Afghanistan, now the global beacon for Islamic jihad?

THAT certainly seems to be the chilling ramifications of what Taliban commander Muhammed Arif Mustafa told CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward when the Islamists were at the gates of Kabul: “One day, mujahedeen will have victory and Islamic law will come not just to Afghanistan, but all over the world. We are not in a hurry. We believe it will come one day.

Jihad will not end until the last day.”

With the takeover by the Taliban of Afghanistan, Islamic jihad worldwide could regain momentum since it is the game changer for Islamists to control an entire government apparatus. We could be a target. Indeed, the military has identified 32 foreign fighters, said to be affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – officially known as the Islamic State or IS – among the militants killed in the battle of Marawi that lasted from May to October in 2017.

Why ISIL at that time? For a time it controlled parts of Iraq and Syria, and with the former’s oil revenues, had $1 billion in its war chest. With their capture of Afghanistan, the Taliban will have access to the huge resources a government of any territory has.

The Taliban, 30 years ago, had largely consisted of students (Talib is the singular form) who joined the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation that ended in 1989. Al-Qaeda, organized by the infamous Osama bin Laden, the architect of the World Trade Center attack in 2011, initially raised funds and recruited fighters from all over the world for them and all Afghan groups to fight the Soviets.

Both are of the Sunni sect of Islam with the Taliban’s ideology being of the Deobandi branch – a less extreme version of the Wahhabi-Salafist tradition practiced by ISIL and al-Qaeda, both of which seek the establishment of Islamist emirates in Muslim countries.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda are closely linked, not just through their history of fighting together first against Soviets and then the US, but as complementary jihadist movements.

The Taliban has been the Islamic jihadist organization in Afghanistan, mostly from the dominant Pashtun tribe in the country. Its official name is the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which has become a reality in the past few days. Al-Qaeda, initially organized by Saudis (like Bin Laden), Pakistanis and Egyptians, on the other hand, intends to establish a worldwide caliphate and sees the destruction of the US as the essential strategy to achieve this goal. The ISIL has been mostly an organization of Iraqi and Syrian jihadists intent on grabbing territory and establishing an Islamic state for Iraq and Syria.

Taliban leaders had fooled the US in its peace talks in 2020 (that allowed it to strengthen itself) that it committed to restrain al-Qaeda from organizing terrorism from Afghanistan.

However, a recent article on the website of the US think-tank Modern War Institute pointed out: “Many analysts and policymakers worry that the Taliban leadership will fail to uphold their minimal guarantees not to let al-Qaeda plot against the United States after an American withdrawal.”

The article pointed out: “American concerns stem in part from the reality that despite intense US targeting pressure in the years after 9/11 – and an available off-ramp of disassociating from al-Qaeda – the Afghan Taliban chose not to renounce the group and instead maintained a robust alliance with it. Following the US invasion, for example, the Afghan Taliban worked with al-Qaeda in organizing the insurgency against US and Afghan forces, especially in the east of the country. And in the early years of the insurgency, some Taliban leaders embraced and publicized their alliance with foreign jihadists.”

In fact, another US think-tank on the jihadists, Jihadica, reported a letter by the al-Qaeda ideologue Atiyyat Allah al-Libi writing as follows about the nature of the Taliban’s dealings with al-Qaeda: “Of course, the Taliban’s policy is to avoid being seen with us or revealing any cooperation or agreement between us and them. That is for the purpose of averting international and regional pressure and out of consideration for regional dynamics. We defer to them in this regard.”

While even jihadists had condemned the Taliban for renouncing relationships with al-Qaeda, analysts have pointed out that this may simply be due to its clever propaganda because of the global condemnation of al-Qaeda after 9/11. They claim that the ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain strong because families’ key leaders of both organizations are bound by martial ties. Al-Qaeda also remains popular among the rank and file of the Taliban.

One of the most important factors that tie the two organizations is the fact that it was al-Qaeda that organized an Islamic International Brigade during the Taliban’s fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, managing to recruit thousands of Muslims from all over the world. Analysts point out in the context of the Afghans’ values, such help is never forgotten.

The al-Qaeda even recruited over a hundred such fighters from the ranks of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In fact, when I stayed for several days in 1996 at the MILF’s main headquarters Camp Abubakr situated on a plateau in Mindanao, my guide pointed to three guerrillas he said had fought in Afghanistan.

I was incredulous and befriended them to find out if indeed they were mujahideen in Afghanistan. It seems they were, without admitting it outright: they talked about having been in a place where their urine froze before reaching the ground yet was a place where they could fry eggs with the sun.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front have reached a peace agreement with government with their leaders looking forward to positions in the government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. However, the Marawi battle that lasted five months would indicate that Islamic jihadists can still recruit young Filipino Muslims to their cause. Afghanistan as the first such jihadist state would be their inspiration.

The US has spent $2 trillion since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and there is no model coming out of that saga on how a secular, liberal-democratic power can defeat Islamic jihadism.

An entire country could now be the recruitment and training ground, headquarters, source of funds and resources for jihad. Bin Laden must be smiling from ear to ear wherever he is.

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