What the Taliban’s Victory in Afghanistan Means for Al-Qaeda and ISIS
With the fall of Afghanistan into Taliban hands, two key questions have emerged in relation to physical security and international terrorism:
- 1. Given the Taliban’s close ties with Al-Qaeda over the last two decades, will the Taliban victory allow for a resurgence by Al-Qaeda and its jihadi allies?
- 2. How will rival militants from ISIS respond to the departure of Western troops and the ascension of a Taliban government?
Below, citing a variety of primary sources, including data drawn from Flashpoint’s collections, we detail evidence of the continuous, evolving relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. We also provide insight into how the Taliban victory in Afghanistan may impact the activity of Al-Qaeda factions in the region, as well as ISIS.
The Taliban & Al-Qaeda: Tracking Recent Ties
While the Taliban may insist that times have changed since 9/11, when Afghanistan was a safe haven for Al-Qaeda—and that their connections with Al-Qaeda are no longer the same—there is good reason to treat those assertions skeptically. Given a new sanctuary and oxygen to fuel its recruitment in Afghanistan, it is possible that Al-Qaeda’s “recession” might only be short-lived. Even if Al-Qaeda has been rendered somewhat toothless in recent years, this appears to have had no measurable impact on its relationship with the Taliban.
There is ample evidence that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain actively committed to each other and work together. In May 2019, Al-Qaeda official As-Sahab Media released a video purporting to show footage from an ambush of an Afghan army convoy in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province. The video explains that the ambush had been jointly planned by a group of Afghan and foreign fighters “under the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” i.e. the Taliban.
According to former Taliban governor Abdul Salam Hanafi, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have closely collaborated on the latter’s peace negotiations with the United States. “Al-Qaeda trained the Taliban for the talks,” said Hanif. “It’s a bond that cannot be broken.”
Last October, after the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal, Edmund Fitton-Brown, the coordinator of the UN’s Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Taliban Monitoring Team, confirmed that recent peace talks had “not substantively” harmed the Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda. “The Taliban were talking regularly and at a high level with al-Qaeda and reassuring them that they would honor their historic ties,” he told the BBC. “Al-Qaeda are heavily embedded with the Taliban and they do a good deal of military action and training action with the Taliban, and that has not changed.”
A May 2020 report by Fitton-Brown’s United Nations team explained how the Taliban/Al-Qaeda relationship is “based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy, and intermarriage.” The report cited evidence that “Al-Qaeda and the Taliban held meetings over the course of 2019 and in early 2020 to discuss cooperation related to operational planning, training, and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for Al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan.” The UN report also mentions six meetings between Al-Qaeda and Taliban senior leadership held over the prior 12-month period.
The most notable of these was a meeting in spring 2019 that took place in Sarwan Qal‘ah District of Helmand Province, at which Sadr Ibrahim, Mullah Mohammadzai, and former adviser to Mullah Mohammad Omar, Gul Agha Ishakzai, reportedly met with Hamza Usama Muhammad bin Laden to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al-Qaida for any price.
Hamza Bin Laden was the son of Al-Qaeda founder Usama Bin Laden and—at the time of this alleged meeting—was also widely considered to be his father’s heir-apparent as the leader of Al-Qaeda. The UN monitoring team cited evidence contributed from an unnamed United Nations Member State showing “that the regularity of meetings between Al-Qaeda seniors and the Taliban ‘made any notion of a break between the two mere fiction.’”
Widespread Celebration Among Taliban, Al-Qaeda Factions, Supporters
Word of the Taliban victory over the Afghan government and the seizure of the Afghan capital was quickly and enthusiastically welcomed by key forces within Al-Qaeda factions.
On August 10, Iyad Ghaly, the leader of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), released a video in which he addressed several issues, including congratulating the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) on their victories.
On August 18, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), arguably the group’s single most important remaining faction, quickly issued a statement declaring, “Two decades of jihad, steadfastness, and willpower in the struggle with the Crusader West and infidel forces around the world have culminated in complete victory in the proud land of Afghanistan——and the defeat of America.”
On August 23, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen released a joint statement congratulating the Taliban, noting that the Taliban’s victory is a vindication of the group’s steadfastesness. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) released a similar statement.
On August 23, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) released a statement congratulating the Taliban. GIMF is a media logistics unit affiliated with al-Qaeda.
A video posted on a Pakistani Taliban (TTP) Telegram channel (Umar Media) shows militants and other alleged foreign fighters rumored to be from Al-Qaeda being freed by the Taliban from Afghan government jails.
The former deputy commander of the TTP has likewise issued his public “congratulations to the Muslim Ummah on the release of many prisoners including mujahideen” and has directly offered his “thanks to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Flashpoint Intelligence Shows ISIS Activity Quieting
Twenty year after the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are no longer the only players on the field. The “Khorasan” branch of ISIS remains very active. It has claimed responsibility for at least 105 military operations inside Afghanistan since May 1, 2021. ISIS has been surprisingly open about its loathing of its jihadi rivals and has proudly boasted of killing “apostate” Al-Qaeda and Taliban members. In the last two months alone, the Islamic State has claimed credit for six different assassinations and raids targeting the Taliban.
ISIS attacks in Afghanistan were a near daily occurrence in 2021—that was, until August 14, when everything suddenly stopped dead.
Quite obviously, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has had a significant impact on ISIS operations in the country, although it is not clear yet whether this merely reflects a transitional honeymoon period or a deliberate strategic decision on the part of ISIS. It is worth noting that since May, Flashpoint Intelligence shows that at least 25% of all ISIS attacks in Afghanistan took place in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad and at least 45% of them took place across surrounding Nangarhar Province more broadly.
Given that it was also August 14-15 when Taliban forces seized control of Jalalabad and Nangarhar, it appears that the moment the Taliban took control of their main area of operations in Afghanistan, ISIS went totally quiet. The only ISIS attack anywhere nearby that has taken place since the Taliban seizure of Nangarhar Province was an August 20 assassination of accused Pakistani intelligence spies in the Mamuzai area of Pakistan’s Orakzai Agency. Mamuzai is located about 20 miles south of the Afghan border—and on the other side is Nangarhar.