The existing terrorist threat is likely to evolve in a far different way from the one witnessed after the 9/11 attacks.
Al Qaeda and its associated groups are celebrating the Taliban’s victory against the US in Afghanistan as their own. Indeed, Al Qaeda-linked groups around the world view developments in Afghanistan as validation of the 'jihadist' doctrine of strategic patience, i.e., creating a Shariah state through persistence, which will ultimately pave the way for a global Muslim Caliphate.
However, despite the Taliban’s victory, the clock has not turned back to the pre-9/11 status quo. Consequently, the existing terrorist threat is likely to evolve in a qualitatively different manner from the one witnessed after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Despite the triumphant jihadist rhetoric emanating from the Taliban’s victory, Al Qaeda and its franchises not only lack the capability of carrying out high-profile, coordinated attacks against the West, but their priorities have also evolved. Furthermore, in the ever-evolving global threat landscape, jihadist terrorism is one of the several, but not the most pressing, security challenge confronting the international community.
In the current hierarchy of threats, environmental changes, the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of the far-right and the great power competition feature above Islamic extremist terrorism.
This is not to deny the enormity of the threat or downplay the geopolitical salience of developments in Afghanistan for global peace. Still, the current landscape and the threat it poses is qualitatively different from the pre-9/11 days. The present threat landscape is fractured, diffused and chronic. Arguably, the era of terror spectacular is over, as outlined above. The jihadist groups do not obsess with the idea of high-profile attacks against the West anymore.
The existing operational goals, strategic aims and tactics of both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh) are parochial and localised. Since losing territories in Iraq and Syria in 2017, Daesh has been focusing on strengthening its franchises in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa to compensate for its organisational weakness. Likewise, Al Qaeda has invested its ideological and political capital in Muslim conflicts and disputes in parts of Asia and Africa by strengthening the local like-minded groups.
This is not to suggest that targeting the West is not on the agenda of these groups. It remains the ultimate goal, as witnessed during the August 26 Islamic State of Khorasan's (Daesh-K) suicide attack targeting the Hamid Karzai International Airport — which killed 12 US marines, among 172 others. However, this is not the top priority.
Daesh’s last major attack against the West was the 2015 Paris attack, resulting in 130 deaths. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s Pensacola, Florida attack 2020 against the US was lone-actor terrorism: an under-training Saudi Air Force Cadet shot and killed three US sailors and wounded eight others. For future attacks against the West, Al Qaeda and Daesh are banking on lone-actor terrorism by radicalising home-grown recruits online.
The split of the global jihadist movements between pro-Al Qaeda and pro-Daesh groups is likely to keep the focus of these groups inwards. Both Al Qaeda and Daesh would fight each other for ideological preponderance and operational dominance as well as compete to win over the loyalties of the local groups in Asia and Africa.
For instance, following the US-Taliban agreement in 2020 and the latter’s return to power, Daesh-K, in its ideological propaganda, has declared a violent campaign against the Taliban on the grounds that by compromising on jihadist principles to attain power, the latter has damaged the cause of jihadism. Hence, fighting the Taliban and their associates (referring to Al Qaeda) is more important than attacking the West.
Therefore, the ongoing civil war within the global jihadist movement will consume these groups' energy and resources, and some of them might even self-combust in the process.
Arguably, the Taliban’s victory and return to power in Afghanistan is unlikely to result in linear outcomes of the past, i.e., resuscitating Afghanistan’s pre-9/11 status of a sanctuary for global jihadists. Times have changed and things have evolved significantly in the last two decades.
The advent of social media has eliminated the need for physical travel for jihadist recruitment and radicalisation. Unlike the 1990s, when Al Qaeda singlehandedly dominated the global jihadist movement and Afghanistan was the only go-to destination for aspiring jihadists, there are several conflict hotspots in the Middle East, north and western Africa besides Afghanistan.
The rise of Daesh in the Middle East has also reduced the mythical significance of Afghanistan as the Land of Khorasan for would-be radicals. Lastly, unlike the past, travelling to Afghanistan is not easy due to enhanced border controls, better intelligence sharing and coordination between countries, stringent immigration policies, and Covid-19-related travel restrictions.
Following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, the security agencies are closely watching the online extremist sphere to pre-empt jihadists from travelling to Afghanistan. Even if some manage to slip through the immigration and border controls to reach Afghanistan, the superior surveillance and intelligence mechanisms will make it difficult for the groups to revive and regroup there. Moreover, counter-terrorism agencies would not wait for such developments to enter an advanced stage to respond.
Though the war on terror has not eliminated the terrorist threat, it has made it less lethal, diffused and more manageable. Presently, the global jihadist movement is not only split between Al Qaeda and Daesh, but it co-exists with an ethno-nationalist wave of terrorism spearheaded by the rise of the far-right in the West.
Undoubtedly, developments in Afghanistan will strengthen extremist ideologies and jihadist groups in different parts of the world, but these trends will predominantly be localised and insular. Besides, the jihadist civil war will consume the energies and resources of both Al Qaeda and Daesh associated groups in internecine fighting. Today, the international community is operationally better equipped and prepared to mitigate the long-term negative consequences of terrorism.
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