After US exit from Afghanistan, a new jihadist landscape

After US exit from Afghanistan, a new jihadist landscape

Ghaith Alsayed/AP

Members of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Sunni Islamist militant group, wave Taliban flags as they celebrate the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in the Syrian city of Idlib, Aug. 20, 2021. America’s exit from Afghanistan is seen by radical Islamic groups from Syria and the Gaza Strip to Pakistan and West Africa as an opportunity to reassert their ideology.

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September 3, 2021

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The departure of the U.S. military from Afghanistan leaves behind multiple jihadist militant groups vying for control and influence. While the Taliban secure control over Afghanistan’s capital and borders, other jihadis are opposing the Taliban’s rule.

ISIS-Khorosan, for example, and the Taliban are both Sunni jihadist movements that believe in Islamic governance. However, their ambitions and interpretation of sharia, Islamic law, differ. The Taliban intend to rule Afghanistan as a multiethnic Islamic emirate and have pledged “not to interfere in the internal affairs of others.”

Why We Wrote This

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, several jihadist militant groups are competing for influence. Who are they and what will this mean for the security of Afghanistan and its neighbors?

ISIS-K sees jihad as a global movement and wishes to wage war against the West, Muslim states, and the nation-state system writ large. It seeks to impose an Islamic caliphate, and views the Taliban’s pragmatism and willingness to work with other governments as a betrayal of the jihadist cause.

While the Taliban seek to portray themselves as having moderated, ISIS-K has denounced them for “going soft,” criticizing them for promising amnesty to Afghans who worked with coalition forces.

ISIS-K has highlighted Taliban pledges to uphold minority and women’s rights as proof the movement has abandoned the strict form of sharia it wishes to impose. With the West’s withdrawal, the movements are on a collision course.

AMMAN, Jordan

The departure of the U.S. military from Afghanistan leaves behind multiple jihadist militant groups who once fought the international coalition vying for control and influence. While the Taliban secure control over Afghanistan’s capital and borders, other jihadis are opposing the Taliban’s rule – a conflict that may pose a threat to Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Who is ISIS-K?

ISIS-K, or the ISIS-Khorosan movement, is a local branch of the ultraviolent Islamic State group that formed in northeastern Afghanistan in 2015 with the intent of creating a state within an ISIS caliphate comprising territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia.

Why We Wrote This

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, several jihadist militant groups are competing for influence. Who are they and what will this mean for the security of Afghanistan and its neighbors?

ISIS-K attracted the most extreme Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters and Central Asia jihadis, swelling its ranks to a high of 5,000. While U.S. airstrikes are thought to have cut its fighters by half, some 8,000 jihadis have flooded into Afghanistan since June, according to the United Nations, some of whom may have joined ISIS-K.  

Why are ISIS-K and the Taliban fighting?

ISIS-K and the Taliban are both Sunni jihadist movements that believe in Islamic governance and enforcement of sharia. However, their interpretation of Islamic law, and ambitions, differ. The Taliban intend to rule Afghanistan as a multiethnic Islamic emirate, have no operations outside its borders, and have pledged “not to interfere in the internal affairs of others.”

ISIS-K sees jihad as a global movement and wishes to wage war against the West, Muslim states, and the nation-state system writ large. It seeks to impose an Islamic caliphate. It therefore views the Taliban’s pragmatism and willingness to negotiate and work with other governments as a betrayal to the jihadist cause.

While the Taliban seek to portray themselves as having moderated since their previous rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s, ISIS has denounced the Taliban for “going soft,” criticizing them for not wiping out the Shiite Hazara minority, and for promising amnesty to Afghans who worked with coalition forces and the previous Afghan government.

ISIS-K has highlighted the Taliban’s recent pledges to uphold minority and women’s rights as proof the movement has abandoned the strict, extreme form of Islamic law it wishes to impose. It has declared the Taliban murtadeen, or apostates who must be killed. The Taliban, meanwhile, see ISIS-K as a threat to Afghanistan’s stability and have engaged in more than 200 battles with the movement since 2016.


In Taliban’s Afghanistan, opportunity for Al Qaeda, ISIS

With the withdrawal of Western forces, their mutual enemies, the two movements are on a collision course.

“The exit of the Americans is leading to more escalations between Taliban and ISIS-K,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert in jihadist movements. “ISIS-K is trying to embarrass the Taliban and challenge its hold on security.”

Where does Al Qaeda fit into this?

Al Qaeda, once harbored by the Taliban, retains a presence in Afghanistan that experts say has increased in recent weeks with an influx of militants and the emptying of Afghanistan’s jails. The Taliban and Al Qaeda share very similar Sunni Salafi interpretations of Islam and sharia; hard-line Taliban factions are intertwined with Al Qaeda through comradeship and marriage. This week Al Qaeda issued a statement congratulating the Taliban for its “humiliating defeat” of America.

Yet its status in a post-U.S. Afghanistan is far from clear. The Taliban’s relations with the group are a liability in their relationship with the West and the international community and may deny them the international recognition they seek. ISIS, an Al Qaeda spinoff, sees Al Qaeda as a direct competitor for the global jihadist mantle.

Who backs whom?

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has provided support, training, and a safe haven for the Taliban for decades and is supportive today. With the U.S. exit and reemerging ISIS-K threat, experts say neighboring countries will rely more on the Taliban to keep ISIS at bay and prevent instability from spilling over their borders.

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Iran and China see ISIS-K’s international reach and violence toward Shiites and the Chinese Communist Party, respectively, as a direct threat to their own internal security, and have already opened channels with the Taliban.

“Neighboring states see ISIS-K as a much graver threat with an international agenda,” says Mr. Abu Haniya. “To maintain stability, the Taliban is viewed as the lesser of two evils. More states are coming to terms with this reality.”

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