Kabul / Washington (dpa) – When the Taliban took control of province after province in Afghanistan, they opened more than a dozen prisons. Thousands of prisoners closely linked to the militant Islamist movement have been released.
And yet another organization should rejoice in the large number of its members, apparently also among prisoners: the terrorist network Al-Qaeda. Terrorism expert Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington estimates that thousands of jihadist supporters have been freed.
The Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia – despite great ideological proximity, enemy of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda – should feel the morning breeze. The danger of an attack in Afghanistan is currently high, mainly because of the Afghan branch of ISIS. He could use the chaos at Kabul airport for an attack, for example with suicide bombings. This would be a message to the world, but also an embarrassment for the Taliban because they could not enforce their security guarantees. In the past, ISIS has carried out repeated attacks in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida, on the other hand, has long kept a low profile there. The Taliban and the terrorist network – this is the story of a long and close partnership. Al-Qaeda icon Osama bin Laden ordered the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, which led to US military operations and the overthrow of the Taliban.
A late triumph of Al Qaeda
Nevertheless, the movement is sticking to its alliance with the terrorist network, to the benefit of both camps. The Taliban victory is also a subsequent triumph for al-Qaeda, just before the 20th anniversary of the attacks. “From an organization’s point of view, this proves that its strategy has worked,” said Guido Steinberg, terrorism expert at the Berlin-based Foundation for Science and Policy (SWP). “Al-Qaida took power with the Taliban.”
Experts see the Taliban’s advance as a huge propaganda success for the jihadist movement around the world. The supporters of radical and violent groups feel confirmed in their conviction that they will be victorious over the “infidels” in the West if they persevere long enough. “It is a red flag for the global jihadist movement,” warns Steinberg.
Security experts are now wondering what development in Afghanistan means for possible terrorist attacks against international targets. US President Joe Biden is turning the US-led operation in the Hindu Kush into a pure counterterrorism mission. The aim was not to build democracy and institutions, but to fight al Qaeda, he says – and, in that context, sees the result as a success. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and apprehending Osama bin Laden. And that’s what we did, ”says Biden. “What is our interest now in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda has disappeared (there)?”
There are serious doubts about the effective disappearance of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. A June report from the UN Security Council said the terrorist network was still present in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. “The Taliban are still closely linked to Al Qaeda and show no signs of breaking off relations. A significant part of the organization’s leadership is in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan – and strives to maintain its “safe haven” there.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to row after Biden’s statements. After several inquiries in an interview with broadcaster Fox News, Blinken said, “Are there still any limbs and remains in Afghanistan? Yes. But what the president was referring to was her ability to do what she did on September 11, 2001. And that ability has been reduced with great success. “
Biden says the terrorist threat has spread far beyond Afghanistan. “And that is why, as president, I am determined that in 2021 we will focus on the threats of today – not the threats of yesterday.”
Al-Qaida is operationally weakened, expert says
In fact, al-Qaeda has lost its old strength to carry out attacks internationally, especially because of the death of Bin Laden. The current head of the terrorist network, the Egyptian Aiman al-Zawahiri, lacks the charisma to develop an impact like his predecessor. Young jihadists in particular do not feel concerned by this. Al-Qaida was operationally weak and had difficulty recruiting young people, expert Steinberg said. Zawahiri rarely speaks using video or audio messages. It would be in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But unconfirmed rumors have long been circulating about Zawahiri’s death.
On the other hand, the regional branches of the network have gained a lot of influence in recent years, which has also ensured its survival over the years. These include the Al-Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) group, which, according to the UN expert report, operates under the aegis of the Taliban in the Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Nimrus. With the new leadership, after a phase of “strategic patience”, as the UN report puts it, the terrorist network could once again plan attacks against international targets from a safe haven.
The Taliban say they will not allow Al Qaeda or any other group to launch attacks from Afghanistan. How credible is this commitment? It is currently difficult for the terrorist network to carry out attacks outside the region, says Steinberg. For him, a scenario is also conceivable in which the Taliban tries to stop the attacks abroad. According to Steinberg, however, this does not mean that everything is clear: “Even if the Taliban generally acts moderately, there is a growing risk that the more radical will not adhere to the directives,” he said. After all, there is a strong jihadist current within the Taliban. Their objective is clear: they want to take their fight to other regions of the world.