The United Nations Security Council warns in its latest report on al Qaeda and the Islamic State that both groups maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan. The UN describes al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban as “long-standing” and “strong,” finding that the international terrorist organization “continues to see Afghanistan as a safe haven for its leadership.”
The new assessment was authored in January and released online in early February. It is consistent with a previous analysis written last summer. In that report, dated July 2018, the UN said al Qaeda’s “alliance with the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan remains firm,” and the two are still “closely allied.”
FDD’s Long War Journal has created a map, seen above, of al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan based primarily on the last two UN reports. The data were supplemented with operational reporting from the U.S. military and Afghan security forces in recent years. The map shows the presence of al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), as well as the Islamic State, across 13 Afghan provinces.
Al Qaeda and AQIS have been present in all 13 of the shaded provinces. Other al Qaeda-linked groups operate there as well. And the Islamic State’s arm is in five of the shaded provinces.
The shading does not mean that the jihadists control the entire province. It merely indicates that the jihadists have significant operations there, according to recent reporting by the UN and/or the US and Afghan government.
It is likely that this representation undercounts the number of provinces where al Qaeda and the Islamic State are found. FDD’s Long War Journal previously published a separate map based on reporting over a longer timeframe. That map highlights additional areas where networks run by al Qaeda and affiliated groups have been located.
The US is currently negotiating with the Taliban. Zalmay Khalilzad, who leads the American delegation, has already stated that he is satisfied with the Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghanistan “from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.” However, as the UN’s two reports and other evidence show, international terrorist organizations are already operating throughout Afghanistan, including in areas controlled by the Taliban.
Khalilzad has not explained why he trusts the Taliban now, given that the Taliban’s representatives have repeatedly lied about their relationship with al Qaeda since the 1990s and the two groups remain in the same trench to this day. Moreover, the Taliban does not control the Islamic State’s so-called Khorasan “province,” as the two sides frequently clash.
Below is a summary of the UN’s Jan. 2019 analysis of al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan. Many of the footnotes in the UN’s report are sourced to one or more “member states,” making it difficult to verify the actual evidence cited. Still, the details are often consistent with other reporting.
Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Afghanistan as of January 2019
The UN notes that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hamza bin Laden “and the Taliban leadership have repeatedly, in public statements, emphasized the importance of the alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban.” Al Qaeda continues to view Afghanistan as a “safe haven,” and members of the group “act as instructors and religious teachers for Taliban personnel and their family members.”
Past UN reports have listed some of the Afghan provinces where al Qaeda is known to operate. The most recent analysis highlights two areas of concern: the Badakhshan and Paktika provinces.
Al Qaeda is “seeking to strengthen its presence in Badakhshan province, especially in Shighnan district, which shares a border with Tajikistan.” Citing information from “member states,” the UN reports that “there are approximately 500 foreign terrorist fighters in Badakhshan province who are from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, the North Caucasus and Pakistan.” These foreign terrorist “fighters reportedly operate under the umbrella of the Taliban.” They “lack independent sources of income,” so they “depend on both the Taliban and al Qaeda, with al Qaeda providing most of the financial support.”
The UN points out that the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), more commonly known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), also “maintains a presence in Taliban-held areas of Badakhshan province.” The ETIM/TIP’s “local leader” is identified as Hajji Furqan, with Mawlawi Ibrahim serving “as his deputy.” In early 2018, the U.S. military struck Taliban training camps in Badakhshan that were being used by the ETIM/TIP and other terrorists.
The UN warns that the “security risks for Central Asia stem mainly from these extremists in Badakhshan, which also include Jamaat Ansarullah,” a primarily Tajik group.
In a recent report, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty highlighted the Taliban’s strong presence in Badakhshan, where the group is imposing its harsh version of sharia on the local population. According to the UN, “foreign terrorist fighters” find this same Taliban-controlled turf to be especially hospitable.
Elsewhere, in Paktika province, the UN says al Qaeda is “eager to expand its presence in Barmal district.” Pakitika is a known stronghold for the Haqqani Network. The UN reminds readers that the Haqqani Network, which is an integral part of the Taliban, “maintains close ties with al Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda-linked Uzbek jihadists continue to fight under the Taliban’s banner as well. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) became embroiled in the controversy surrounding Mullah Omar’s death and its leadership defected to the Islamic State’s camp in 2015. However, the Taliban fought back, fragmenting the IMU. Indeed, according to the UN, the IMU “broke up into small groups dependent on the Taliban.”
Two other Uzbek groups – the Islamic Jihad Group (an IMU offshoot whose members were caught plotting an attack against Americans in Germany in 2007) and Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) – “provide military training for Taliban fighters.”
Like the predominately Uighur TIP, the KTJ has an international footprint, as its Syrian wing is allied with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
The UN warns that some of these groups “aspire to infiltrate countries in Central Asia,” but they are currently “obliged by the Taliban to focus their attacks on the Government of Afghanistan.” The Islamic Jihad Group, also known as the Islamic Jihad Union, has carried out terrorist operations in Uzbekistan in the past.
UN’s Jan. 2019 summary of the Islamic State’s Khorasan province
The UN estimates that the Islamic State has “between 2,500 and 4,000 militants” in Afghanistan. As FDD’s Long War Journal has assessed in the past, counting the number of jihadists in any given group, including the Islamic State, is an especially difficult endeavor and fraught with uncertainties. However, the UN’s figure seems to be in the right ballpark, given the scale of the Islamic State’s operations in the country.
After the Islamic State’s emir, Abu Sa’id Bajauri, was killed in July 2018, the group’s “leadership council” replaced him with a jihadist known as Mawlawi Ziya ul-Haq (aka Abu Omar Al-Khorasani). The UN says that this Islamic State branch coordinates with the mother ship. The “local” Islamic State “leadership maintains close contact with the group’s core in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq.” The Islamic State coordinates “the publication of propaganda videos” and “[i]mportant personnel appointments are made through the central leadership.”
Despite suffering a “severe setback” in the northern Jowzjan province last year, the Islamic State’s arm in Afghanistan maintains a presence in other parts of the country, especially in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban raided Islamic State positons in Jowzjan in July 2018, killing approximately 200 of the group’s fighters and forcing others to surrender to the Afghan government. The UN says that “25 foreign terrorist fighters” surrendered to the Taliban in the area. But while Jowzjan is considered “cleansed” of the so-called caliphate’s men, a “minority” of Taliban fighters in other nearby locales “retain sympathies” for the Islamic State.
The self-declared caliphate’s main “strongholds in Afghanistan are in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman,” according to the UN. The U.S. military has waged a counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State in these areas, especially Nangarhar, but the jihadists still operate “some training camps” and “have created a network of cells in various Afghan cities, including Kabul.”
Indeed, the Islamic State has been especially prolific in the Afghan capital, where it regularly targets civilians and the Afghan government.
The Haqqani Network, which controls key positions within the Taliban hierarchy and is al Qaeda’s longtime ally, also maintains a significant terror network in Kabul.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.