Al Qaeda resurgence under Taliban a real fear for the West

Terror group could once again mount attacks on the West, analysts say

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid of his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. AP
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The Taliban victory in Afghanistan has revived Al Qaeda, raising the spectre it will once again become the most feared terror group in the world, analysts have said.

Twenty years on from the 9/11 attacks, the extremists are attracting a flock of new recruits who are flooding into Afghanistan after the retreat of America and its allies.

Saturday’s anniversary is likely to include some form of Al Qaeda proclamation suggesting the terrorists' strength and resilience.

The grim scenario of a revived Al Qaeda could force the US to once again intervene in Afghanistan, the analysts told The National.

While its numbers in Afghanistan are currently estimated at 600, the Taliban’s success and an Al Qaeda edict to encourage supporters to move out of the Middle East into the new safe haven will bolster its ranks.

“There should be real concerns because the defeat of America is hugely energising the movement,” said Al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen. He pointed out that 40,000 volunteers had joined ISIS when it rose up, and “it’s really very easy to travel to Afghanistan from Middle Eastern countries".

Mr Bergen, who in 1997 was the first western journalist to interview Osama bin Laden on television, said there were now growing fears that Afghanistan will resemble the so-called ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq that developed in 2014, creating a refuge for terrorists.

He said: “There will be some differences but the differences are less important than the similarities.”

While it is unclear whether Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri is still alive, the filmed arrival in Afghanistan of bin Laden’s former commander Amin Al Haq last week suggests the group is getting ready to resurrect under Taliban protection.

Though Al Haq, an Afghan, might merely have been returning home after decades in hiding, he could become a figurehead for renewal.

This will be enhanced by the direct links between the terrorists and the Haqqani network, the violent, semi-autonomous Afghan group from which Al Qaeda was spawned in the 1980s and with whom there are strong marriage alliances.

“The fact that the Taliban has just appointed Sirajuddin Haqqani to be Afghanistan’s interior minister speaks for itself, as the Haqqani network leader is very closely aligned to Al Qaeda,” said Mr Bergen, author of the recently published The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.

His views are backed by the latest UN Security Council report which states that Al Qaeda “remains resilient” around the globe and is actually “stronger than ISIS” in several regions.

Another area that might strengthen Al Qaeda is the fight against its enemies from ISIS-K (Khorasan), made up of disgruntled Taliban fighters who were responsible for the recent deadly bombing at Kabul airport.

If America backs the Taliban against ISIS-K, this might help in the short term but could also strengthen Al Qaeda.

“To appease the West the US might silently allow Al Qaeda the time to work together against [ISIS],” said Dr Michelle Groppi, a counter-terrorism expert at Kings College London.

“But it’s a pretty twisted game as in the longer term, this could embolden and reinstate the power of Al Qaeda. If they have the opportunity, they will strike on the West. I don't think we’ll see another 9/11, but we also should not be caught off guard because Al Qaeda’s goal is still the far enemy, which is the US, Israel and the West in general. That's why this situation is particularly dangerous.”

Taliban hold the key

But Al Qaeda’s comeback could be more nuanced and is not entirely guaranteed.

When bin Laden approached the Taliban leader Mullah Omar in 1996 after fleeing US missiles in Sudan, he arrived with a substantial war-chest. By contrast, the group today does not have his millions.

The Taliban are now in charge of a state with a GDP of $20 billion, albeit with 43 per cent of that coming from foreign aid. However, if they do strike a deal with the US and other western powers, the money will almost certainly be conditional on eschewing their long-term allies.

“The Taliban will have to keep Al Qaeda in line because they are in desperate need of international recognition and money,” said Dr Groppi. “So, you’d hope the instant we see Al Qaeda members strutting around in Kabul, the deal will be done for.”

But Mr Bergen argues that “dangling” a financial package of $9bn in Afghan government reserves in front of the Taliban will have little impact in moderating their alliance with Al Qaeda.

“Sure, they'd like it, but they survived pretty well without international recognition,” he said. “More importantly, they now have 38 million people they can tax or extort from much like ISIS did as extortion earned them more than kidnapping, antiquities smuggling or oil.”

The Taliban might also blackmail the West along the lines of: “if you don't give us more money, we're opening our doors to Al Qaeda,” suggests Dr Groppi.

“I don't think that this scenario is particularly far-fetched. The Taliban are rational actors and are going to try to maximise the benefits however they can in an economical way in order to attack us.”

Terrorism analyst Raffaello Pantucci believes the West’s leverage of financial assistance will only go so far as withdrawing funding would impact more on the Afghan population than the Taliban. “There is not much evidence of cash having a strong coercive power and it could certainly have a hugely damaging effect on Afghanistan if they use it as leverage.”

Mr Pantucci, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, says that while Al Qaeda is “a shadow of what it used to be”, it could remobilise and reorganise, although it would take some time to “achieve the past successes that it had”.

The World Trade Centre following the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda. AFP

However, he recognises that predicting the speed and reach of Al Qaeda's resurgence is tricky, and it depends on its relationship with the Taliban.

Their alliance runs so deep it may be difficult to say no. “If Al Qaeda overstepped, would the Taliban crack down? This is an organisation that they fought and bled alongside for the past 30 years and they are deeply interlinked through marriage connections. It's difficult to break up when you're breaking up for people who are ‘non-believers’.”

Dr Groppi agrees. “To think the Taliban are not going to harbour terrorist organisations is unrealistic and naive,” she said.

Still, the threat from Al Qaeda could potentially be overstated.

“Al Qaeda is not the powerful organisation it was and by contrast, the Taliban have just won a war against the world's mightiest superpower,” said Mr Pantucci. “So, the relationship is different, one has clearly got the upper hand over the other and if the Taliban say, ‘Don't do this’, then Al Qaeda will probably try to accommodate.”

The Taliban will, of course, remember that they lost power the last time Al Qaeda mounted a major operation and might be reticent in agreeing another.

To date, Al Qaeda has been spotted in 15 out of 34 Afghan provinces and does not currently present a direct threat to western powers, who all have tightened security post 9/11 and following ISIS terrorism.

It took ISIS two years to mount attacks outside Syria but training new recruits under the protection of a collaborative government could hasten Al Qaeda’s overseas operations.

While America might be able to strike training camps, without nearby bases or reliable ground intelligence, this could prove problematic. The terrorists could well be able to train, equip and manoeuvre inside Afghanistan with impunity.

“They're so tightly intertwined, they won’t know if the drone is targeting a guy who's Taliban or Al Qaeda,” said Mr Pantucci.

Unlike America’s retreat from Vietnam half a century ago, Mr Bergen believes that Al Qaeda’s resurgence could once again draw US troops back into Afghanistan.

“The equation for the US will change if the Taliban commit ethnic cleansing, as they previously did against the Hazaras, an attack on America or the West obviously traceable to the area or if Americans are killed. That might well trigger a response from the United States. [President Joe] Biden clearly doesn't want to go back in, but when the facts change, your policies change.”

If that is the case, Mr Biden’s precipitous withdrawal would only have served to perpetuate, rather than end, America’s longest war.

Updated: September 09, 2021, 8:07 PM