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Police officials examine the site of a bomb blast in Bajaur district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province on 31 July 2023. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP) (Photo by ABDUL MAJEED/AFP via Getty Images)

Radicalism Persists in Afghanistan Threatening the Region and Beyond

When U.S.-led coalition forces left Afghanistan two years ago, the country quickly fell under Taliban control. Two years later, many of the men who became zealous jihadi fighters did not adapt to a role in governing the country and instead turned their passion and aggression to continue fighting their holy war.

An article in The New York Times examines the phenomenon:

“As a generation of fighters raised in war now finds itself stuck in a country at peace, hundreds of young Taliban soldiers have crossed illegally into Pakistan to battle alongside an insurgent group, according to Taliban members, local leaders, and security analysts.”

The Afghani men interviewed in the article had participated in operations with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also called the Pakistani Taliban, a terrorist organization with the primary goal of bringing Taliban rule to Pakistan. TTP attacks in Pakistan have increased since the group ended a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistani government in November 2022. The Times reported that TTP had conducted at least 123 attacks in Pakistan in the past year, most of them against military, police, or other security outposts.

Officially, Afghan Taliban leaders condemn cross-border attacks into Pakistan, though the Afghan Taliban is seen by Western countries as having close ties to TTP. Accusations and rhetoric between Pakistani and Afghani officials routinely escalate. Most recently, the Times reported, “Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Syed Asim Munir, implied that his country would use force if Afghanistan failed to act, citing concerns over ‘sanctuaries’ militants had on Afghan soil. Pakistan, he said, ‘will spare no effort to dismantle terrorist networks and protect its citizens at all costs.’”

However, a report from the Atlantic Council said the presence of another terrorist organization, Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K, also referred to as IS-K), complicates any actual motivation the Afghan Taliban might have to try to reign in TTP. ISIS-K is a growing threat in the region and has perpetuated many terrorists attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last couple of years, including a suicide bombing at a pollical rally in the Bajaur district of Pakistan on 31 July 2023 that killed dozens and injured scores more.

“Antagonizing the TTP may risk pushing the group’s hardline factions into the arms of the Afghan Taliban’s much bigger nemesis—the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K),” the Atlantic Council report said, noting that fighters breaking from the TTP were among the first to join ISIS-K.

“Since the group was established in 2015, ISIS-K has included a number of former Taliban, as well as Pakistani fighters, including from the… TTP” CNN reported. “The group, operating in compartmented cells, is capitalizing on loose tactical partnerships and a large number of unaffiliated fighters, or freelance jihadists, who now have greater access than ever before to a large number of capabilities following the United States’ hurried departure.”

As the Times article described it, radicalization has led many men to restlessness. “Those who [join the TTP] are driven by yearslong religious education in Taliban-run madrasas that extol the ideals of global jihad and martyrdom, they and their relatives say. Others are bored in their new peacetime roles as soldiers or police officers charged with mundane tasks like manning checkpoints and doing routine security sweeps.” And they are inspired by the quick collapse of the Western-backed government at the hands of the Taliban when the United States and allies withdrew.

“Peace and security have been secured in our country,” the Times quoted one Taliban member as saying, “so now we need to fight in other countries and secure the rights of other Muslims.”

While most of threat is highly regional in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is concern that jihadists trained in Afghanistan will broaden to other targets, including Europe, Asia, and the United States.

A Washington Post examination of the Discord leaks uncovered a U.S. Defense Department assessment that said, “ISIS has been developing a cost-effective model for external operations that relies on resources from outside Afghanistan, operatives in target countries, and extensive facilitation networks. The model will likely enable ISIS to overcome obstacles—such as competent security services—and reduce some plot timelines, minimizing disruption opportunities.”

Bolstering this report were comments in March from U.S. Army General Michael Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, who told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that ISIS-K was rapidly developing capabilities to strike targets beyond its typical regional influence, though he said attacks in Europe and Asia were more likely than attacks on the United States.

As TouchStone Global’s Scott Stewart wrote in Security Management in 2021, “Modern jihadism is not a monolith. It has always been a movement composed of a variety of distinct groups and individuals.”

He noted that jihadism is both global and local. The strongest threats remain in areas of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with entrenched radical elements.

Jihadist terrorism is “an ongoing and dynamic challenge for security practitioners, especially those managing multinational footprints,” Stewart wrote. “It is likely that the world will experience periods of increased jihadist activity in the future, and it will therefore be important to watch for events that resonate among the jihadist rank and file and that can serve as triggers for attacks.

“The threat of jihadist terrorism outside of the main theaters of jihadist insurgency will persist for the foreseeable future, but the danger it poses will remain limited so long as jihadist core and franchise groups are kept from becoming strong enough and secure enough to devote significant resources once again toward projecting terrorist power abroad.”