How the Taliban’s return made Afghanistan a hub for global jihadis Analysts say

Benjamin Parkin in New Delhi and Sam Jones in Berlin

The Financial Times

26 March 2024

Less than a year after the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan following the chaotic US withdrawal in 2021, President Joe Biden vowed the country that once harboured Osama bin Laden would “never again . . . become a terrorist safe haven”. Yet a surge in international terrorist threats linked to Afghanistan is raising alarm among governments that the country that once sheltered the masterminds of the September 11 2001 attacks is again becoming a hotspot for jihadi groups with global ambitions. Western officials blamed Islamic State-Khorasan Province, the Afghanistan-based affiliate of the Middle Eastern extremist group and bitter enemy of the Taliban, for last week’s attack on a Moscow concert hall that killed at least 137 people.

The Taliban has fought a bloody counterinsurgency campaign against Isis-K since coming to power, but analysts said the jihadist group gained substantial strength following the US withdrawal and more recently has ramped up its international activity. Isis-K was also linked to bombings in Iran in January that killed nearly 100 people, an attack on a church in Turkey the same month and a foiled plot last week to attack Sweden’s parliament that authorities said may have been directed from Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban, an ideological ally of Kabul’s rulers with a large presence in the country, have killed hundreds of people in relentless cross-border attacks from hide-outs in Afghanistan since 2021. Analysts believe that other Islamist groups from al-Qaeda to the Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party also have a presence inside Afghanistan.

Concern about the growing threat of Afghanistan-linked extremist violence prompted General Michael Kurilla, head of the US Central Command, to warn shortly before last week’s violence in Moscow that the “risk of attack emanating from Afghanistan is increasing”, singling out Isis-K. “Isis-Khorasan retains the capability and the will to attack US and western interests abroad in as little as six months with little to no warning,” Kurilla told Congress. European officials have also become increasingly attuned to the threat. “Isis-K is currently the biggest Islamist [terror] threat in Germany,” said Nancy Faeser, interior minister of Germany, which has foiled several Isis-K-linked plots over the past 18 months. She told Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday: “The danger posed by Islamic terrorism is still acute.”

While President Vladimir Putin sought to implicate Ukraine in last week’s attack, a Moscow court specified that all four main suspects were Tajik citizens, a group that forms a significant component of Isis-K’s membership. The US had warned of a threat to Russia from extremists, reportedly telling Moscow it came from the Afghanistan-based group.

Though no evidence has directly linked the plotters with Afghanistan, analysts said it was the latest sign that regional jihadi groups have become more powerful following the Taliban’s takeover. “When the Americans left in 2021, there was zero regional consensus on security in Afghanistan,” said Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. As a result, “all these terror groups have a lot of space to manoeuvre”. The Taliban, who have repeatedly said they do not allow extremists to use the country as a base for terrorist plots, condemned the Moscow attack “in the strongest terms”.

While the Taliban has sought to clamp down on Isis-K, it appears more tolerant of other militant groups. In 2022, the US tracked down and killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in downtown Kabul, fuelling western suspicions that the Taliban was harbouring him. It was at this point that Biden said Afghanistan would not be allowed to become a haven for jihadis despite the lack of a US military presence on the ground. Yet violence in Pakistan by groups such as the Pakistani Taliban has taken off. More than 1,500 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2023, triple the toll from before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 2020, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Pakistan, which blames the Afghan Taliban for supporting the cross-border militants, launched retaliatory air strikes on Afghanistan last week.

A suicide bomber killed six people in an attack on Chinese workers in Pakistan on Tuesday. Analysts questioned whether the Taliban had the capacity to stamp out jihadi operations even if they wanted to. “The US couldn’t really constrain the Taliban and insurgents, with all their weapons and coalition partners,” said Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. “It’s hard to see how the Taliban can secure the country and make sure militants don’t operate.”

Isis-K began operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2015, attracting thousands of fighters who believed the Taliban was not hardline enough. The group wants to create a caliphate in Khorasan, a region extending across parts of the Indian subcontinent and central Asia. It was responsible for dozens of attacks following the fall of Kabul, including a suicide bombing at the city’s airport in 2021 that killed at least 175 people, including 13 US troops. It has also targeted Afghanistan’s Shia minority, Taliban officials and, in 2022, the Russian embassy in Kabul. The US in 2022 issued a $10mn bounty for information leading to Isis-K’s leader Sanaullah Ghafari relating to the Kabul airport attack. The 29-year-old, also known as Shahab al-Muhajir, is believed to be hiding in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While the Taliban crackdown succeeded in reducing domestic attacks, it has left Isis-K more dependent on international networks and supporters “to orchestrate its actions”, said Jerome Drevon, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. This has included operations in Europe either directed or inspired by Isis-K. Isis-K was “a name [people] should remember”, Germany’s domestic intelligence service head Thomas Haldenwang said last year. “The group is trying to make a name for itself with attacks . . . In the future, they will try to plan to carry [them out] against western countries.”

Isis-K leader Sanaullah Ghafari is believed to be hiding in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan German and Austrian authorities foiled possible attacks by terrorists linked to Isis-K on Christian religious sites during the Christmas period. Three were arrested in Vienna on Christmas Eve over an alleged plot to attack St Stephen’s cathedral, while four Tajiks were arrested in Germany over plans to massacre worshippers at Cologne cathedral on New Year’s Eve, according to police.

After German police arrested two people last week who they said had planned an assault on Sweden’s parliament, an interior ministry official said the government’s joint counterterrorism centre now assessed Isis-K to be the “most aggressive” of all Isis affiliates. Since the attack in Moscow, French President Emmanuel Macron has said that Isis-K had also made “several attempts” to attack France in recent months. Colin Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Center, a New York-based intelligence and security consultancy, said Isis-K was “knocking on the door of Europe”, flagging the 2024 Paris Olympics as an event of particular concern. “The threats and plots of violence coming out of Afghanistan are not only persisting but, in certain respects, growing,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The most concerning trend is Isis-K plotting overseas.”

Additional reporting by Bita Ghaffari, Polina Ivanova and John-Paul Rathbone

How the Taliban’s return made Afghanistan a hub for global jihadis Analysts say