• Both groups can attempt to strike in region’s non-conflict areas
• Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri living, communicating freely in Afghanistan
• With around 4,000 foreign fighters, TTP presents a greater threat to the region
• IS seeks expansion in region beyond Afghanistan for realisation of its ‘great caliphate’ project

ISLAMABAD: Transnational terrorist groups Al Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State are growing in strength in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and could potentially pose threat for the outside world, a recently launched United Nations report warned.

The 30th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, set up under UNSC Resolutions 1526 and 2253, has taken a look at the activities of Al Qaeda, the militant Islamic State (IS) group and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and the wider region and concluded that Al Qaeda and IS’s threat remains high in conflict-hit regions and the neighbouring countries though both of these terrorist groups could attempt to strike in non-conflict areas.

Though the report covered the activities of the terrorist groups in different parts of the world, but Afghanistan, which hosts one of IS’s most thriving networks and Al Qaeda, has been of special interest especially in view of Taliban takeover, whose first anniversary will be observed next month.

“The situation in Afghanistan remains complex,” the report noted, adding that terrorist groups based in Afghanistan view Taliban’s military success as a “motivating factor” for propaganda in neighbouring countries and other parts of the world.

Read: Growing terrorism threat

Al Qaeda and IS pose varying level of threats to international peace. IS-Khorasan, the group’s Afghanistan-based chapter, is being seen as a bigger threat in the short and medium term, while Al Qaeda is a danger over the long term.

Sanaullah Ghafari alias Shahab al-Muhajir, an Afghan national, has been leading IS-K chapter since June 2020.

However, IS core has set up a separate structure called Al-Siddiq office under Sheikh Tamim al-Kurdi alias Abu Ahmed al-Madani for pursuing the group’s regional agenda.

The report says IS views Afghanistan as a base for expansion in the wider region for the realisation of its “great caliphate” project and is trying to recruit fighters from other terrorist groups, besides luring disaffected Taliban fighters and dissatisfied local ethnic minorities. The group, moreover, attracts fighters by offering higher wages than other militant groups operating there.

IS-K, the report points out, has increased its presence in northern and eastern Afghanistan. The group that initially started by recruiting members of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakis­tan and Afghan Taliban now has in its ranks fighters from Central Asia, who have increased activities in the north, which borders Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

In April, IS-K claimed to have fired rockets into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Both countries denied having been hit by those rockets, but the report cautions that risk of such attacks remain.

Read: The frontiers of conflict

Citing an unnamed member state, the report further warns that if IS-K expands towards east, which borders Pakistan, then it could acquire a “global threat capability” from Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda, meanwhile, is enjoying a comfortable stay in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime and some of its senior cadres are providing advisory services to the de facto government there.

“Al Qaeda leadership reportedly plays an advisory role with the Taliban, and the groups remain close,” the report states.

Aiman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan

It, moreover, confirms that Al Qaeda chief Aiman al-Zawahiri is living in Afghanistan and communicating freely.

The proof that Al-Zawahiri was alive comes from the video messages issued by the group. “Al-Zawahiri’s apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key Al Qaeda allies within their de facto administration,” it maintains.

Al Qaeda’s traditional strongholds in Afghanistan have been in the south and east of the war-ravaged country, but recently it appeared to be expanding its footprint to the west to the Farah and Herat provinces and possibly to the north.

The report underscores that Al Qaeda is not an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.

TTP, which is currently holding peace talks with Pakistan government, is said to be the largest grouping of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan, with a strength of 3,000 to 4,000 fighters. In one of the member state’s assessment, TTP is now more cohesive and presents a greater threat to the region.

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2022

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