The Return of Terror: Osama Bin Laden’s Heirs

The mission in Afghanistan was supposed to prevent terror from ever emanating from the country again. But in the shadows of the advancing Taliban offensive, the power of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization is growing - and with it the danger of new attacks in the West. Ironically, a NATO partner is playing a risky role in all of this.

This article was originally published by Die Welt on August 13, 2021. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

The Taliban has conquered 18 of the 34 provincial capitals and taken 241 of the 421 districts. It now controls 65 percent of the country. This is the balance of the Taliban’s offensive, which it launched in May of this year after the withdrawal of the U.S. and its NATO partners. The self-proclaimed “Islamic resistance fighters” have been advancing faster than ever in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, the Afghan interior minister announced a three-phased plan to prevent a final victory by the radical Islamists. “First, we will stop the defeats of our soldiers,” said the minister and General Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal. “Then we will regroup our troops and form security rings around the cities.” Hardly anyone however, seriously believes in such a turnaround or a successful counter-offensive by the government in Kabul.

According to a US intelligence report made public this week, the Afghan capital Kabul could be surrounded by the Taliban in 30 days. In 90 days, Kabul is expected to fall. “When the Americans decided to withdraw their troops, they of course knew that Afghanistan could fall into the hands of the Taliban,” says Guido Steinberg, an expert on international terrorism at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin. “But they didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.” The adviser to the German Chancellery believes that a Taliban victory can hardly be averted. “The Americans can slow down the advance, but they can no longer prevent a Taliban victory.”

Back to the future

It appears that the radical Islamist Taliban will soon regain control over Afghanistan. And this would be a leap back into the future. The Taliban was in power for five years from 1996 until the U.S. ended its rule in 2001. The reason for the American invasion was the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, which the terrorist organization and its leader Osama Bin Laden had planned out of Hindu Kush.

Back then, Afghanistan was already a hotbed for international terrorism. Al-Qaida was able to operate freely under the protection of the Taliban and organized devastating attacks in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Observers assume that with a renewed takeover of power by the Taliban, Islamist terror will benefit and spread. It is feared that Afghanistan could once again become a hub for internationally active jihadist groups.

A UN Security Council report published in July warns of the growing terror threat in Afghanistan, from the al-Qaida terror network and from the Islamic State. “The Afghan IS offshoot has expanded its presence in some provinces and around Kabul,” declared UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in early August. “This happened despite its losses in leadership and financial resources.”

The UN report estimates the terrorist organization’s manpower to be between 500 and 1,500 men, but this could grow to 10,000 fighters in the medium term. Al-Qaida, on the other hand, is said to have only 500 to 800 self-proclaimed “holy warriors”.

“The UN Security Council reports are realistic,” comments terror expert Guido Steinberg. “They reflect what we currently know.” The 53-year-old Islamic scholar and political scientist has no doubts: “The terror threat will increase considerably if the Taliban takes over power.”

He is particularly concerned about the propaganda effect. “The Taliban has been a power factor in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years, with al-Qaida at their side. After Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the United States is the third superpower knocked down and driven out of the country,” Steinberg explains on the phone. There is absolutely no telling what effect this success will have on recruitment for al-Qaida worldwide. The Taliban’s advance proves that Islamists can still win.

A channel on the internet messaging service Telegram has the mocking headline “The year of running away”. Al-Qaida supporters mock the U.S. army and other NATO troops on the channel. For the terrorist group, the military withdrawal is a propaganda hit.

Afghanistan is al-Qaida heartland. The organization was founded there in 1988. In 2001 in Tora Bora, it fought one of its biggest battles when American fighter jets attacked their mountain cave hideouts around the clock with 2,500 kilograms of bunker-busting bombs.

New boost for al-Qaida

Their leader Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the 9/11 attacks, managed to escape then. Now, the victory over the “diabolically evil America” alongside the Taliban could create new momentum for al-Qaida. The terrorist group has been in the shadows of IS for the past ten years, losing many of its members to jihadist rivals.

The Taliban deny the existence of al-Qaida members within their own ranks. That is a bygone era and closed book, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in several interviews. “We do not allow recruitment, training, or fundraising for any group,” Shaheen asserted. The Taliban would not allow any organization to misuse Afghanistan to attack the U.S. or any other country in the world. Yet intelligence reports say that al-Qaida is an integral part of the Taliban’s military operations.

“What the Taliban spokesman said is demonstrably false,” says Steinberg. “There is no question that the alliance between al-Qaida and the Taliban continues. There is a radical wing in the Taliban itself that wants to take the fight international.” There are concrete indications of cooperation between the Taliban and IS.

The Haqqani terrorist network, with around 10,000 fighters, is said to have attacked Afghan army positions in the Kabul area together with IS. This is said to have been carried out on behalf of the Taliban, who are apparently involving Islamist militias of all shapes and colors in the fight against the government.

“The Islamic State is fundamentally weak”

IS and the Taliban are actually enemies. Over the past year, IS was driven out of its territory in Tora Bora by the Taliban. “IS is fundamentally weak, but always manages to carry out major attacks in Kabul,” says Steinberg. “They are mostly directed against the Shiite minority.” Last year, IS attacked a birth clinic in a Shiite neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 people. Most recently in June, IS struck again against Shiites, killing seven people in minibuses.

With the Taliban taking over power, IS will have to reposition itself. The withdrawal of U.S. troops is generally positive for the terrorist militia. Tracking its members becomes more difficult – the nearest U.S. military base is in Qatar, 3,900 kilometers away. American aircraft carriers, cruising off the coast of Pakistan in the Gulf of Oman, will not be enough for efficient air surveillance.

It could become dangerous for the entire region if Pakistan were to instrumentalize IS for its own interests. Until now, Islamabad has been an important ally of the Taliban. The neighboring country has served as an operational and fallback base for over 20 years. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan repeatedly denied this a few days ago. “Absolute nonsense,” Khan claimed.

“This is of course a lie,” clarifies terror expert Steinberg. “We know about the cooperation with the Taliban since its inception in 1994. The Pakistanis have been running a dirty game over Afghanistan’s back ever since.” For example, all the Taliban negotiators flew out of Pakistani airports to the peace talks in Qatar, says Steinberg. “These leaders were wanted worldwide as terrorists, stayed in Pakistan, and could freely cross the border into Afghanistan.”

Only recently did pictures show numerous soldiers in Pakistani uniforms during Taliban attacks. “I assume that Pakistani soldiers are involved,” Steinberg says. “The Pakistanis are largely organizing and leading the offensive and scenario we now see unfolding before us.”

The military leadership in Islamabad is in charge of the country’s security policy, and it could well be that the Islamic State is seen as a useful tool to keep the Taliban under control. The latter, as the new rulers of Afghanistan, might seek more independence from Pakistan and want to make their own and independent policies. “A group like IS comes in handy then,” thinks Guido Steinberg. “Pakistan has repeatedly shown in the past that it is willing to cooperate with jihadists.”

 You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.