Al Qaeda’s “alliance with the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan remains firm,” according to a new report released by the United Nations. The Defense Department and other parts of the US government are generally dismissive of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship. But the UN’s report makes it clear that the “alliance” has survived nearly 17 years of war.
Despite the challenge to its authority posed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, the UN says that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s group remains “much stronger” than its jihadist rivals in “certain places, including Somalia, Yemen, South Asia and the Sahel.”
The “resilience” of Al Qaeda’s “global…network” has even led some of the UN’s Member States to conclude that it poses “a greater long-term challenge to international security than” the Islamic State. One UN Member State describes al Qaeda as the “intellectually stronger group” of the two.
The authors of the UN’s report, dated July 27, note that al Qaeda “adapts to the local environment, trying to embed itself into local struggles and communities.” This remains true in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda is “closely allied with the Taliban.”
Adopting language similar to that employed throughout the West, the UN distinguishes between al Qaeda’s “core” and its “affiliates.” However, this can be an exaggeration, as “core” al Qaeda members have served the organization around the world, including as key figures in its various regional branches.
Regardless, “core” al Qaeda leaders such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Hamza bin Laden “are reported to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.” Others “may leave for more secure areas,” the UN says. In fact, some left years ago, as they were deployed to Syria, Yemen or elsewhere.
Confirming other assessments, the UN says that Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and heir, has “continued to emerge as a leadership figure in” al Qaeda. The group’s “leadership demonstrates strategic patience and its regional affiliates exercise good tactical judgment, embedding themselves in local issues and becoming players.”
The UN finds “there is as yet little evidence of a reemerging direct global threat from” al Qaeda, but “improved leadership and enhanced communication will probably increase the threat over time, as will any rise in the tendency, already visible in some regions,” of Islamic State supporters to join the group.
It is not clear what the international body means by “direct global threat,” as much of the report documents the cohesion of al Qaeda’s worldwide network. If the UN means al Qaeda’s ability to launch terrorist plots in the West, then that may only be a matter of time. Al Qaeda has placed a greater priority on waging jihad in several theaters, as opposed to myopically focusing on the West. Should the organization devote more resources to attack planning in Europe, the US or elsewhere, it will still have to circumvent the counterterrorism community’s defenses. Still, al Qaeda’s capabilities in this regard need to be constantly reassessed, given the organization’s ability to regenerate its “external operations” arm in the past.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)
The UN describes AQIS, which was announced by Zawahiri in Sept. 2014, as “relatively isolated owing to increased security measures within the wider region.” AQIS “continues to seek security gaps for opportunistic attacks” and “is ideologically inclined to carry out attacks inside India but its capability is believed to be low.” Citing information provided by its Member States, the UN says “the strength of AQIS in Afghanistan is estimated at several hundred people, located in Laghman, Paktika, Kandahar, Ghazni and Zabul provinces.”
However, this underestimates al Qaeda’s and AQIS’s reach inside Afghanistan. The UN lists five provinces where AQIS is known to operate, but al Qaeda and AQIS have been operating in at least several other Afghan provinces as well.
For example, Afghan forces recently killed seven al Qaeda members in Helmand, where the group has a longstanding presence, and captured five others in Nangarhar. In April, the US killed a dual-hatted AQIS-Pakistani Taliban commander in Nangarhar. In early 2017, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) announced that an al Qaeda commander, who was also a leader in Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), had been killed in Ghazni. According to NDS, this same jihadist managed a “terrorist hub” on behalf of al Qaeda in Kabul province.
These are just some examples of the areas in which al Qaeda’s men are known to operate, outside of those listed by the UN. Based on historical data, there are likely more.
It is difficult to estimate the extent of al Qaeda’s network inside Afghanistan, because the group has chosen to mask its operations. Unlike the Islamic State, al Qaeda does not advertise its attacks or training camps.
AQIS was formed, in large part, to fight under the Taliban’s banner. AQIS’s code of conduct and other al Qaeda sources have confirmed that one of the group’s principal missions is to resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
AQIS is headed by Asim Umar, who owes his loyalty directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri. In turn, Zawahiri has pledged his own fealty to the Taliban’s emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Through its oath of allegiance to Zawahiri, AQIS is also loyal to Akhundzada — a fact that AQIS trumpets. Other al Qaeda branches have stressed that they are loyal to both Zawahiri and the Taliban’s leader as well. By virtue of this relationship, AQIS’s men fight side-by-side with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In a separate report published in January, the UN said information from a Member State showed that “AQIS fighters operate as advisers and trainers of the Taliban, with 150 to 180 operatives present in southern and eastern Afghanistan.” It is not clear why the UN’s latest report says AQIS has “several hundred people,” a higher total than reported in January. It is likely that the UN and its Member States don’t really know how many fighters and operatives AQIS has, as they are embedded within the Taliban-led insurgency.
The US has had its own problems measuring the extent of al Qaeda’s network inside Afghanistan, consistently undercounting Zawahiri’s men.
Other al Qaeda-linked groups
In its latest report, the UN briefly mentions several other al Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Afghanistan. These organizations include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Khatiba Imam Al-Bukhari, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, and the Islamic Jihad Union. The IMU alone “commands about 500 fighters in Afghanistan,” while the other three groups, plus the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch, have another 500 or so fighters from Central Asia.
The IMU’s leadership swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. The Taliban retaliated against the IMU’s cadres, reportedly quashing much of this dissent. It is not clear how many IMU fighters have survived and remain loyal to the Taliban-al Qaeda axis.
Finally, the UN says the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (or ETIM) “commands 400 fighters in Badakhshan,” a remote northeastern province. The ETIM, a predominately Uighur jihadist group more commonly known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), is an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Earlier this year, the US military launched airstrikes on Taliban training camps in Badakhshan. Those camps were also used by the TIP, according to NATO’s Resolute Support. This is unsurprising as the TIP and the Taliban jointly conduct raids. The UN’s report now confirms that the TIP has a significant presence in Badakhshan.
Counting al Qaeda’s membership in South Asia, and elsewhere, is a difficult task for the reasons outlined above. If at least some of these Uighur and Central Asian fighters are included in the tally, however, then al Qaeda has even more fighters in its ranks than international authorities are letting on.