Taliban’s takeover of the Afghanistan appears to be strengthening jihadist organizations that already exist or are re-establishing themselves there, regardless of Taliban promises to monitor terrorist organizations in the country, which may once again stimulate the movement of foreign fighters into the country.
European countries are increasingly concerned about the prospect of Afghanistan returning as a safe haven for international terrorist activity, as well as about social media’s celebrating for Taliban victory that support jihadist ideas among the younger generation of Western societies. (1) When the Russian government informed the Taliban regime in Kabul in July 2022 that there were more than 6,000 IS-Khorasan fighters now operating in Afghanistan, the Taliban responded with a slight denial that reflected a deep sense of satisfaction on their part.
The Russian government has informed the Taliban that the number of IS-K fighters has risen since the Taliban seized authority in Kabul in August 2021, as a number of disgruntled Taliban members withdrew from the original organization and joined ISIS.
February 2022, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency stated that Taliban’s return to authority had made Afghanistan a potential focal point for extremists around the world. The German official raised concern that IS-K, which has carried out atrocities series in the country, could inspire attacks in EU. (2)
These statements intersect with international and American reports that talk about the Taliban’s lack of seriousness in fighting the Khorasan organization, and fears of continued relations between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which opens the way for the future re-recruitment of European militants and urging them to travel to Afghanistan. This is reminiscent of European thousands fighters who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, where fighters and travelers from EU to Syria and Iraq have played a pivotal role in the Islamic State in the past decade, and EU has been the second most important recruitment area for the organization. (3)
In this study, we stand on the fact that Afghanistan has become one of the attraction countries for Western fighters, and on the most important new European laws that have become difficult for European fighters to travel to conflict areas, and what are the risks that this type of migration can pose, with the diminishing possibility of forming an international coalition to fight in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda or ISIS, after the US withdrawal and preoccupation with the Ukrainian war and Washington’s unwillingness to get involved in the conflict again?
Afghanistan potentially becomes a destination for European militants
After the Taliban take over, there are several signs that Afghanistan is becoming a safe haven for Western terrorists. The Taliban have stressed that they will not restore the country to its former state despite trying to gain international and Western recognition, as was their previous rule between 1996-2001 that culminated in al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks on the United States.
Bruno Kal, head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, asserts that al-Qaeda remains closely linked to the Taliban and will be able to operate more freely in Afghanistan in the future. They could seek to re-establish training camps in the country, stressing that al-Qaeda and ISIS have benefited from the departure of international forces and security services of the former Afghan government.
Al-Qaeda-linked extremists were celebrating around the world after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, which could make Afghanistan attractive to radical volunteers because the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate has high symbolic value in this landscape.
The Khorasan Movement claimed responsibility for a suicide explosion near Kabul airport during the evacuation that followed the Taliban takeover. The group may be planning more attacks in Afghanistan that could have repercussions elsewhere, where ISIS has been the inspiration for attacks in EU, including atrocities in Britain, France and Germany. British security services were on alert to the terrorism threat before the Taliban completed the defeat of Afghan forces.
“We have to be particularly alert to IS-Khorasan, through attacks in the region, and position it as a global extremist, as well as the people inspired to carry out attacks in EU” Kal says (4).
Lieutenant General Michael Corella, who will be the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are gaining strength in Afghanistan. He indicted the Taliban government in Afghanistan of refusing to act against the terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and IS-K.
“One of the challenges is the threat to the homeland from al-Qaeda and ISIS. They are about to regroup, the Taliban have not separated from al-Qaeda and ISIS.” Corella told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee
He spoke of the Taliban releasing prisoners from Bagram and Pul-e Sharkhi prisons after the militant group retook Afghanistan last year. Corella referres to al-Qaeda and “ISIS are striving to attack, but are not yet able to do so,” according to Russia Today, February 10, 2022.
“There are no recent indications that the Taliban have taken steps to curb the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom, although member states have not reported significant new movements of foreign terrorist fighters into Afghanistan.” The UN Committee of Experts says
The experts noted that al-Qaeda issued a statement congratulating the Taliban on their victory on August 31, but has since maintained a “strategic silence”, trying not to compromise the Taliban’s efforts to gain international recognition and legitimacy. “Al-Qaeda also continues to recover from a string of leadership losses and is estimated to lack the capacity to launch major offshore attacks, which remains its long-term objective.” According to the committee.
On the other hand, the Khorasan Province activity has grown in the absence of international and U.S.-trained troops, raising fears that Afghanistan could once again become a haven for militant groups as when al-Qaeda launched attacks in the United States in 2001.
Moscow has expressed concern that Khorasan Province could extend its influence in Central Asian countries. Khorasan Province launched a number of attacks, most notably on Afghanistan’s “largest military hospital” last November, killing 25 people and wounding more than 50.
Its main areas of operation are Central and South Asian countries under the leadership of “Shihab al-Muhajir”, since 2020. Khorasan Province was formed in 2015 with Baghdadi’s blessing, according to Western think tanks, and has been a stacker opponent of the U.S.-backed government and Taliban fighters.
The figures for the number of Khorasan Province fighters vary. A UN Security Council panel estimated the faction’s fighters at between 1,500 and 2,200, but that estimate was made just before the fall of Kabul.
A deepening economic crisis has arrived for poor people and put former Taliban fighters out of work. There is nothing to suggest direct physical coordination between Khorasan and ISIS in the Middle East. (5)
The Taliban detained two Islamic State recruits, one with a British passport and the other with a European passport, when they tried to sneak into Afghanistan last autumn across the northern border. (6)
The two men, who were carrying more than £10,000 in cash, military uniforms, and night vision goggles in their luggage, were arrested after a tip from Uzbekistan, according to a Taliban source with knowledge of the operation.
The two men were using British passports when they flew to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. This is the first time European citizens allegedly trying to join the group have been intercepted in Afghanistan, and the first reported case of attempted international recruitment into ISIS since the Taliban seized authority in the country,” according to an Uzbek source.
Two French nationals from Central Asia traveled to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan several years ago, and another was intercepted by Tajik authorities in 2017 and was tried and imprisoned for five years. After reviewing the photos of the two men, the British newspaper found that they matched the appearance and descriptions of two men accused by Taliban members of links to the Islamic State. According to the British newspaper
The importance of the Khorasan Organization
The danger of Khorasan in Afghanistan is that it is one of the few options left for Westerners who are drawn to violent extremism in the name of Islam, especially after the group’s defeat in Syria and Iraq. “Afghanistan is probably the most likely place for aspiring jihadists who want to fight.” According to Ashley Jackson, an expert on militant groups in Afghanistan and author of Negotiating Stay,
“I don’t think ISK will invite or welcome foreign fighters at least until they have an area under their control. Supporting foreign fighters is an expense and a burden on them. They claim to have global ambitions, but I have not seen any particular direct threat from their propaganda material against the West or any specifically Western country. At the moment they are more oriented to the countries of the region.” Abdul Sayed, an analyst focused on extremism in Afghanistan, and co-author of the report on ISK
They are widely recruited in Afghanistan, especially from the extremist Taliban, from impoverished Taliban soldiers who need salaries that the government cannot pay, and even from the ranks of former government forces who feel they need protection from retaliatory killings from the Taliban.
Declining Terrorist Organizations’ Attractiveness
Although the jihadist organizations still enjoy the militants’ support, the experience of fighters traveling to the Islamic State has weakened the ISIS enthusiasm sympathizers to travel and fight with terrorist organizations, after the defeat of the organization, and the death of hundreds of fighters, those who remained alive ended up as detainees and hostages in Iraq and Syria after their countries refused to receive them. “800 foreign ISIS fighters from some 50 countries are arrested. At least 700 women and 1,500 children are being held in shelter camps.” On February 18, 2020, Abdul Karim Omar, an official in the Syrian Democratic Forces, said to the BBC.
As of June 2018, 3,906 foreign fighters from the Middle East and North Africa had returned home, 1,765 to Western Europe, and 784 to Eastern Europe.
Studies show that despite initial concerns, the vast majority of returning fighters from ISIS seem to be avoiding the causes of radicalization, and many reject ISIS and its violent methods. (7)
“There are signs of disillusionment between returning fighters and released criminals. It is clear that they have not contacted their previous networks, nor have they returned to violent extremist activities, which is confirmed by the reports of the security services.” Thomas Renard, a Belgian researcher on terrorism issues and author of a study on prison radicalization, said.
There have been no ISIS-directed attacks on European soil since 2017, and the number of overall incidents linked to Islamist groups, including “lone wolf” attacks, has dropped sharply, a significant indication of their declining popularity at home. According to European officials.
“There are many fighters returning to the country, just like fighters in the EU, who claimed that they no longer wanted to be part of ISIS. But tomorrow some may join a new group, or fall into the ranks of ISIS. That’s why you can’t be sure,” according to a Middle East counterterrorism official.
Observers also believe that the successes achieved by European countries in reintegrating a number of former terrorists back into life may be the result of ISIS’s defeat, and former supporters of ISIS have been disappointed with the terrorist group’s brutal methods, which included videotaped executions, systematic enslavement, and the rape of captives.
“With much of the world preoccupied with the corona virus pandemic and the economic turmoil, Islamist groups can see their ambitions realized in a much short timeline. The focus of security forces abroad on tackling the pandemic relieves pressure on these groups, creates space to reshape them, and we are very concerned about that.” According to a senior Western counterterrorism official,(8(
“There is certainly a very strong kind of enthusiasm for Afghanistan. People say that’s where the United States was defeated, where the West was defeated.” Edmund Fitton Brown, coordinator of the UN team that monitors IS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban said. (10)
The West’s ability to counter the terrorist threat of the Taliban
Before the Taliban took control of Kabul, British and US intelligence officials warned that the terrorist threat from Afghanistan was likely to increase as the group took control, while the Western ability to monitor it declined sharply.
The Taliban have promised Washington that they will not offer another sanctuary to international terrorist groups. But it was a commitment beyond their ability
The Islamic State and the Taliban have been at war since the group first emerged in 2015, attracting recruits from other international extremist groups. It was defeated by the joint efforts of U.S. forces, the Afghan government, and the Taliban until 2019. But the group has since rebuilt itself, getting a boost from prison breaks directed by the Taliban in the final days of the Afghan government, which have brought between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters back to the battlefield, according to a recent report on the group’s return.
U.S. intelligence officials are paying attention to the situation in Afghanistan, noting that the Islamic State in Khorasan has a history of being able to recruit from several countries in the region. There are also doubts about the extent to which the Taliban, which is allied with al-Qaeda, is prepared or able to prevent the flow of foreign fighters, even those seeking to join the rival Islamic State.
On the possibility of relying on the Taliban to limit the terrorist groups’ activity, “It is possible, but where it suits them. They won’t do it for our benefit.” One of the officials told VOA radio
“We have to watch closely to see if there are flights from other extreme hotspots or even foreign flights from EU to Afghanistan, and that ISIS Khorasan will only be able to operate under the radar for now because it is an enemy of the Taliban and owes them to their negotiations with the West,” the German intelligence official says
The West appears to be stepping up outreach to the Taliban to work on the issue, but European officials admit that their influence is minimal. There is no sign of any new military intervention after US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops, a move that prompted Europeans to follow suit.
The Europeans have some influence over the Taliban, through their financial aid and their ability to give international recognition to whoever leads the country.
The Taliban and Western diplomats recently began their first official talks in the EU since they took control of Afghanistan in August. The group is demanding the release of nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries as Afghanistan faces an unstable humanitarian situation. (9)
European laws limit militants’ ability to travel
The European Union has taken several legal steps aimed at impeding the access of European fighters to conflict areas in order to join terrorist organizations, with the onset of this phenomenon in Syria, the most important of which are:
- The European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) has identified four priority areas: preventing radicalization, sharing information more effectively with other countries, monitoring the obstruction of suspects’ travel, and investigating and prosecuting foreign fighters, according to a report released by Germany’s Deutsche Welle on 27. 10. 2017
- In November 2015, a center was established to collect and disseminate expertise on countering extremism, complementing the efforts of the “Anti-Extremism Awareness Network”. Given the importance of ISIS social media, the European Commission decided to support an advisory group whose role is to help EU member states develop effective responses against ISIS’s jihadist propaganda. In addition, emphasis was placed on the removal of extremist content on the Internet. In July 2015, the European law enforcement agency Europol set up a unit to combat cybercrime at the request of the Justice and Home Affairs Council.
- The European Law Enforcement Agency established the so-called European Counter-Terrorism Centre in The Hague in January 2016, as a platform for coordination and information exchange, focusing on challenges related to foreign fighters, illicit arms trafficking, and terrorist financing.
- Follow-up and obstruction of the travel of suspects: In April 2013, the second generation of the Schengen Information System was launched, which allowed for the easy exchange of information between national border control authorities, customs authorities and police on people suspected of involvement in serious crimes, and is a crucial tool to combat the phenomenon of foreign fighters.
- The EU has amended and updated the 2002 EU Council Decision to be able to deal with the new legal challenges posed by the phenomenon of foreign fighters. In December 2015, the European Commission approved new directives to replace the administrative decisions of 2002 and 2008 on counter-terrorism, particularly with regard to the provision of training and financing to terrorists. According to the website (International Council on Clean Transportation) on 1.4.2016
Analysts say Afghanistan as a destination for jihadist travelers is much more difficult than in the Levant when ISIS was in its prime. Regardless of the strength of the ideological attraction, foreign fighter travel involves a set of roadblocks related to logistical and financial security that often cause potential travelers to abandon their journeys.With air travel to and from Afghanistan’s airports impossible, Western jihadists risk multi-stage flights with “stops” in neighboring countries, where they are particularly likely to emerge as Westerners, attracting the attention of local law enforcement and increasing the risk of interdiction at every stage of the journey. The many cases before the FBI related to ISIS and similar security agencies in Europe over the past decade have given them the knowledge and experience needed to prevent terrorists from traveling.
Some militants try to help al-Qaeda or ISIS-K remotely by providing financial support, helping groups on social media, or helping develop propaganda. Others may carry out terrorist attacks in their own countries. If IS-K is able to develop sufficient operational freedom inside Afghanistan, the group may consider adopting ISIS’s external operations, which rely on its operatives communicating with Westerners and giving them instructions to carry out attacks in their own countries. According to the American website (Lawfare), on October 27, 2021.
The horrific war in Syria and the Syrian regime’s use of exaggerated violence against civilians have made participation in the Syrian war more attractive to jihadist immigration, and these conditions are not often met in Afghanistan, in addition to the sectarian world where the Syrian regime has used Shiite militias and Shiite Iran, which has stirred Sunni feelings around the world.
In addition, the establishment of ISIS coincided with the rise of political Islam movements in many Arab countries, which allowed for fatwas calling for jihad in Syria, launched by clerics linked to the MB and Salafi jihadist groups, and played a major role in the orientation of foreign fighters towards the conflict in Syria. . In May 2013, the Western press predicted the start of the foreign fighters’ flow to Syria, following the invitation of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric living in Qatar and holding its nationality, according to the newspaper Foreign affairs on 14.1.2015, but now the situation is different for Afghanistan, because the MB is at its weakest in the Arab region, and its leaders in EU are unable to publicly declare their support for jihad due to the censorship applied to the group’s activity in most European countries.
- (Washington institute) on August 18, 2021
- The national news website to be released in the UAE, on February 9, 2022
- Frankfurter Allgemeine on 14.1.2015
- Website (the national news) on February 9, 2022
- TV (Al Hoora) February 5, 2022
- (The Guardian) British on February 8, 2022
- The Washington Post on July 17, 2020
- The Washington Post on July 17, 2020
- National Public Radio website on January 24, 2022
- Voa News on September 10, 2021