In our July/August Homeland Security Today report, Unholy Alliance: Afghanistan Poised to Become Terror Trio Safe Haven, we issued a dire warning referencing the potential for an alliance forming among the three most active terror organizations in the Middle East: ISIS, Al Qaeda and the eastern Afghanistan Haqqani Taliban network. The potential for this alliance, as presented, portends a grave threat to the West, not to mention the stability of Afghanistan and the surrounding regions.
ISIS and the regions Taliban networks had been at odds, with the Taliban fighting to stamp out its smaller rival it saw as competition for recruits and funding. Western intelligence analysts secure in the assumption that such a rivalry would continue, thus weakening both groups, are now realizing the potential for our early prediction is coming to fruition.
Recent intelligence reporting indicates a cooperative, ceasefire between the two groups, with a seemingly single-minded goal of allowing both to focus efforts on attacking America and coalition forces. The short term result of such cooperation has been a strengthened ISIS presence in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces in eastern Afghanistan, which also happens to be the traditional home of the Haqqani Taliban network.
While it is true the cease-fire is tenuous and may dissolve at any point leading to more infighting between the groups; it is also just as likely the two will see the benefit of working together for a common enemy and the alliance – as we predicted — will strengthen.
Analysts agree the Taliban as well as ISIS, stand much more to gain than to lose should such a strengthening of this bond take place. It remains to be seen, however, whether the leadership of the organizations will recognize this. Nevertheless, their increasing shared hatred of the West and the bond that’s forming between the Haqqani network and the traditional Taliban bodes ill.
ISIS fighters have also used the ceasefire and quasi-cooperation between the two groups to coordinate and launch deadly attacks in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The target of these attacks has been the Shiite, Hazarra community, the enmity of which is also shared to a great extent by the predominantly Sunni Taliban.
Time will tell whether this agreement will lead to more concrete, long-term alliances, but it is a step in that direction — and it is a step the West should be highly concerned about. To make matters worse, in June, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, as we reported in Homeland Security Today, pledged allegiance to the new head of the Afghan Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who was appointed to replace Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan. The trend toward coalescing under the umbrella of a common goal of defeating America and its allies should be evident to all. In the words of Al Zawahiri, "As leader of the Al Qaeda organization for jihad, I extend my pledge of allegiance once again, the approach of Osama to invite the Muslim nation to support the Islamic Emirate."
Not a sort-lived phenomenon
If the analysts who see this as a short-lived phenomenon arewrong, the West will be facing a much stronger, more capable and evil trifecta in this Taliban/Al Qaeda/ISIS link. The fact Islamic jihadists throughout history have always shown a willingness and a propensity to join with their local enemies to defeat a stronger foe should not be ignored. Additionally, it is well understood by those in the region that such alliances have generally proven successful for them, and rarely have previous jihadist leaders allowed a "concern for what may happen when the foe is defeated" to stand in the way.
Today, Al Qaeda affiliates arelocated in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burma, Djibouti, Ethiopia, France, India, Kashmir, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, United States and Yemen. ISIS and affiliates are operational in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the North Caucasus. Beyond this, the terror group has waged attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tunisia and Kuwait.
Though the Taliban and its affiliated organizations have historically operated only in Afghanistan and eastern Pakistan — mostly in the northwest frontier territory — to date, this operational limitation has been a choice rather than a requirement. The Taliban has never been interested in anything more than regional control, but it would be foolish to assume its leadership could not be influenced to support operations or actively operate more globally. At a minimum, offering training and planning safe havens to Al Qaeda and or ISIS is probable, assuming strengthening ties among the leadership of the three organizations.
ISIS moved into and began operations in Afghanistan in early 2015, spurred by Taliban defectors who swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. The defectors saw in Al Baghdadi a renewed effort that they had viewed as waning in Taliban leadership. Their frustration was directed mostly toward then leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Omar, of course, was in hiding in Pakistan and unbeknownst to most, dying at the time.
New leadership and alliances
As new leadership took the reins for the Taliban, first with Mansour then Akhundzada, two things happened; the defections slowed and the idea of shared efforts toward a common enemy began to emerge. For the Taliban leadership, this new operational ideology was fueled in part by a new relationship with the Haqqani Taliban network, whose leaders have traditionally embraced coalitions to accomplish a shared goal. In fact, the Haqqani family has assumed a prominent leadership role in the Afghan Taliban organization, with Sarajuddin and brother Anas, both sons of Jalaluddin Haqqani, being appointed deputy commanders, second only to Akhundzada.
One would be foolish to assume this leadership position of the Haqqani brothers is without considerable influence. One would also be foolish to forget that it was senior Haqqani leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who urged Mullah Omar in early 2000 to align with Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. Forging alliances is a philosophy the Haqqani’s will, (and probably already have) most definitely bring to the Afghan Taliban leadership.
As we reported in our earlier Homeland Security Today article, the late Taliban leader Mansour, who was a close associate and philosophically in alignment with Akhundzada “planned to use an ISIS/Al Qaeda/Taliban alliance to return the Taliban to power in Afghanistan as conquerors rather than simply another political party within the government.” Mansour and Akhundzada shared a desire for a more international impact and of course the Haqqani network has historically embraced the ideology of global jihad.
With the strengthening ties between Al Qaeda and ISIS as indicated by the overtures from Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri, stronger links between the Taliban and ISIS seem more probable than merely possible. Analysts cannot ignore the possibility that this recent ceasefire is a step in that direction. There is little to lose for all parties involved — and much to gain.
There are several widely accepted catalysts, any one of which history has proven highly efficient in coalescing jihadist groups in this part of the world. They are charismatic leaders, robust and reliable funding, safe havens to train and, finally, something called the "unseen hand."
Saladin, in the 12th century, succeeded in uniting disparate Muslim factions of the Middle East to defeat the Christian armies occupying the Levant (Holy Land), all in the name of Islam. Seven hundred years later that unity remains virtually intact. In the late 19th century, a jihadist named Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself the "Mahdi,” the promised redeemer of the Islamic world. He preached renewal of the faith and liberation of the land and began attracting followers. He was very efficient in uniting Muslim factions. A savvy military leader, he was credited with defeating the British General Charles Gordon at Khartoum before dying of natural causes the same year.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden could have been a modern day "Saladin,” were it not for his being run out of his Afghan haven and forced to hide from his adversaries which detracted from his popularity.
Many jihadist movements today vie for the attention of the Muslim male masses around the globe. History has shown that often all it takes is a charismatic leader to be the catalyst that stimulates the jihadi unification process to a much grander scale.
Mutual lines of funding
Jihadist terror groups get their funding from charities, donations from generous patrons, some state sponsorships, but largely from criminal operations. In 2016, illegal oil sales from ISIS controlled Syrian sources saw serious interdiction actions from combined Russian and American air strikes. The loss of oil revenue has no doubt had a hand in calming some of ISIS leaders’ more bellicose rhetoric, and forced them to seek new alliances with the factions of the Taliban. The same Taliban they had not so long ago shunned and openly attacked.
The 2015 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that drug use prevalence "continues to be stable around the world." However, according to a May 4, 2016 New York Times article, the Taliban extracts more than $3 billion dollars a year from the Afghan drug trade.
Heroin addiction is approaching epidemic levels in America. While most of America’s heroin market is fed from South American drug cartels, if the world heroin demand begins increasing in concert with a rise in Afghan opium production it can only translate into a new and possibly unfettered flow of revenue to feed a new and greater jihadi alliance. An alliance which will allow ISIS and Al Qaeda to share in this unchecked source of income.
General George Washington needed Valley Forge to give his Continental Army a place to resupply, rest and reconstitute so he could renew the fight and eventually defeat the British — at that time the greatest army in the world. Military tactics in these terms have changed only slightly in 250 years. Bin Laden used the country of Afghanistan to provide multiple "Valley Forges" for Al Qaeda until US-led Coalition Forces drove him out. ISIS is attempting the same in Syria and Iraq, though military forces of Russia, the US, Iraq, Iran and others are trying to discourage their efforts.
Uncontested terror safe havens can be the breeding grounds for tens of thousands of newly trained jihadists in the span of one short year, and an alliance between the Taliban and ISIS will provide this, resulting in thousands of more terrorists flowing into the US or other Western nations which would be catastrophic.
The "unseen hand" in Eastern culturesis an allegory, referring to some invisible and sometimes nefarious controller or puppet master. The Taliban’s relationship to the Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) fits the terminology perfectly.
ISI created the Mujahidin to fight the Soviets. After the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan, ISI used the Taliban to establish a regime in Afghanistan which would be favorable to Pakistan in the mid-1990s. Many would also assert that ISI has strong ties to Al Qaeda. How else can one explain the killing of Bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, a city where Bin Laden and his family had lived openly for years.
In addition to the ongoing support for the freedom movement in Kashmir, ISI has demonstrated a robust resume as a covert and active sponsor and instigator for terror and insurgency. To the outsider, the only self-imposed limitation appears to be that ISI only acts when it sees that its action potentially aligns with Pakistan’s national interest.
Thus far, ISI has confined terror-sponsorship efforts to countries along its borders, although it has reportedly conducted espionage operations in several Western nations to include the US and France. However, should ISI step in and take a greater role, or full control, of a world-wide terror alliance, the meaning of "terror" could be completely redefined.
A vital role of intelligence analysts everywhere is to disagree with their cohorts. The potential for a firm alliance of ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban is an area in which disagreement is rampant among professionals.
The argument is appropriate. Assuming there is no evidence to support an argument for a high probability of such an alignment forming is, however, not only inappropriate, but could be extremely perilous. If the tenuous ties binding these jihadist groups are to strengthen, the signs will be there, and they will be readily observable.
Reasonable caution dictates we observe and heed them.
Contributing Writer Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. He’s author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus.
Pat McGlynn was a US Army military intelligence officer who authored multiple authoritative strategic-level intelligence reports addressing terrorism, irregular warfare, WMD and information operations.