TWENTY years into an evidently uncalculated adventure, with limitless loss of life and limb and no improvement on the local scene, Washington leaves Afghanistan in more of a mess than it found it. The Taliban’s return to power not only undermines the safety and prosperity of Afghans but destabilises the region and the world. But it is America’s own failure to achieve anything in this context that is most striking.
On Monday the last US military aircraft took off from Afghanistan. Terrorist groups exchanged congratulations over social media, hailing the Taliban victory.
The collective celebration is evidence of how intertwined terrorist networks are. The jubilation, visually manifested in the flag-waving, horn-honking parades of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) members in Syria, has raised concerns that Afghanistan will once again become a terrorist refuge, as it was during the first period of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Against this backdrop, exaggerated assessments of the rivalry between Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), hold little solace.
Hundreds of elements affiliated to HTS, which is loyal to Al-Qaeda, took to the streets of Idlib, to celebrate what they term “the Taliban’s victory over the Americans”.
The US withdrawal may have many implications, but no one should underestimate the boost it has given to Islamists who will now embark on a new phase of fighting against governments they deem “apostate”.
Before the Taliban took over Afghanistan extremist movements, particularly in the Middle East, had been growing weaker as a result of repeated security strikes against them. With the success of counter-terrorism operations in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, large organisations such as Al-Qaeda and IS moved their activities to sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and South Asia.
American analysts and officials fear that Afghanistan under the Taliban will again become a safe haven for terrorism. “The Taliban are terrorists who will support terrorists,” US National Public Radio quoted former US defence secretary Leon Panetta as saying.
According to Vision Humanity, which provides measures of global peacefulness, Afghanistan ranked first in 2019 in terms of terrorist activity, followed by Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and India.
The Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index 2020 ranked Libya 16 out of 163 countries, a figure that fails to reflect the way events in Libya directly fed the surge in terrorism in Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, countries that have relied heavily on the French-led Operation Barkhane against Islamist groups in the Sahel region. Worried by recent developments in Afghanistan, all these affected countries have urged Western forces to remain for fear of a repeat of the Afghani scenario.
The fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 had a significant impact on security deterioration in the Sahel. The regime possessed one of the largest arsenals in the developing world, much of which found its way into the hands of obscure groups with sinister aims.
“After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Islamist groups seized control of many of the weapon and ammunition storehouses in the country,” explains Abdel-Rahim Al-Tarhouni, a Libyan political science professor. “Some of these groups used the weapons as means to make money. Others passed them along to their colleagues in extremist organisations.”
Al-Tarhouni cites Chadian president Idriss Déby as one casualty of the way the situation in Libya impacted on its neighbours. Déby died of his injuries following clashes with ethnic Toubou rebels in northern Chad in April. “It was not in the interests of any Libyan tribe to assassinate Déby. The fighters who helped Toubou forces kill him came from terrorist groups that use Libya as their base,” says Al-Tarhouni.
Terrorist groups based in Libya have also targeted Egypt, and some of the most dangerous terrorist operatives from Egypt have fled to Egypt’s western neighbour. Last year, Libyan authorities handed some of them over to Egypt, including the notorious Hisham Ashmawi. “And let’s not forget,” says Al-Tarhouni, “that human trafficking and migrant smuggling gangs have taken advantage of the civil war in Libya to engage in their illegal activities, under the protection of, and in close association with, terrorist groups.”
According to recent news reports, the Libyan army has clashed with terrorists in southern Libya and along the Libyan-Algerian border, evidence that the situation in Libya is not yet stable despite the efforts of the government of Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah.
Algeria is where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) originated. Now led by Abu Ubaidah Youssef Al-Annabi, who replaced Abdel-Malek Droukdel who was killed during a French special operation in Mali, AQIM continues to pose a threat in Algeria and elsewhere in the region.
The situation in Tunisia is also delicate given heightened friction between President Kais Saied and the Ennahda movement, the political façade of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood. The tensions offer an opportunity to terrorist groups which have already decimated the Tunisian tourist industry, depriving the country of a vital sources of revenue.
Tunisian journalist Ahmed Abdel-Hakim stresses that Tunisia was the largest source of foreign recruits for IS. Western sources estimate that 15,000 to 18,000 Tunisians went to Syria to join IS. “These same elements pose a threat to the country in the event that the Muslim Brothers clash with the president,” Abdel-Hakim told Al-Ahram Weekly. He argues that Tunisia is at greater risk now as a result of the inspiration terrorist groups will draw from the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan. “Terrorists might move to Tunisia from Libya to escape the Libyan army, and from Algeria where counter-terrorist operations have delivered debilitating strikes,” he warns.
Somalia has long suffered from the activities of Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen, the oldest sub-Saharan terrorist organisation. Al-Shabab has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban’s closest ally, and many observers believe the movement stands to gain from the Taliban “victory” in Afghanistan.
Kenya, which has suffered a wave of bombings and ranked 23 on the Vision Humanity index, fears a similar scenario. To the south, Mozambique, ranked 15, was dealt a deafening blow by Al-Shabab (a distinct organisation, not to be confused with the Somali Al-Shabab), which seized a key northern city where a natural gas extraction project run by French company Total is underway.
The deadliest Islamist movement in Africa, Boko Haram, began its attacks in 2010 and has so far claimed the lives of more than 37,000 people and displaced more that two million. While the Nigerian army receives large amounts of aid from the US and NATO, corruption is hindering efforts to counter Boko Haram and Western commentators believe the Nigerian government could itself be in danger.
Boko Haram has expanded its attacks in neighbouring countries, carrying out terrorist operations in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Terrorism networks are inextricably intertwined. While some observers claim that Al-Qaeda and IS are rivals, and argue that the Taliban is a tribal — not an Islamic — organisation, the fact is that competition between Al-Qaeda and IS is little more than sibling rivalry. They share the same ideology, creed and view of the world. And the optimistic assertion that the Taliban are tribal, not Islamist, is easily refuted. Simply look at their actions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly