There's 'zero question' Afghanistan will be a safe haven for terrorists again, experts warn

osama bin laden
  • The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has "greatly increased" the risk of it becoming a terrorist safe haven, one expert told Insider.

  • But there's an evolving debate over the level of threat this will pose to the US.

  • Amid right-wing fearmongering, one expert also emphasized that there's no evidence Afghan refugees pose a threat

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has raised many questions about the future of the region, including whether the country will once again become a breeding ground for terrorist groups that threaten the West.

The Islamist militant group has vowed that it will not allow Afghanistan to be a launching pad for terror attacks in other parts of the world. But experts warn that the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan provides a boost to terror organizations like Al Qaeda, and say groups like ISIS-K - an opponent of the Taliban - will also look to exploit the chaos. Moreover, a recent report from the Defense Department's watchdog said the Taliban has maintained a relationship with Al Qaeda despite public claims to the contrary.

There's "zero question" Afghanistan will now morph into a "a durable safe haven for terror groups like Al Qaeda who intend to conduct attacks abroad," Jennifer Cafarella, a national security fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, told Insider.

"The propaganda victory the Taliban and Al Qaeda have gained by seizing control of Afghanistan is hard to overstate," Cafarella added. "Attacks in the West inspired by the outcome in Afghanistan are likely in coming weeks and months."

The US withdrawal and Taliban takeover has "greatly increased the risk that militant groups will use Afghanistan to reconsolidate their bases and strength," Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, told Insider.

This is not due to the fact the Taliban will seek to host these groups, Jadoon said, but because they "won't have the capacity to constrain them, while also trying to govern simultaneously and extend their control over all of the country."

There's a real risk of an Al Qaeda comeback, Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, wrote in Foreign Affairs. But he added that "Afghanistan's reversion to its pre-9/11 role as a safe haven for jihadi terrorism is unlikely."

"Although the Taliban's victory will undoubtedly make Washington's counterterrorism policy far harder to carry out, al Qaeda's weakness, the Taliban's own incentives, and post-9/11 improvements in U.S. intelligence coordination, homeland security, and remote military operations all reduce the threat," Byman said.

'The Al Qaeda network will be invigorated globally'

A Taliban fighter
A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 in order to pursue and destroy Al Qaeda, the terror organization led by Osama bin Laden that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, which the Taliban had opened its doors to.

The Taliban first controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, with the US invasion knocking it from power (the militants would go on to wage a deadly insurgency against the US, its NATO allies, and the US-backed government).

Nearly twenty years after the US invasion and the onset of the broader global war on terror, Al Qaeda remains active, though it's suffered major leadership losses (including bin Laden in 2011) and its capacity for large-scale attacks has been diminished. The situation in Afghanistan, however, seemingly provides an opportunity for the group.

"The Al Qaeda network will be invigorated globally, with significant ramifications across Africa, the Middle East, and parts of East Asia," Cafarella said. "The Taliban's victory in Afghanistan positions Al Qaeda to reclaim its role at the leadership of the global Salafi jihadist movement from ISIS, potentially redirecting the flow of foreign fighters and new recruits back to Al Qaeda."

Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King's College London, told the New York Times that Al Qaeda is "celebrating" what's happened in Afghanistan.

"A lot of groups will piggyback on this victory in propaganda terms - if the Taliban can do it, you can do it," Neumann said, but added that the likelihood the Taliban will rapidly provide a safehaven for groups like Al Qaeda is small because it's not in the militant group's self-interest.

ISIS-K 'remains a potent threat'

President Joe Biden on Wednesday defended upholding an August 31 deadline for Afghanistan evacuations in part by citing the danger of an attack by ISIS-K (ISIS's Afghanistan affiliate).

ISIS-K has struggled to gain a strong foothold in Afghanistan, Cafarella said, but "it remains a potent threat and one of the most important affiliates to the ISIS global organization." Beyond potential suicide attacks or other acts of violence at the Kabul airport, ISIS-K could also "attempt to find and take American citizens hostage, raising serious risks that American citizens will face executions."

The Taliban's victory and the related benefits to Al Qaeda put pressure on ISIS to demonstrate its relevance and make it "more dangerous," Cafarella warned.

ISIS-K remains a "persistent threat," Jadoon said, adding that the group will "continue to use the peace deal as propaganda against the Taliban, and may also try to recruit more radical members of the Taliban or other militants who feel marginalized."

Blinken: 'Al Qaeda's capacity to do what it did on 9/11 ... vastly diminished'

Over the past few years, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have shifted from emphasizing the threat of jihadist groups to underscoring the dangers posed by far right extremism.

The Department of Homeland Security in October 2020 released a report warning that violent white supremacy would remain the "most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland."

These warnings have escalated since the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas in June told senators that "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists" posed the greatest domestic terror threat to the US. "Specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race," Garland said at the time.

There has not been a drastic change in rhetoric from US officials regarding the threat level from jihadist groups as a result of the crisis in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has acknowledged that Al Qaeda and ISIS have a presence in Afghanistan, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said, "Al Qaeda's capacity to do what it did on 9/11, to attack us, to attack our partners or allies from Afghanistan is vastly, vastly diminished."

'No deadly jihadist attack in the past 19 years has involved someone who entered the US as a refugee'

Kabul airport
People struggle to cross the boundary wall of Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee the country after rumors that foreign countries are evacuating people even without visas, after the Taliban over run of Kabul, Afghanistan, 16 August 2021. STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the security situation evolves with evacuations ongoing, some Republicans and prominent right-wing commentators have sought to portray Afghan refugees as a potential danger.

"The US is remarkably secure from terrorism and historically there is no evidence to believe that refugees are a major threat," David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at New America, told Insider. "It is irresponsible to conjure the false concept of a major threat from refugees without specifics and to use an implied potential fear of what some refugees might do in the future to put specific individuals at a far more imminent and clear risk to their lives."

Sterman said that "no deadly jihadist attack in the past 19 years has involved someone who entered the US as a refugee, plotting to attack the United States."

Citing data from New America, Sterman said 83% of those accused of jihadist terrorism-related crimes in the US since 9/11 were permanent residents or US citizens when they were charged - and almost half were born US citizens. Among those who weren't US citizens, many arrived in the country a decade or more before being accused of such crimes.

"Is it possible that some refugees might end up being arrested for terrorism-related crimes in the future? Sure, just as it is possible - indeed more likely given data on prior arrests - that Americans who were born US citizens will be," Sterman said. "The US has a substantial law enforcement and intelligence apparatus, whose responsibility it is to investigate specific threats."

Read the original article on Business Insider