Terrorism in South Asia After the Fall of Afghanistan
The Taliban won the war in Afghanistan. America and its allies lost. While the Taliban holds press conferences, thousands of desperate Afghans flank the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport, desperate for a flight out of the country. Several fell hundreds of feet to their deaths trying to cling to a U.S. military aircraft during take-off.
The short-term imperatives of saving as many Afghans as possible will soon give way to an assessment of what the new Afghanistan means for international security. For countries in South Asia — particularly India — the withdrawal of U.S. forces, collapse of the Afghan military, and ascendance of the Taliban pose a massive counter-terrorism threat. Transnational groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as their affiliates and regional branches, will likely step up their activities from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Anti-India terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed could eventually use the country as a base to launch attacks in Kashmir or other parts of India, as they did in the 1990s. While the Pakistani Taliban has lost much of its strength, it could reconstitute in Afghanistan and launch attacks into Pakistan. All of this will have immense implications for the future of jihadism in South Asia and beyond.
In time, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan may prove to have been the right one for the United States. It may ultimately free up resources for U.S. political and military leaders to focus on China and Russia. However, the challenge for Washington now is to articulate a counter-terrorism strategy in South Asia with far fewer resources at its disposal. Without thousands of troops in Afghanistan, the United States will no longer have the intelligence capabilities to follow terrorist activities along the border with Pakistan. Future airstrikes against Afghan targets will be a costly logistical challenge and would surely undermine any chance Washington has of convincing the Taliban to dissociate from al-Qaeda. With the exception of India, America’s potential partners in South Asia are all problematic: Pakistan has supported the Taliban and the Haqqani network for decades, Russia has no interest in helping America when it is down, Iran is under heavy U.S. sanctions, and counter-terrorism cooperation with China will likely be limited given the downward trend of Sino-American ties. U.S. troops may soon be leaving Afghanistan, but the terrorist threat from there will endure for the foreseeable future.
Al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent
Al-Qaeda and its South Asian branch, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, will benefit from the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan. The country was the birthplace of al-Qaeda and many of its branches. Currently, the leadership of the core group and the South Asian faction are active in the country and have been recorded fighting alongside the Taliban against the United States. Although new estimates suggest that there are no more than 600 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, their latent strength is considerable.
While the Taliban agreed to cut ties with al-Qaeda as part of its agreement with the United States in February 2020, there’s little evidence in the historical record that the Taliban will keep its word. Indeed, al-Qaeda has repeatedly pledged its allegiance to the Taliban. Moreover, its leaders have been discovered in Taliban territory as recently as March 2021. It’s true that the Taliban will have incentives to prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan to conduct attacks around the world. However, those incentives are unlikely to be as powerful as the desire to avoid a direct confrontation with al-Qaeda, the pull of history, and opposition to Western pressure.
In fact, the Taliban appear to be unilaterally revising the understanding with the United States. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has added further caveats to the deal with the United States regarding al-Qaeda, saying that “nowhere in the agreement has it been mentioned that we have or don’t have ties with anyone. In fact, the issue of relations is not considered. What has been agreed upon is that no threat should be posed from Afghan soil to the U.S. and its allies.” According to another account by scholar Asfandyar Mir, “at one point during the negotiations [between the United States and the Taliban], the discussion broke down with the Afghan Taliban insisting that there was no proof that al-Qaeda had carried out the 9/11 attacks.”
The Taliban is unlikely to honor its commitments to the United States regarding al-Qaeda because of historic ties, familial relations via marriages between members of both groups, and a shared outlook on the state of Afghanistan and offensive jihad (i.e., taking up arms to establish the rule of God). Both groups want what they consider the rule of God in Afghanistan. However, while al-Qaeda has a far more global outlook, the Taliban is more inward-looking and is influenced by local customs. The Taliban has released thousands of prisoners from Afghan jails since taking over, including the prison at Bagram Air Base, which reportedly contained al-Qaeda operatives. Moreover, it has also delegated the security of Kabul to the Haqqani network — which has close ties to al-Qaeda and was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks of the Afghan war —further illustrating its closeness to the group.
The enduring relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan will have troubling consequences for regional security. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent had already hailed the U.S. withdrawal as a victory, and changed the name of its magazine from Nawai Afghan Jihad (Voice of the Afghan Jihad) to Nawai Ghazwat-ul-Hind (Voice of the Conquest of India) early this year, indicating where its energies could be focused going forward.
Terrorist groups are active in other countries in South Asia besides Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s affiliates, such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, are still active in India and Bangladesh. As recently as July 2021, Indian authorities arrested two Kashmiris belonging to Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. According to the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad, the two were allegedly planning to conduct attacks in Lucknow, the state capital. In addition, three Bangladeshi members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh were also apprehended in the same month for allegedly setting up networks in Kolkata.
The risk of al-Qaeda supporting and inspiring regional affiliates in South Asia is significant and growing. Bangladeshi authorities have noted that three members of Ansar al-Islam (also known as Ansarullah Bangla Team) have travelled to Afghanistan to support the Taliban, potentially opening a renewed interest in jihadist operations.
While most international counter-terrorism efforts in South Asia focus on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, some of South Asia’s smaller countries (e.g., Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Myanmar) are also a target for al-Qaeda. The group was linked to the 2019 killing of a Maldivian journalist. Moreover, al-Qaeda has discussed the treatment of Rohingyas in Myanmar and warns of revenge in case of further atrocities. Ataullah abu Ammar Junni, the leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, was born in Pakistan and has travelled to both Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek help for his insurgency. Clearly, terrorist networks transcend borders in South Asia.
Islamic State and Other Terrorist Groups in South Asia
The Taliban and Islamic State are rivals in Afghanistan. The Taliban considers the Islamic State an opponent and resents its efforts to operate independently in Afghanistan. The Islamic State’s claims that the Taliban works with Pakistani intelligence are meant to embarrass the Taliban. A recently released U.N. report highlights that differences within the Taliban could make the Islamic State Khorasan Province in Afghanistan a viable alternative for those who did not agree with the Taliban leadership on its negotiations with the United States over the latter’s withdrawal.
The Islamic State has conducted attacks throughout South Asia. In Pakistan, the group has been active as Wilayah-al-Bakistan (or the “Islamic State Pakistan Province”) since 2019. Its rivalry with the Taliban has already shown some spill over effect with the Islamic State claiming responsibility for the killing of a Taliban leader in an attack in Peshawar, Pakistan. Wilayah-al-Bakistan claimed 22 attacks in Pakistan in 2019 and 13 attacks in 2020.
The Islamic State targets South Asian audiences with its propaganda. Sawt-al-Hind (Voice of Hind), an online pro-Islamic State propaganda magazine, targeted Indian Muslims during communal riots in New Delhi in February 2020. The monthly magazine explores controversial regional and local affairs (e.g., developments at the Ayodhya temple, a highly contentious issue between Hindus and Muslims in India since the early 1990s). It regularly features articles by authors from Maldives, a country that, on a per capita basis, once had the highest number of foreign fighters that joined the Islamic State in the region.
The deadliest terror attack in South Asia’s history took place in Sri Lanka. The 2019 Easter bombings killed more than 270 people. Even though the Islamic State claimed the attack, law enforcement has struggled to confirm direct links between the bombings and the group. The bombings came three years after the terror attack in Dhaka, which killed 22 civilians, which was also done in the name of the Islamic State. These attacks highlight the fluidity of the Islamic State brand, which can be co-opted by local terror actors to gain leverage and recognition.
High-ranking Islamic State officials have publicly singled out South Asia as an important region for the group’s activities. The Islamic State’s new spokesperson, Abu Hamza al Qurashi, recently praised Islamic State ecosystems in India and Pakistan. Despite some successful attacks in the region, the group’s strategy remains disjointed. They have not been able to appoint a leader for South Asia, build a strong chain of command in the region, or sustain branches there.
Apart from the Islamic State, India’s greatest concern in Afghanistan is that the Taliban, once back in power in Kabul, would provide space for groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed — and their alleged handlers in Pakistani intelligence — to operate freely. This is effectively what happened in the 1990s, when terrorist violence in Kashmir was at its peak with close to 1,000 casualties per year. The Afghan landscape is reportedly already providing Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed with both training grounds and recruitment opportunities. New Delhi will do its best to watch this development closely, but that may be difficult without an active embassy in Kabul.
The different groups that will now operate with more freedom in Afghanistan have different approaches to certain hotspots. Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and the Islamic State have very different narratives concerning Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are recognized as Kashmiri nationalists fighting over lost territory. Moreover, their historic links with each other and actors within Pakistan beginning in the 1990s gives each group bona fides with the Taliban, which also sees itself foremost as a nationalist movement. The Islamic State, by contrast, considers Kashmir to be a Muslim majority region and intends to establish itself as an independent entity separate from India or Pakistan.
The Future of Jihadism in a Post-American Afghanistan
The Taliban’s success in Afghanistan will have far reaching effects on the resilience of other groups looking to conduct attacks across South Asia. Firstly, the Taliban’s perceived victory over the United States will likely inspire jihadist groups. Various groups in Syria and Palestine have celebrated the Taliban’s takeover. Others will be inspired by the Taliban’s new resources and international prestige, especially if other countries begin to formally recognize the government in Kabul.
Second, Afghanistan will almost certainly become an attractive destination for South Asian extremists (and jihadists from other parts of the world) once again. Despite differences with the Taliban, the Islamic State could strengthen its position in Afghanistan from disenfranchised factions of the Taliban and continue to attract more South Asians. Several Indians travelled to Afghanistan and joined Islamic State Khorasan Province in 2016 and 2017. Some former members of disbanded groups such as the Indian Mujahideen and Students’ Islamic Movement of India also joined the Islamic State Khorasan Province. The Taliban victory is sure to make it easier for extremists to enter Afghanistan.
Third, foreign fighters will gain experience in Afghanistan and will eventually go back to their home countries, bringing that experience with them. The Afghan jihad of the 1980s was the progenitor of numerous jihadist movements across South Asia. This was due in part to returning foreign fighters setting up shop back home. A repeat of this dynamic can prove detrimental to not only the security but also the political fabric of the region.
Lastly, the Taliban’s advances have already given it access to major resources and weapons. The Taliban might funnel these to other groups. An increase in financial resources can further help to pay for mid- to high-level operations across South Asia.
What Can the United States Do Now?
In order to secure its counter-terrorism interests after it withdraws from Afghanistan, the United States should increase counter-terrorism cooperation with regional states, especially India. Washington may even find it useful to cooperate or coordinate with Beijing and Islamabad on limited counter-terrorism objectives. The United States should also encourage South Asian nations to work closer on counter-terrorism. Most of these options are suboptimal, but after the U.S. withdrawal, Washington has no other options.
America’s counter-terrorism cooperation with India will be especially important for U.S. interests. New Delhi is Washington’s most capable defense and intelligence partner in South Asia, particularly after the collapse of the Afghan military. Helping India to prevent terrorist attacks will allow New Delhi to focus attention and resources on competing with China.
Despite the fact that Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and the Haqqani network undermined U.S. interests in Afghanistan for decades, the United States may find it necessary to work with Pakistan on some specific regional counter-terrorism efforts. The two countries face common threats from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Tehrik-i-Taliban (or “Pakistan Taliban”) may regroup and threaten Pakistani and U.S. security interests. Pakistan’s insights into the Taliban and developments in Afghanistan may prove valuable to the U.S.-Pakistani intelligence relationship. However, this cooperation can only go so far. U.S. officials will long remember Pakistan’s role in sabotaging America’s efforts in Afghanistan, and Islamabad’s support for anti-India terrorist groups risks a nuclear crisis in South Asia.
Likewise, the United States could attempt to engage with China given its increasing influence in South Asia and strong links with Pakistan. Washington could leverage the recent terror attack against Chinese citizens in Pakistan — allegedly by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, although neither group has taken responsibility — as a starting point to future cooperation on discrete regional issues, if the politics allow it. It is likely that this cooperation may not materialize, however, given the current state of Sino-American ties. Nevertheless, given that terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan threaten the interests of all regional states, there may be some space for collaboration.
The United States could also encourage regional counter-terrorism cooperation. And for this, New Delhi can play a significant role in driving the counter-terror discourse in the region. Such a mechanism would also allow smaller countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives (among others) to achieve their own potential in dealing with terrorism via institutionalized counter-terror solutions from the perspective of local and hyper-local strategies.
The end of the U.S. military’s involvement in Afghanistan does not mean the end of terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan. The country will continue to host numerous terrorist groups that threaten the interests of numerous states in the region and beyond. Afghanistan may not prove to be the terrorist safe haven that it was immediately before 9/11, but the United States and its allies will have fewer capabilities and resources to combat the threat that does emerge. After the United States and others respond to the immediate crisis on the ground in Kabul, they will be left to put together a counter-terrorism strategy for Afghanistan with fewer tools than they had before. Crafting new approaches will require a deep understanding of the various groups operating in Afghanistan and throughout South Asia.
Kabir Taneja is fellow and head of the West Asia Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in India. He is the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia (Penguin Viking 2019).
Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a doctoral candidate at the Islamic and Middle East Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh. Previously, he was a senior analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.