Two decades ago, the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden and his fellow al-Qaeda leaders provided the justification for US president George W Bush to launch the American-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The Taliban were swiftly driven from power, but it took US special forces another 10 years to track down and kill the mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the US.
Years of conflict and American counter-terrorism operations, before and after bin Laden’s death, left his terrorist network battered and weakened. But it was never defeated and the threat from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in Afghanistan including Isis, while diminished, never went away.
Now, with the return of the Taliban in the wake of the US withdrawal, western intelligence and defence officials fear al-Qaeda could exploit the situation to regroup, raising the risk that Afghanistan will once again become a hub for the recruitment and training of Islamist extremists.
“We have not seen a break with the Taliban. So, if the Taliban does have success they’re likely to have al-Qaeda operating with them,” a US official told the Financial Times as the Afghan Islamist group advanced on Kabul last week.
A report from the US intelligence community in April said al-Qaeda continued “to plot terrorist attacks against US persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States”.
European intelligence officials have also expressed concern that Afghanistan could once again become a magnet for foreign fighters, including extremists from Europe. Speaking as the US prepared its troop withdrawal, one official questioned whether a Taliban government would “have the will or ability” to deter would-be jihadis setting up camp in the country.
Ken McCallum, director of the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, warned last month that while the allied military campaign had dismantled al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in the country, it might seek to “re-establish some training facilities there” if “ungoverned spaces” opened up.
Al-Qaeda was spawned in Afghanistan from among the mujahideen and Arab fighters, such as bin Laden, a Saudi, who were inspired by jihad, or holy war, against Russian occupation in the 1980s. A decade later, when governments in the Arab world began to treat bin Laden as a pariah, he returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban gave him sanctuary while his terror network plotted deadly attacks against US interests, including the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole as it was being refuelled at Yemen’s Aden port, and the September 11 attacks.
There have been no al-Qaeda attacks on western targets planned solely from Afghanistan in the years since — the July 2005 bombings in London were directed by al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
Still, analysts warned that the group and its affiliates retain the ability to mobilise and inspire others. US intelligence agencies said a Saudi air force officer who went on a deadly shooting rampage at an American naval base in 2019 had links to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the group’s deadliest affiliates.
When the Trump administration last year sealed the peace deal with the Taliban that laid the foundations for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a critical concern was securing assurances from the Islamist movement that it would prevent al-Qaeda operating in its territory.
The February 2020 agreement said the Taliban would “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security” of the US, and would “send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan”.
Yet just four months later, a UN report to the Security Council said the Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during its negotiations with the US and “offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties”. It added that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, and hundreds of armed operatives remained in Afghanistan.
“Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network [an Afghan militant group allied to the Taliban based in Pakistan], and al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” the report said. “Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement [with the US], with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy.”
Joe Biden, US president, who has been widely criticised for the manner of the American withdrawal, has argued the threat from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan can be handled the same way as any other threat from its global network, saying he was “adamant” the US focus on the risks it faced in 2021 and “not yesterday’s threats”.
Some analysts and officials believe the Taliban’s desire to secure international recognition and financial support, coupled with the prospect that any terrorist activity would trigger a western military response, may cause the group to at least keep a lid on al-Qaeda’s activities.
“I don’t see the Taliban taking forceful action to close down al-Qaeda, or other groups on their territory. But at the same I don’t think they will want Afghanistan to be the place from which international terrorism is planned or directed because they have paid a price for that over the past 20 years,” said Sir John Sawers, former head of the UK’s MI6 intelligence agency. “The Taliban will want to focus on consolidating its position in the country. They’ve also got some important relationships they have got to get right, particularly Pakistan, then Iran and China. All are complicated and none are going to be helped if they become the base of international terrorism.”
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said in Kabul on Tuesday, that the Islamist movement assured “the international community, and especially the US and neighbouring countries, that Afghanistan won’t be used against them”.
But it is not only western governments that are worried about extremism flourishing under the Taliban’s rule.
An Indian official warned that Afghanistan risked becoming a haven for Pakistani extremist groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the devastating 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
“The big concern is not just for India, but the entire neighbourhood,” said one senior Indian government official. “The spillover could go in any direction.”
An adviser to ousted Afghan president Ashraf Ghani said al-Qaeda “are strong, they are present in this region and they have close and even stronger relations than the Taliban in the past”.
“Anything that happens in the future, all these countries will be affected by that — if it’s peace, or if it’s instability,” he said.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Parkin in Delhi