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Tenuous Taliban control gives life to al-Qaida, Islamic State

WASHINGTON — Taliban efforts to solidify the group’s control over Afghanistan are bringing a measure of peace and stability to its residents, but intelligence gathered by United Nations member states suggests the reprieve is not likely to last.

A report issued late Wednesday by the U.N. sanctions monitoring team warns that Afghanistan will almost certainly remain a source for insecurity with terror groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State either finding safe haven or finding ways to exploit the Taliban’s weaknesses.

“The country continues to be perceived as permissive or friendly territory by terrorist groups,” the report warns. “Continued Taliban tolerance of a range of terrorist groups, based across many Afghan provinces, sets the conditions for terrorism to project into neighboring States.”

Al-Qaida, in particular, continues to thrive, taking advantage of its long-term ties to the Taliban despite being forced to keep a low-profile.

Al-Qaida expansion

U.N. member states contend al-Qaida has used the past year to reorganize and recruit, building out its network of training camps and safe houses across at least five Afghan provinces, including bases in the eastern city of Jalalabad and offices in Kabul.

The expansion has also attracted more al-Qaida operatives, including some that the U.N. report described as “experienced instructors” from outside of Afghanistan, whose mission is “to enhance the security of dispersed cells.”

The report further alleges that de facto al-Qaida leader Saif al-Adel, believed to be in Iran, has sent ethnic Arab operatives to the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan to improve training and facilitate communication with the group’s core leadership.

Other key al-Qaida figures in Afghanistan have also found added safety thanks to the Taliban.

Taliban protection

Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, an al-Qaida commander captured in 2010 and held in a prison at Bagram air base until U.S. forces left in 2021, was placed in protective custody, the report says, “reflecting Taliban concerns that foreign intelligence agencies were looking for him.”

Two other al-Qaida officials, described in the report as “weapons engineers,” were also given protection by the Taliban, while an al-Qaida official from Libya was reportedly given an Afghan passport and a position at the Interior Ministry.

“The intent behind these activities is not clear, nor are the consequences for the group’s capabilities, but the activities cause significant concern,” the report says of al-Qaida.

US assessment

The U.N. assessment stands, in some ways, in contrast to assessments shared late last year by the United States.

“Al-Qaida is at its historical nadir in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its revival is unlikely,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid said in a statement marking the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S. that killed almost 3,000 people.

But such views are at odds with the picture put together by the U.N., which maintains al-Qaida has between 30 and 60 senior officials in Afghanistan, along with hundreds of fighters and almost 2,000 family members.

Islamic State-Khorasan

While al-Qaida may be seeing the start of a revival thanks to the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, the intelligence shared in the new U.N. report finds the Islamic State terror group is coming under pressure.

U.N. member states “credit Taliban efforts to counter the threat from [IS-Khorasan],” it says. “But [they] question the Taliban’s counter-terrorism capabilities and have concerns about continued [IS-Khorasan] recruitment and dispersal.”

The result, according to the report, is an Islamic State affiliate that is slowly positioning itself to undermine Taliban rule while actively carrying out attacks as far afield as Iran and Russia.

IS-Khorasan capacity “remains strong,” according to the report, noting the group’s deadly attacks in Kerman, Iran, this past January and on a Moscow concert hall this past March.

IS-Khorasan spreading

The intelligence suggests IS-Khorasan has expanded into a number of adjacent Central Asian states.

IS-Khorasan “is using Afghan nationals to conduct attacks in Pakistan, Pakistani nationals to conduct attacks inside Afghanistan, Tajik nationals to conduct attacks in Iran (Islamic Republic of) and the Russian Federation and has used a Kyrgyz national to carry out an attack in the Taliban’s heartland of Kandahar,” the U.N. report says.

The terror group also appears to be growing in parts of Afghanistan.

“[It] has strengthened in northern regions of Afghanistan, increasing recruitment within Tajik and Uzbek communities and stockpiling arms and explosives in remote mountainous areas,” according to the report.

And one of the U.N. member states warned it sees indications IS-Khorasan may be preparing to try to reestablish territorial control in some areas.

IS undercover

Other intelligence shared with the U.N. by its member states raises concerns that IS-Khorasan may be preparing to take down the Taliban from within.

The report says there is evidence that IS-Khorasan operatives have infiltrated the Taliban’s Interior and Defense ministries, as well as its General Directorate of Intelligence.

There is also concern that the group is finding ways to hide its true presence.

The report estimates IS-Khorasan has 2,000 to 3,500 fighters, with members of other IS affiliates in Afghanistan helping to swell that number to as many as 6,000.

But U.N. member states allege the group is embedding its fighters in as many as four other terror groups, including some that get training and welfare benefits from the Taliban-run government.

IS special forces

There is also some evidence to suggest IS-Khorasan has set up a special operations force in Iran.

According to two U.N. member states, the force is made up of mostly Tajik and Uzbek nationals, charged with carrying out attacks on Shia shrines, clergy and Iranian police.

One of the two U.N. member states said the force could have as many as 300 fighters and appears to be operating along Iran’s borders with Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Iraq.

Central Asia

As with the U.N. assessment of al-Qaida’s fortunes in Afghanistan, the U.N. assessment of a large and possibly growing IS presence in the country also runs counter to some U.S. assessments, which see a much smaller footprint.

But more recent U.S. intelligence estimates have raised concerns about the ability of IS-Khorasan to project power into Central Asia and beyond.

A top U.S. counterterrorism official last month warned that IS appeared to be trying to take advantage of changing migration patterns that are sending more Central Asians to the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

Treasury Department sanctions unveiled last month also pointed to the involvement of an IS operative in Uzbekistan and the emir of the IS affiliate in the Republic of Georgia in a plot to smuggle operatives to the U.S.

Global reach

Some analysts say the additional details in the U.N. report are evidence that IS-Khorasan, also known as ISKP, remains on a worrisome trajectory.

“ISKP intensified its Central Asia outreach after the U.S.-withdrawal from Afghanistan and rolled out Tajik and Uzbek media arms in 2022,” according to Lucas Webber, a research fellow at the global intelligence firm, The Soufan Center.

“This initiative continues to expand,” he told VOA, pointing to the introduction of a new IS Tajik language magazine days after the group’s terror attack in Moscow.

And there are other worrisome signs.

“There has been an uptick in ISKP-linked arrests throughout Central Asia in the last few months,” Webber added, saying that could indicate the recent high-profile attacks could be “just the start of what the group has planned.”

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