During 1996-2001, when the insurgents last ruled Afghanistan, terror groups like al-Qaida thrived under Taliban’s protection. With Taliban back in power, the world fears that such groups will again find patronage in the politically unstable country.
Moreover, the complex ethnic composition of the mountainous country and its history of conflict have only created space for more Islamist terror groups which pose a serious threat both within and to the world. As many as 8,000 to 10,000 foreign terrorist fighters also operate in the country.
These are the top terror outfits currently active in Afghanistan …
The Al-Qaida core is the top terror group operating in Afghanistan and was the primary driver of America’s 20-year-long war in the country post the September 2001 terror strikes.
The top leadership, which includes leader Ayman al Zawahari and his deputies, have been on the US radar since 2001.
A US Congress think-tank report said that Taliban-al-Qaida ties, which date back to the early 1990s, have been reinforced by their shared battle against international forces in Afghanistan as well as through intermarriage and other personal bonds between members of the two groups.
In an April 2021 report, United Nations sanctions monitors assessed that AQ and the Taliban “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
Ties with Taliban: What’s particularly worrying for the world, and US in particular, is that AQ sympathizers celebrated the Taliban’s takeover while the Taliban have reportedly freed several AQ prisoners since coming to power.
In numbers: America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan
Al-Qaida in Indian subcontinent (AQIS)
AQIS is a separate faction of the core al-Qaida group which was created to establish a more durable presence in the subcontinent region by enhancing links with local actors, prompted in part by the relocation of some AQ leaders to Syria.
Ties with Taliban: Over the years, AQIS has solidified its presence in Afghanistan by embedding fighters in the Taliban. According to a US defence department report, AQIS threatened American forces in Afghanistan, which reflected the group’s affiliation to the Taliban.
Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP)
The Islamic State announced the formation of its Afghan affiliate in January 2015. It was mostly comprised of former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists who fled Pakistani army operations in mid-2014
ISKP, which is also known as ISIS-K, was once considered the most successful ISIS affiliates but was pushed to brink of eradication in 2019 following a US-led offensive.
The outfit is assessed to retain a core group of approximately 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in small areas of Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces. However, it has been forced to decentralize and consists primarily of cells and small groups across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology, according to a US Congress think-tank report.
ISKP has since been actively trying to rebuild its ranks and remain relevant with a focus on recruitment and training of new supporters potentially drawn from the ranks of Taliban.
Ties with Taliban: ISKP and Taliban forces have often fought over control of territory or because of political or other differences.
Upon taking power, the Taliban reportedly executed an imprisoned former ISKP leader in August 2021. Some have speculated that Taliban hardliners might defect to ISKP if Taliban leaders compromise on certain issues as they begin governing.
The Haqqani Network
The Haqqani Network is an official and semi-autonomous component of the Afghan Taliban and an ally of the al-Qaida.
Headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani — a shadowy figure who has also served as the deputy leader of the Taliban — the group is reported to have a highly skilled core of members who specialize in complex attacks and provide technical skills, such as improvised explosive device and rocket construction.
The Haqqani Network is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks of the war in Afghanistan, including the death or injury of hundreds of US troops, and has historically been described as close to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
Ties with Taliban: The Haqqani Network, while retaining a semi-autonomous status, still reports directly to the Taliban Supreme Council.
According to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report, Haqqani remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and al-Qaida.
There are a host of smaller Islamist groups that operate in Afghanistan, either autonomously or as affiliates of larger groups.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
Known as the Pakistani Taliban, TTP has “distinctive anti-Pakistan objectives” and has fought alongside Taliban against the Afghan government inside Afghanistan.
The Pakistan-origin group was formed around 2007 but began to splinter after 2013 after the death of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Subsequently, some of its members pledged allegiance to ISIS and relocated to eastern Afghanistan. The military pressure in the war-torn country impacted the group’s activity.
However, the group has started reunifying since 2020 with its ranks being boosted by leaders from other splinter groups. It is said to benefit from the Taliban takeover and release of TTP prisoners, the US Congress think-tank report said.
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)
The IMU was formed by Uzbeks who fought with Islamist forces in Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. It has launched various attacks on Central Asian states and was be a prominent al-Qaida ally.
After US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, IMU shifted its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. UN sanctions monitors report that the IMU is under the control of the Taliban, which is “less accommodating than it used to be” given previous IMU moves to align with ISKP. IMU forces operate in northern Afghanistan.
Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)
ETIM (also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party) wants to establish an independent Islamic state for the Uighurs, a Muslim-majority, Turkic-speaking people in western China. The group had ties with al-Qaida.
UN sanctions monitors reported in June 2021 that ETIM has hundreds of fighters in northeast Afghanistan and a larger presence in Idlib, Syria, and moves fighters between the two areas.
In Afghanistan, ETIM is reportedly focused on China.