Analysis: Al Qaeda continues to operate throughout Afghanistan

Al Qaeda and its regional branch, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, continue to operate across Afghanistan despite repeated Taliban claims that the group has no presence in the country.

Al Qaeda’s enduring presence in Afghanistan is visible both through press reporting on Coalition operations against the terror group, and Thabat, Al Qaeda’s own media arm that has noted the groups operations in 18 provinces. Afghan security forces have targeted Al Qaeda operatives in two additional provinces. In all, Al Qaeda is operating in at least 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Thabat, a weekly Al Qaeda newsletter that covers its operations across the globe and is analogous to the Islamic State’s Al Naba news service, has noted multiple reports of Al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan. Thabat is described by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team as “one of the group’s [Al Qaeda’s] media arms.”

While the Taliban, on its official website Voice of Jihad, reports on dozens of attacks daily against Afghan security forces and government targets, Thabat only reports on attacks in which Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, as well as allied groups such as the Islamic Jihad Union, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Katibat Imam Bukhari, Jamaat Ansarullah, and others are directly involved.

An analysis of 16 issues of Thabat (issues 3 through 18) shows that Al Qaeda and its constellation of allies in Afghanistan have been involved in dozens of attacks from Nov. 2020 to to the present in 18 of Afghanistan’s provinces. The provinces where Thabat reported on operations are Badakhshan, Balkh, Farah, Faryab, Ghazni, Helmand, Jawzjan, Kapisa, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunar, Kunduz, Khost, Logar, Nangarhar, Takhar, Uruzgan, and Zabul.

Afghan press reports from Sept. 2020 to the present confirms that Al Qaeda and its allies are operating in seven of the provinces noted by Thabat. Those provinces are: Badakhshan, Farah, Ghazni, Helmand, Kapisa, Kunar, and Nangarhar. Additionally, Afghan security forces targeted Al Qaeda in two other provinces that were not mentioned by Thabat: Nimroz and Paktika. There are over a dozen press reports noting Al Qaeda’s operations in the nine provinces. For instance, in late March 2021, Afghanistan’s National Directory of Security killed Abu Muhammad al Tajiki, a senior AQIS military commander in Paktika province. Also, in July 2020, Afghan officials noted that Al Qaeda was operating a training camp in southern Helmand and also operting in Nimruz.

The information is consistent with previous reporting on Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. In July 2020, the United Nations Security Council Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported that Al Qaeda “is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces: Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.” This corresponds to nine of the 18 provinces mentioned by Thabat (Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar,and Zabul). The l Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted that AL Qaeda is estimated to have between 400 and 600 operatives in Afghanistan.

In May 2019, General Austin Miller, the commander of Resolute Support Mission and US Forces – Afghanistan, noted that Al Qaeda is operating “across the country” and not confined to one region. “We have seen al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Yes, in different parts of Afghanistan,” Miller said at the time. “In different parts of Afghanistan, we can find them, so it’s not one particular region, it’s across the country.” In March 2019, the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team estimated that Al Qaeda was operating in 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

FDD’s Long War Journal has tracked al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan for well over a decade, using press releases and public statements from the US military, NATO’s command in Afghanistan, and Afghan security services, as well as the jihadist groups’ own martyrdom statements. The data clearly shows that al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups have been operating on Afghan soil for the past two decades with the approval of the Taliban. These terrorist organizations often operate in areas controlled by the Taliban – and the jihadists killed in coalition or Afghan raids often die alongside members of the Afghan Taliban. Between 2007 and 2019, NATO, US, and Afghan forces, have launched at least 373 operations against these foreign terror groups in 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Many of the raids against Al Qaeda and its allies have gone unreported.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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