”
With this statement, al Qaeda let the world know that this is the moment it’s been waiting for. The group has been waiting in the wi-ngs for a long time, building its local strength in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa while leaving the more high-profile atta-cks on Western targets to its newer jihadist rival, ISIS. Now, al Qaeda feels vindicated for its strategy of “qu-ietly and patiently” rebuilding. The group is using the Taliban victory to spread propaganda aimed at galvanizing affiliates and supporters around the world.
With the Taliban in control of Afghanistan and al Qaeda reinvigorated and emboldened, it’s understandable if Americans feel an eerie sense of having seen this movie before. Indeed, there are already signs that the alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban — which never really went away after 9/11, even though both groups faded somewhat from international headlines — is strengthening.
But this doesn’t mean a return to the 2001 status quo, when the Taliban provided safe haven to al Qaeda and declined to hand Osama bin Laden over per President George W. Bush’s request. The danger today is not that the Taliban will tacitly help al Qaeda plan major attacks on the West, but that the two will band together to mutually reinforce one another’s quest for power, fight common jihadist enemies and assist Pakistan’s quest to destabilize South Asia.
This next phase of the relationship reflects the Taliban’s new responsibilities as a governing entity rather than an insurgent force, as well as the proliferation of other terror groups, most notably Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), that both al Qaeda and the Taliban bitterly oppose.
For the United States, this new reality is a mixed bag. The good news is that the new al Qaeda is less likely to engage in the types of terror attacks that sent America to war in the first place. But the flip side is that US counter-terrorism efforts against ISIS and its affiliates will indirectly help the Taliban — and by extension al Qaeda and other Islamist militants in the region — eliminate their rivals and consolidate power.
Twenty years after 9/11, the jihadist landscape bears little resemblance to what it looked like in 2001, even though the names of some major players may be familiar. The era of trying to prevent another 9/11 from al Qaeda is almost certainly over. In its place is a murkier reality where al Qaeda is focused on being a regional power player, the Taliban is fighting an insurgency of its own and both groups have incentives to help Pakistan threaten India — a possibility less directly problematic for US national security, but still worrisome and challenging, given the historical enmity and already-volatile relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
The alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban has existed in one form or another since Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants relocated to Afghanistan after getting booted from Sudan in 1996, the same year the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Since the US invasion, the Taliban has largely kept quiet about the alliance, focused on the more immediate goals of fighting US occupation, retaking Afghanistan and obtaining international legitimacy.
Al Qaeda has been playing a long game of its own. The jihadist organization has long shown that it thinks in decades rather than years. After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, it shifted focus from global ambitions to a more local agenda, targeting so-called “tyrants” in the Muslim world rather than the West. Under leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group emphasized decentralization and delegating autonomy to affiliates in Somalia, Yemen and Syria. With the rise of ISIS, al Qaeda was seriously threatened.
But the group wisely resisted expending too much energy on competing with its new jihadist rivals, instead continuing to strengthen its roots locally while ISIS conducted transnational attacks on Western targets (and absorbed the vast majority of the Western military response).
Al Qaeda is now pointing to the Taliban’s victory as proof of concept for jihadist groups that a gradualist approach — biding time, emphasizing grassroots organization over high-profile attacks and making alliances with local tribes and clans — can be effective. Already, jihadist groups in Syria and Pakistan have lionized the Taliban as a model to emulate. In West Africa, an al Qaeda-linked organization praised “two decades of patience” and suggested that a similar strategy would help its fighters conquer Mali and other countries in the Sahel.
Even though al Qaeda is capitalizing on the events of recent weeks, it in fact never broke with the Taliban. It has consistently provided them with intelligence, logistics, and tactical expertise and support. Militants from the group’s affiliate al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) regularly embed in Taliban fighting units. In late 2019, AQIS fighters helped the Taliban in clashes with ISIS-K fighters in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a traditional stronghold of the Islamic State affiliate.
Al Qaeda’s end goal here isn’t to persuade the Taliban to give them safe haven to plan another attack on the West.
The group appears to have deemphasized that objective, and they are likely well aware that the Taliban would never risk anything that could compromise their rule of Afghanistan once again. Rather, al Qaeda wants to recruit new fighters to replenish its ranks and expand its regional presence. The Taliban, after playing it cool with al Qaeda for many years, seems likely to become a lot more enthusiastic about the relationship in the coming months.
The main reason? ISIS-K, the group responsible for the recent attack on Karzai International Airport that killed 13 US servicemembers and more than 100 Afghan civilians.
The Taliban opposes ISIS-K, but it remains highly doubtful that it can prevent the group from operating throughout eastern Afghanistan.
Paradoxically, or perhaps fittingly, what was until recently an insurgent group is about to have its hands full with its own insurgency — and it may turn to al Qaeda for help. Because it lacks a policing capacity, the Taliban will be reliant on al Qaeda to help them and the Haqqani network, a terror syndicate serving as a nexus for Islamist militancy in South Asia, in what will likely be a drawn-out intra-jihadi conflict that could drag on for years. Recent reporting suggests that al Qaeda has already done so, deploying militants to aid the Taliban in skirmishes with opposition fighters in Panjshir.
Al Qaeda militants, though modest in number, have functioned as a force multiplier for the Taliban and will become an even more valuable asset in the next phase of this conflict. Jihadist groups have grown their ranks throughout Afghanistan in recent months, for instance, through prison breaks. Given that there are as many as 10,000 fighters from Xinjiang, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Pakistan already in Afghanistan, the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance could destabilize large swaths of the region.
In this next stage, al Qaeda may inch away from its more local orientation not toward attacks on the West, but toward a regional strategy — that is, working with the Taliban to play a prominent role in Central and South Asia.
In particular, the two groups may together be pulled into the region’s highest-stakes rivalry — between Pakistan and India. Pakistan, which may be emboldened by the recent events in Afghanistan, retains significant influence over the Taliban, and could push them to join the loose constellation of terrorist organizations that Pakistan supports as a way to threaten India.
With the Taliban/al Qaeda relationship reinvigorated, this dynamic could spell a new type of danger. The Taliban and its backers in Islamabad might even be able to pressure al Qaeda to eschew any lingering plans of transnational terrorist attacks and instead devote resources toward Pakistan’s top priority of countering India.
This is perhaps where the comparisons to the pre-9/11 era are most accurate. Now, as then, the US has limited ability or willingness to do much about Pakistan exercising influence over the Taliban or over various jihadist groups. This time, the consequences are likely to be regional rather than international — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention.
In the lead-up to Sept. 11, 2001, the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over, remaining loyal to al Qaeda even as it spelled the end of the Taliban’s proto-state. Twenty years later, the Taliban is back in power and looking for al Qaeda to return the favor — by helping to fight ISIS-K, and, by extension, propping up their governance of Afghanistan.
The alliance is no longer one of patron and client, but of two longtime allies whose interests dangerously reinforce each other. Rather than trying to attack the West — now much more a hallmark of ISIS — al Qaeda is likely to concentrate its resources on consolidating influence throughout South Asia, helping both the Taliban and Pakistan in the process.
This is positive for the United States in the narrow sense that we’re not likely to see a redux of the situation that led to 9/11, at least not initiated by al Qaeda. But the subtler parallels should still be alarming. The Taliban and Pakistan may once again begin cooperating closely and working together, with al Qaeda serving as the former’s proxy. That the group’s aims are more regional than international is only a small comfort: The US can’t ignore an al Qaeda that’s beholden to rogue intelligence agencies. Instability on the nuclear-armed Indian subcontinent is the opposite of Las Vegas: What happens there doesn’t necessarily stay there.
He is on Twitter at @ColinPClarke.