America’s flight from Afghanistan will embolden jihadists around the world

When a new American president takes office, the leaders of other countries compete to be the first to speak to him. When the Taliban took over Kabul, there was a similar rush to speak to Abdul Ghani Baradar, the public face of the Afghan militant group’s leadership. The winner was Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the Gaza Strip. The read-out of the call posted on Hamas’s website has Mr Haniyeh congratulating Mr Baradar on his victory against the “American occupation” of Afghanistan. It would, he said, be “a prelude to the demise of all occupation forces, foremost of which is the Israeli occupation of Palestine”. Mr Baradar responded in kind, wishing Hamas “victory and empowerment as a result of their resistance”.

Such diplomatic niceties were matched with an outpouring of celebration from other jihadists. In the Idlib province of Syria, occupied by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group thought to have ties to al-Qaeda, the organisation which launched the attacks of September 11th 2001, fighters held a parade and handed out baklava on street corners. Three days of celebration were announced in the districts of southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabab, another al-Qaeda affiliate (pictured, training, above). On social media jihadists from all over the world shared memes celebrating the Taliban’s victory, notably a pastiche of Joe Rosenthal’s famous picture of American marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

America and its allies invaded Afghanistan on October 7th 2001. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11th attacks, was living there under the protection of the Taliban, who were also providing his al-Qaeda followers with training facilities. America demanded that the Taliban hand him over; they refused. Within weeks anti-Taliban forces had driven them from Kabul with the help of American air power and ground forces.

Since then America has not suffered a terrorist attack on anywhere near the same scale. And as an organised, and organising, force, al-Qaeda is a shadow of what it was. Osama bin Laden is dead, killed in Pakistan, to which he had retreated, in 2011. The fear of a similar end, delivered by drone or special forces, forces his successors to live in hiding, thus hugely complicating their operations. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who became al-Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death, has not been seen in almost a year—either through fear of death or because he has actually died. Though affiliates like al-Shabab have celebrated the Taliban’s victory, al-Qaeda’s central organisation has not said a word.

But the violent jihadist Islamism it pioneered has not been defeated. Al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadist groups are active in conflicts not just in Pakistan and the Middle East but across the African Sahel and in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Not all those who embrace the label truly see themselves as part of a global struggle; many are more focused on their “near enemies” than the “far enemy” of America and its Western allies. But struggles with near enemies still bring about suffering, destroy livelihoods and force people to leave their lands, becoming refugees. They breed instability.

The ability to mount outrages like that of September 11th has apparently been curtailed by better intelligence, pressure on finances and a drumbeat of raids and drone strikes. But jihadist doctrines continue to inspire attacks by loner jihadists in America and Europe, though currently not at the rate seen in the mid-2010s. And the fight against jihadism entails, or acts as a pretext for, all manner of human-rights abuses—most notably in western China, where it is used as justification for the systematic oppression of the Uyghur and other largely Muslim groups.

As jihadist ideology has been espoused ever more widely, Western countries have sent troops, advisers and money to more and more places. Counter-terrorism and “countering violent extremism” have become worldwide industries. In 2020 America had 7,000 active troops stationed in a dozen or so African countries, plus training missions in 40 more, with militant Islamism the predominant focus.

The Taliban’s return to power is undoubtedly the most trumpetable moment for jihadists since Islamic State (is) took advantage of Sunni disaffection to create a “caliphate” in western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014. That inspired terror attacks in Europe and Indonesia. This victory is in some ways a greater one. For the first time since the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989, Islamists have taken a country from a superpower. “Everyone else is saying, wow, if those guys can do it, so can we,” says David Kilcullen, a former soldier and counter-terrorism expert at unsw Canberra, the military academy of the Australian Defence Force. “They’re dazzled, amazed and impressed by what the Taliban have achieved,” says Mina Al-Lami, who follows media used by violent and non-violent Islamists alike for bbc Monitoring.

What that means in practice will depend on how things play out in Afghanistan, how well the morale boost is transformed into victory on the ground, and how the countries the jihadists are targeting respond.

It’s cold outside

Militant Islamism did not start with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Its intellectual origins go back to the 1950s and 1960s, when radicals in Egypt began to develop a new ideology based on the rejection of socialism and capitalism and the secular, nationalist regimes in thrall to them. Sayyid Qutb, a leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, became the movement’s great theorist. In America, to which he had fled to escape the attention of the Egyptian secret police, he was radicalised by his disgust at the natives’ morals and sexual mores, which represented “the nadir of primitiveness”. His driving motivation was the idea that Muslims were being brutalised by the regimes in their own countries which aped the materialism of such irreligious others.

Qutb was executed by the Egyptian authorities in 1966; the Muslim Brotherhood which he had reshaped continued in various countries, often underground. But in the Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of the 1980s his ideas took on a new form, going beyond resistance to individual regimes to become a worldwide armed struggle sometimes known as Salafi jihadism.

The Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979 had prompted hundreds of fighters from across the Muslim world to head to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen, or “holy warriors”. Bin Laden, a young Saudi who had inherited a fortune from his father’s construction firm and who studied under Qutb’s younger brother Mohammed, was one. So was Aden Hashi Farah Aero, one of the founders of al-Shabab. Abdelmalek Droukdel, one of the founders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group that fights in Niger and Mali, was there too, as was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the founders of what became is. In Afghanistan they saw the beginnings of a jihad that would eventually lead to a truer, purer existence in submission to God.

Their common origin and faith, and their shared espousal of a lofty goal and barbarous tactics, does not make the world’s jihadis a united front. The fighters in Iraq who founded is did so because they thought al-Qaeda too soft: the Afghan branch of is has been in a bitter war with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan for years. It was one of the few Islamist groups not to express admiration after the fall of Kabul, instead denouncing the Taliban as, in effect, American lackeys. The group’s newsletter, al-Naba, sneered that “Supporting Islam does not pass through the hotels of Qatar nor the embassies of Russia, China and Iran”, referring to the Taliban’s political offices in Doha and its relations with infidel states. As The Economist went to press, there were warnings that an is-affiliated group was planning an attack on Kabul airport.

The animosity is reciprocated. The only execution the Taliban have admitted to since taking over was of Abu Omar Khorasani, is’s leader in South Asia. But is is an outlier. Mr Kilcullen is not alone in fearing that the Taliban may again allow Afghanistan to become a base for other jihadis. In the deal negotiated with America in Doha in 2020 the Taliban promised to disavow al-Qaeda and its international mission. They never did so. According to a un estimate there may be between 400 and 600 members of al-Qaeda in the country, many sheltered by the Taliban.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy leader, runs a particularly brutal semi-autonomous outfit called the Haqqani network which, among other things, used to serve as Mr al-Zawahiri’s connection to the Taliban. (If the al-Qaeda leader is still alive it may well still do so.) Members of the Haqqani branch of the Taliban have been prominent in patrolling Kabul since it fell to the militants.

Such connections do not mean that al-Qaeda will be able to swank about with impunity rebuilding its operations. The Taliban are unlikely to want anyone to start planning attacks on America or Europe, certainly not straight away. “For now al-Qaeda is lying low due to instructions from the Afghan Taliban,” says Asfandyar Mir of Stanford University. But the Afghan regime change could nonetheless spread jihad to targets closer by.

A particular concern is Pakistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (ttp), a jihadist group commonly called the Pakistani Taliban, waged a savage war there from 2007 until around 2014, when they were for the most part pushed back into Afghanistan. Having licked its wounds and regrouped, the ttp, many members of which are affiliated to al-Qaeda, has recently been stepping up its activities, with 120 attacks in Pakistan last year and 26 last month. The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan has already emboldened the ttp, and could well see it better supplied.

The Pakistani government has long backed the Taliban in various ways. It will welcome the weakening of Indian influence in Afghanistan heralded by their return to power. Militants it supports in Indian-administered Kashmir may well get a boost from Afghan fighters flowing back over the Hindu Kush. On Pakistani television on August 23rd the chairman of the party of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, said that “the Taliban say they’re with us and they will come and liberate Kashmir for us.” Though a renewed ttp poses a problem, Pakistan probably thinks it can be kept in check by diplomatic and economic pressure. Afghanistan depends on Pakistan for a lot of imported goods. That said, now that the Taliban are back in power, they may feel they need Pakistan less.

A direct flow of materiel or soldiers from Afghanistan to conflicts beyond South Asia seems less likely. The al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa and the Middle East may have been founded by men who fought in Afghanistan, but they have fewer direct links to the country today. Travelling to and from Afghanistan is harder than it was in the 1990s, says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute, an American think-tank, and harder than it was to travel to Syria when is was in its pomp.

Dunes and dooms

Even if it does not lead to direct support from the Taliban, though, America’s departure from Afghanistan will be a huge morale boost to jihadis. This may be especially true in conflicts where outsiders are involved on the government’s side. Keep on fighting, the lesson runs, and eventually the foreigners will give up and leave—even if they have been there for decades. And then you will win.

That may be right. In June Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, promised that French forces in the Sahel, the region defined by the southern edge of the Sahara desert, would not remain there “eternally”. The deployment of the country’s force there, a mission known as Operation Barkhane, began in 2013 after jihadists seized the northern half of Mali. The Sahel’s jihadis have kept the force, which now numbers 5,100, busy ever since.

America has been part of the same fight. It built a huge military base in Agadez in Niger, another of the “g5” countries in the Sahel facing jihadist insurgents. (The other three are Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.) It also deployed around 800 fighters in its special forces to Somalia, where they carried out raids on al-Shabab and co-ordinated more than 200 drone strikes.
Last December Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of most American troops from Somalia. Drone strikes were also stopped, though in July they started up again, under tightened rules of engagement. European funding for African troops in Somalia has been cut; Ethiopia, which has occupied parts of Somalia since 2009, is pulling its soldiers out to fight its own civil war in Tigray. France has begun a process by which Barkhane will have be halved in size and focusing more on killing terrorists than on protecting towns and cities. “As Africans, we face our day of reckoning just as some sense the West is losing its will for the fight,” wrote Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, in the Financial Times on August 15th.
The Western withdrawal is not from a position of success. What happened in Kabul could be re-enacted in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab has been using Taliban-like tactics for some time, says Samira Gaid, the director of the Hiraal Institute, a security think-tank in Mogadishu. They undermine the government and international forces with terrorist attacks, while running a shadow government, even in government-controlled areas, to pay their fighters.
Much like the Taliban, they thrive on providing residents with a modicum of security beyond the gift of a failing state. Their violence is not popular, says Hussein Sheikh Ali, also of Hiraal, but their efficiency is admired. “If there is a man with a checkpoint and he gives you his word, you get it; if there’s a judge in their court and he says something, it will be enforced.” By contrast, the internationally recognised Somali state is repeatedly ranked as the world’s most corrupt.

In the Sahel over 700 people have been massacred by al-Qaeda and is so far this year. The latest attack, in a Malian village near the border with Niger on August 8th, killed 51. This somewhat undercuts the opinion of Marc Conruyt, the French general who commanded Barkhane until July, that “the Sahelian forces are [today] able to cope with the armed terrorist groups.”

Worse than the old boss

Since the militants tend to recruit among the Tuareg and Fulani minorities from the north of Mali, men from those groups are often crudely profiled by soldiers from the south of the country, where the militants are less pervasive. Ethnicity is not the only thing which can lead to an attack. So can wearing underpants (most Malians do not, so this is seen as evidence of having been in Libya). “People I know who have had fathers, brothers and sons killed then joined the militants,” says Corinne Dufka, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a charity based in New York.

The response to Islamist terrorism promoted by the West has often focused far too tightly on training security forces, says Michael Keating, a former British diplomat who has worked in both Somalia and Afghanistan and is now the director of the European Institute of Peace, a think-tank. It would be better to provide political space for them to operate in. “There’s this tremendous focus on training, comms, all of the technical stuff,” he says. But “actually if you’re going to build a sustainable institution, you’ve got to make sure that the institutions are extremely well grounded.”

In Somalia, where British and Turkish troops have been training the security forces, getting them to fight is not only a question of their technical abilities. It is a matter of building up local institutions worth fighting for. The same is true of the defence forces fighting in the g5 countries.

So what happens if the jihadists succeed? Few Islamist militants anywhere in the world have got as far as being able to govern much more than villages and rural districts. When they spread more widely, popular support is often vital. When is took over the Iraqi city of Mosul they were initially welcomed by mostly-Sunni residents, who saw them as an alternative to the violence and corruption of the Shia-dominated Iraqi security services. Governments supported by America or Europe tend towards corruption as their officials look to make money from the spending being pumped in long-distance.

The new bosses provided services long neglected by the government, such as streamlined electricity bills and rubbish collection. And their installation saw a welcome fall in terrorist violence, since they had been responsible for much of that which had been going on before.

Nevertheless, they were also committed to a caliphate run along what they took to be the lines of the earliest Muslim civilisation. They quickly banned women from travelling outside alone, cracked down on vices such as smoking and drinking and started persecuting religious minorities. The level of popular dissatisfaction with those in power soon surpassed that which had originally seen them welcomed.

Money matters, too. While fighting, jihadists are able to extort revenue by taxing traffic on the roads and illicit industries; the Taliban have done well from opium production. In power they typically need more revenue and cannot raise it in the same ways without delegitimising themselves. In Syria and Iraq is developed a lucrative taste for ransoming foreigners. In Mozambique the jihadists who took over Cabo Delgado in early August have subsequently relied on looting banks and running extortion rackets on businesses. This means that they can pay their fighters, procure arms and continue the struggle. But the money gathered by looting or hostage-taking dries up. Foreign currency ceases to flow. Things get desperate.

Some of the same fate may await the Taliban. Before Kabul fell, the teachers who worked in schools and the doctors in clinics in Taliban-occupied territories were still paid by the central government in Kabul—and in turn by foreign donors. Taxing the transport of, say, fuel only works if there is foreign currency to pay for it. Afghanistan’s reserves, which are largely held with the Federal Reserve in New York, are now frozen; it is not clear whether bilateral aid to the government will continue. There will still be ways to bleed the economy. But those giving the blood are liable to resent doing so.

Pen and sword

Jihad is not, in principle, the only way to get the strict Islamist states its followers desire. They could in theory be voted for. Governments with significant Islamist representation have had success in parts of Asia. But attempts to institute fully Islamist governments in the Arab world have proved strongly susceptible to backlash when their initial popularity wanes. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt for less than two years before a coup returned them to powerlessness, jail and worse. Last month, Tunisia’s president sounded the death-knell on Islamism’s participation in politics by dissolving the parliament in which an Islamist leader was speaker.

Tempting, then, to see the sword as mightier than the pen. Islamists who recall Egypt’s former Muslim Brotherhood leader, Muhammad Badie, appealing to his followers to face down tanks with peaceful activism say such ideas are now mocked and denounced online. “The Taliban is capturing the popular imagination. When you express your thoughts against this violence, many attack you. It’s a bit worrying,” says Osama Gaweesh, an Egyptian journalist exiled in London. With poverty soaring and politics constrained in many Middle Eastern states, frustrations crave an outlet. Some speak of a renewed faith in mass action, this time carrying guns modelled on the Taliban. “They’ve given up trusting bankrupt and elite Islamist parties and organisations,” says Naim Tilawi, a Jordanian Islamist who fought in Syria. “They want mass jihadism instead.” 

This article appeared in the Briefing section of the print edition under the headline “A new model for the armies”

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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