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Afghanistan is set to become a sanctuary for extremists

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Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have trumpeted assurances their administrations received from the Taliban that al Qaeda and ISIS will not attack America from Afghanistan. But the Taliban’s ideological beliefs align it closely with Salafi-jihadi groups that use violence to advance their aim of enforcing a fundamentalist understanding of Islam. These beliefs led the Taliban to protect Osama bin Laden in 2001 — though the group may have officially disagreed with his actions — and to defy the United States after the 9/11 attacks.  

Twenty years later, the Taliban is savvier, but the core beliefs of its members remain the same. 

The danger of these Salafi-jihadi beliefs is that they do not stop at Afghanistan’s borders. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate is not the end of the project; rather, it is the start. The vision always has been global, and the Taliban has played host willingly to those seeking to replicate the Islamic Emirate’s success elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Thousands of foreign fighters are in Afghanistan, drawn to the decades-old Salafi-jihadi sanctuary. A complex network of alliances, partnerships and competitors runs through the country, a network the Taliban can influence but cannot control. In the mix are transnational terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but also the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network — a longtime Taliban and al Qaeda bedfellow. Lesser-known groups include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Turkistan Islamic Party. Each is capable of spawning radicalized recruits for terror attacks against the West, and none has pledged not to recruit and train in their Taliban-provided sanctuaries.

Al Qaeda may curtail its activities in Afghanistan, but that does not erase the benefits of its sanctuary. Al Qaeda’s General Command called on followers to “abide by the decisions” of the Islamic Emirate and support the Taliban’s venture in its statement heralding the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Yet, al Qaeda already is expert at the game of separating attack cells to protect parts of its network. It will not give up its global jihad.

The Islamic State in Afghanistan — known as ISIS-K or the Islamic State-Khorasan Province — rejects the Taliban’s agreement with the Americans entirely. Its deadly suicide bombing in Kabul, which took the lives of 13 Americans alongside more than 170 Afghans, illustrates the rift between ISIS-K and the Taliban. The Islamic State recruits from among the Taliban’s disaffected members, building the most radical of jihadis within its ranks, and it has survived combined pressure from the United States and the Taliban.

In short, it is inevitable that jihadis will flock to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. The attraction mirrors the one that pulled foreign fighters to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: a fundamentalist interpretation of sharia rules over society. Those with Salafi-jihadi predilections will be unable to ignore the religious obligation for observant Muslims to emigrate, making Afghanistan a melting pot for future mujahideen.

These foreign fighters will not stay forever under the Taliban. They will return to their homelands or the next battlefield for jihad better trained and networked for their fight. Some will set their sights on striking the United States. The Taliban can no more prevent a future terror attack than when they tried to dissuade bin Laden from such pursuits 20 years ago.

In announcing the “end” of the war in Afghanistan — and both explicitly and implicitly reposing his faith in the good offices of the Taliban — President Biden seems to have forgotten a key lesson from 9/11: Territorial terrorist sanctuaries are a direct threat to the national security of the United States.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and an adviser to AEI’s Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.

Tags Al-Qaeda Donald Trump ISIS-K Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Joe Biden Osama bin Laden Taliban Terrorism

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