Al Qaeda Versus ISIS
Foreignaffairs – The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has raised fears that the country will once again become a safe haven for Islamist militants intent on perpetrating acts of international terrorism. In light of the Taliban’s history of harboring such radical groups, these fears are justified. But the two movements vying for influence in the country, al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), both face serious obstacles in their quest to use Afghanistan as a platform to bolster their strength and launch a new wave of terrorist attacks.
These groups are themselves bitterly divided over what role a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will play in the global jihadi landscape. For al Qaeda, the Taliban’s victory is an epic triumph—the fulfillment of God’s promise to give victory to the believers over the unbelievers. For ISIS, it is not a triumph at all but rather further evidence of the Taliban’s willingness to collaborate with the Americans.
FUTURE CALIPHATE OR AMERICAN ALLY?
Since the rise of ISIS in 2013 and its declaration of a caliphate the following year in territory the group seized in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda has sought to position itself as the more moderate and pragmatic of the two groups. It is more restrained in the practice of takfir—the practice of declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers—and more concerned with appealing to public opinion in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda has also deepened its already close ties with the Taliban. The relationship between the two groups dates to the very beginning of Taliban rule in 1996, when the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was invited by the Taliban to stay in Afghanistan under its protection. In 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden publicly swore an oath of allegiance, or bay‘a, to then Taliban leader Mullah Omar and urged all al Qaeda members in the country to do the same.
Under the leadership of bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda has increasingly emphasized its loyalty to the Taliban. In al Qaeda’s propaganda, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s official name, is presented as the seat of the anticipated caliphate and the Taliban’s leader—who is the “commander of the believers,” a title traditionally assumed by caliphs—is depicted as a quasi-caliphal figure. This development came about in response to the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS in June 2014, which included a decree that all other jihadi groups, including al Qaeda, were no longer legitimate. Al Qaeda’s answer was to vest new meaning in its relationship with the Taliban, suggesting that the al Qaeda network was held together in a semi-caliphal bond under the aegis of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
One key way al Qaeda has done this is by placing newfound emphasis on its bay‘a to the Taliban ruler. In a 2014 newsletter, for instance, it announced “the renewal of the bay‘a to the Commander of the Believers, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the jihad warrior (may God protect him),” affirming “that al Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army.” Zawahiri, meanwhile, publicly reiterated the bay‘a on behalf of the entire al Qaeda network to the next two leaders of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in 2015 and Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in 2016, in each message describing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as “the first legitimate emirate” since the fall of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924.
Al Qaeda’s affiliate groups have likewise depicted the Taliban leader as their supreme authority. In March 2017, for instance, when the Malian rebel Iyad ag Ghali announced the formation of a new al Qaeda affiliate in West Africa, he proclaimed his loyalty not only to Zawahiri but also to Akhundzada.
All of this would seem to contradict the text of the February 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban, in which the Taliban promised to cease supporting al Qaeda and enter into peace talks with the Afghan government. Although the Taliban did not agree to “cut ties” with al Qaeda, as has sometimes been portrayed, they did pledge not to “host” or otherwise support al Qaeda and similar groups. They also promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used “to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, however, seems not to have been offended by the agreement. In March 2020, the group put out a statement congratulating the Taliban on the promised American withdrawal. The statement hailed the Doha agreement, signed following Qatari mediation, as “a great historical victory” and called on Muslims around the world to follow the example set by the Taliban in its commitment to jihad. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was portrayed as “the nucleus of the Islamic state”—that is, the caliphate—“that will rule by God’s pure law.”
While al Qaeda was reinforcing its relationship with the Taliban, ISIS was accusing the Taliban of having strayed. In ISIS’s narrative, the Taliban’s deviation from religious purity became particularly acute following the death of Mullah Omar in 2013, after which the Taliban neglected to apply Islamic law, grew increasingly nationalistic and tolerant of Afghanistan’s Shiite minority, and sought to forge relations with infidel states—including the “apostate” Qatar. ISIS also faults the Taliban for rejecting ISIS’s claim of having reestablished the caliphate and resisting its efforts in 2015 to create a “province” in the so-called land of Khurasan, a historical region that includes nearly all of modern-day Afghanistan. The Taliban and ISIS’s so-called Khurasan Province have been at war ever since, in some cases with the United States effectively providing air support to the Taliban.
Following the announcement of the 2020 deal between Washington and the Taliban, ISIS cast the agreement as further evidence of the Taliban’s deviation. ISIS’s official newsletter condemned the Taliban for taking the Americans as their “new allies,” and its spokesperson remarked that the agreement made official what was already apparent—that the United States and the Taliban were conspiring together against ISIS. In his words, the deal was “a cover for the standing alliance between the apostate Taliban militia and the Crusaders.”
A CONTESTED VICTORY
After celebrating the Taliban’s deal with the United States, al Qaeda ceased to comment on the situation in Afghanistan for the next year and a half. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Taliban asked al Qaeda “to restrict its activities and obfuscate the longstanding relationship between the groups until U.S. and coalition troops complete their withdrawal.” Al Qaeda evidently felt free to comment publicly once the final U.S. soldiers departed Kabul on August 31, as just hours later it released a written statement congratulating the Taliban and the entire Muslim community on the “historic victory.”
The outcome in Afghanistan, according to the statement, proved that “the path of jihad,” not compromise or conciliation, was the right way to deal with infidel states. The U.S. defeat marked the end of “the era of American and European arrogance and their desires for militarily occupying Muslim lands.” Although al Qaeda did not say that the “far enemy” of the United States and its allies had been entirely defeated, it did define the coming stage as one more focused on spreading the jihad to other states in the Muslim world. The Taliban’s victory “will clear the path, with God’s help and might, for our Muslim peoples to liberate themselves from the rule of the oppressive tawaghit,” the jihadis’ word for Muslim rulers seen as governing by other than God’s law. It would also pave the way toward “the liberation of Muslim Palestine from Zionist occupation.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by al Qaeda’s regional branches. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen-based franchise, praised the Taliban for adhering to the path of jihad and refusing “to compromise on its principles and its constants.” The victory in Afghanistan, it boasted, would lead to “the overthrow of oppressive tyrants and the expulsion of invaders from Muslim lands.” In the words of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Hurras al-Din, the Taliban’s victory showed that jihad is “the only path” that leads to victory and empowerment. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in North Africa and the Sahel released a joint statement extolling the Taliban’s steadfastness, saying that they had proved that jihad was the only way for the Muslim world to move “from the low of humiliation to the height of glory.”
But for ISIS, the idea that the Taliban have achieved any kind of “victory” in Afghanistan is laughable. What really happened, in its view, was that the United States willingly handed power to the Taliban, which have effectively become a U.S. client. Following the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul on August 15, ISIS’s weekly newsletter played down the apparent shock of the Taliban’s military success, calling it the “natural outcome” of what the Americans and the Taliban had agreed to in Doha the prior year. This was nothing more than “a peaceful transfer of power from one idolatrous ruler to another . . . the substitution of a shaven idolatrous ruler for a bearded one,” it argued. The Taliban had promised not to allow something like 9/11 to happen again, and so “America returned the Taliban to power and handed it Kabul without a shot being fired.”
ISIS’s online supporters made similar critiques even before the group’s newsletter was published. One prominent follower noted that the Americans had succeeded in corrupting the Taliban’s religious principles. “God says: ‘They will not cease to fight you till they turn you from your religion, if they are able’ (Q. 2:217). And they have been able to turn the Taliban from their religion.”
Clearly, the views of al Qaeda and ISIS are irreconcilable. Either the Taliban are more inclined to cater to U.S. interests than al Qaeda would hope, or they are more disposed to radicalism than ISIS would like to believe.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The Taliban want to have it both ways: to maintain their relationship with al Qaeda and to secure international recognition as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Generally speaking, they do not share al Qaeda’s transnational agenda; their interests begin and end in Afghanistan, or at least so they claim. At the same time, the Taliban have formed close ties with al Qaeda over the past 20 years. A United Nations report published earlier this year put the al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan at somewhere between several dozen and 500 personnel spread across 15 provinces. According to the report, “the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
Although some Taliban spokespeople have denied the existence of any relationship with al Qaeda—one even denied the existence of the bay‘a—the Taliban as a whole have stubbornly refused to repudiate the group, even at tremendous cost. This stubbornness can be ascribed to several factors, beginning with the fact that al Qaeda and the Taliban have fought together against the United States for 20 years and developed ties of blood. As the same UN report noted, the groups’ relationship is built on “personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.” There is also a pragmatic rationale for not ending the relationship, as denouncing al Qaeda would risk alienating the Taliban’s more hard-line members and factions, including especially Sirajuddin Haqqani, the newly appointed interior minister, and his al Qaeda-aligned Haqqani network.
Despite the persistence of the relationship, however, the Taliban have a strong interest in holding al Qaeda in check. Particularly as the Taliban pursue international recognition and acceptance, it would be folly for the group to permit al Qaeda to launch attacks on the West or even on fellow Muslim states. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Taliban provide space and financial support for al Qaeda to operate while also restricting the activities of the group to plot and stage attacks. In this scenario, Afghanistan would once again become a refuge for al Qaeda—a safe haven where al Qaeda members and leaders could regroup, raise funds, produce propaganda, and issue guidance to the larger network of affiliates but where they would be prohibited from launching offensive operations.
The Taliban’s second attempt at governing Afghanistan involves a balancing act between adhering to their hard-line principles and making pragmatic concessions to secure their rule—and their relationship with al Qaeda may follow the same dynamics.
A LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
Al Qaeda has a long way to go to rebuild its shattered organization, no matter what support the Taliban offer. The trouble starts at the top, as al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated in recent years. In August 2020, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down on the streets of Tehran; two months later, a senior al Qaeda commander, Husam Abd al-Rauf, was killed in Afghanistan. A number of key leaders also relocated to Syria in search of a new safe haven and were killed in American drone strikes, leading one jihadi ideologue to describe northern Syria as a “hunting ground” for veteran jihadis.
Further compounding the trouble is that Zawahiri, the group’s septuagenarian leader, is widely considered to be ailing. While a recent book and video released by the al Qaeda leader have disproved earlier reports of his death last year, it’s unclear how much longer he has to live.
Zawahiri’s probable successor, the 61-year-old Saif al-Adel, has been living in Iran for nearly two decades. The Iranian government appears to be keeping him and several other al Qaeda leaders in the country as leverage—allowing them some freedom of movement but prohibiting them from leaving the country. Their residence in Iran creates a serious problem for al Qaeda, as the group’s rank and file consider Shiite Iran to be a religious and political enemy, not a proper host for its leadership. Were Adel to try to assume the helm of the organization from his Iranian base, he would likely encounter resistance from the more uncompromising elements in the movement. The Iran-based al Qaeda leaders will now presumably seek to relocate to Afghanistan, but it remains unclear whether Tehran will allow them to do so.
Another problem is the leadership’s lack of command and control over its affiliates. Al Qaeda functions today as a largely decentralized network; its local franchises, from North Africa to South Asia, are not directly controlled by the group’s senior leadership. Some analysts see these affiliates’ autonomy as a strength, but without a strong central leadership, the al Qaeda network is at risk of fracture and even outright dissolution. In 2013, Zawahiri failed to exert the authority necessary to prevent his Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, from breaking away and forming ISIS, and similarly, in 2016, he failed to prevent his Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, from leaving the fold.
At the heart of the problem facing al Qaeda is a strategic divergence between its core leadership and its affiliates. Although the former remains committed—at least rhetorically—to prioritizing the fight against the “far enemy” of the United States and its allies, the affiliates’ goals and objectives are primarily local. They are not expending the bulk of their energies on plotting terrorist attacks on the West.
The United States and its allies must remain vigilant and proactive, lest one or both of these groups reemerge in force.
Ironically, it could be the Taliban’s enemy, ISIS’s Khurasan Province, that stands to benefit more from Taliban rule. ISIS in Afghanistan may be down and out—it has suffered serious losses and no longer controls territory—but it has a well-defined strategy to capitalize on the new reality. It can portray itself as the hard-line jihadi alternative to the Taliban, emphasizing the latter’s alleged moderation and penchant for compromise. By attacking the United States at the Kabul airport in late August, ISIS was not only trying to kill Americans but to demonstrate to the Taliban’s more hard-line supporters that their group had gone soft. In its newsletter, ISIS emphasized that the Taliban were protecting “the Crusaders and their spies” at the Kabul airport.
ISIS will also benefit from the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, as American airpower was key to reversing the group’s gains there. Its online supporters certainly see it this way. “The soldiers of the Caliphate in Khurasan are in a good state,” one prominent advocate boasted online. “Now there is no longer an Afghan army, as the idolatrous military establishment has been defeated and most of the soldiers and leaders have fled Afghanistan, and there are no longer American bases from which planes are taking off to aid them or special forces to carry out raids and landings against the mujahidin. Only the apostate Taliban remain in the theater to face their inevitable fate, which is either a piercing bullet in the head or a fine-drawn knife in the neck.”
Yet even though ISIS likely will benefit from the reduced military pressure in Afghanistan, the group has only limited appeal in the country. In part this is due to its affiliation with Salafism, a purist form of Sunni Islam that is in a minority in Afghanistan, where the Hanafi school and its associated Maturidi theology predominate. Most of the areas in which ISIS previously held territory, such as the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, are places where Salafism is unusually popular. ISIS might be able to capture some of the Taliban’s more hard-line supporters, but it will have a hard time expanding its base of support any further.
Both al Qaeda and ISIS face serious challenges in trying to reestablish themselves in Afghanistan. The return of the Taliban could create the biggest opportunity for al Qaeda to reconstitute and reorganize in more than a decade, but it is not well positioned to seize it. ISIS will seek to play a spoiler role, but it will have a hard time winning domestic support or matching the Taliban in terms of manpower and resources. The United States, meanwhile, will continue to attempt to degrade both groups through continued drone strikes—in the case of ISIS, potentially with Taliban support.
None of this is to minimize the threat that these jihadi groups pose to Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the world. The United States and its allies must remain vigilant and proactive, lest one or both of these groups reemerge in force. But how successful the jihadis might be in utilizing Afghanistan remains to be seen. Their success is by no means a foregone conclusion.