Where will be next target for global jihad - and is the West at risk?

Militant insurgents already hold territory in a string of poor and unstable states

A member of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad pictured in 2004
A member of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad
(Image credit: Ahmad Khateib/Getty Images)

The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan brings not only a new regime but also the renewal of a threat to other nations: jihadi terrorism.

Although the Taliban is focused primarily on ruling Afghanistan following 20 years of occupation by US and Nato troops, the Islamists have historically harboured terrorist groups that have launched attacks worldwide, including al-Qaeda.

Indeed, the fallout from the West’s departure “is bringing back the nightmarish thought that global jihadi terrorist groups will again find a haven where they can reorganise and thrive”, wrote Alexandre Marc, a non-resident senior fellow at the Washington D.C-based Brookings Institution think tank.

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The “very rapid fall” of Afghanistan to the Taliban also “draws attention to Africa”, where such groups are “on the rise” and “expending their war of terror in large portions of the continent”, Marc added.

‘Ripple effects’

Jihadists worldwide have been “elated by the fall of Kabul”, said The Economist.

“Through willpower, patience and cunning, a low-budget band of holy warriors has vanquished America and taken charge of a medium-size country,” the paper continued. “To Muslims who yearn to expel infidels and overthrow secular states, it was evidence that God approves.”

And “the ripple effects could be felt far and wide”.

The Taliban takeover “heralds a global tectonic shift” that “signifies jihad’s biggest win of the decade”, agreed Pakistan-based journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid.

“Jihadist outfits from Africa to the Middle East and South Asia” are now basking in the “triumph of Islam” and growing increasingly confident that foreign powers will eventually “retreat” from the battle against terrorism, he wrote in an article for The Spectator.

Groups such as Boko Haram and Isis believe “that like the Taliban they just need to bide their time, incentivise influential warlords in their regions and wait”, Shahid added. “Radical Islamist groups crave nothing more than legitimacy, which will now be the focus of global jihad.”

Whether the Taliban will shift its attention to “leading global jihad” remains to be seen, said Lebanon’s The Daily Star. The Islamists are currently under pressure “to prove their credentials as Afghan nationalists and shun global jihadist movements”, as well as “delivering promises to the international community”.

The Taliban is already engaged in a long-running armed struggle against Islamic State (Isis) local affiliate Isis-K, which carried out the deadly suicide bombing at Kabul airport last week.

And the Taliban regime has pledged not to allow any group to use Afghanistan to launch terror attacks on any country.

But despite this moderate rhetoric, “during their insurgency in the last 20 years, the Taliban have deepened their associations with jihadist movements”, especially al-Qaeda, the paper added.

The Taliban “has taken lessons from the global jihadist movement”, said Shiraz Maher, a terror expert in Kings’ College London’s War Studies department. In an article for the New Statesman, he warned that “the danger lies in taking the political overtures of jihadists as markers of moderation”.

“They’re not,” Maher continued. “Instead, what the global jihad movement has done is become more pragmatic in the pursuit of power, recognising the need to both socialise local communities into their agenda whilst simultaneously not provoking powerful enemies abroad.”

This strategy “has paid dividends for the Taliban so far”, he added, noting that the Afghan “national flag is gone and has been replaced with the Taliban’s, the clearest demonstration yet that the jihadi ancien régime is back”.

Now “the world must deal with the boost to jihadism from America’s humiliation”, said The Economist. “Calamity in Kabul today means bigger refugee flows, more jihadist attacks and a greater chance that other Islamist insurgencies will prevail.”

‘Opening for jihadism’

Terrorism linked to Islamist movements has been in decline in recent years. The total number of deaths from terrorism fell by 59% between 2014 and 2019, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

However, such deaths have been increasing in Africa.

Violent jihadi groups are thriving in Africa and in some cases expanding across borders,” wrote the Brookings Institute’s Marc. Somalia, the Sahel region and “the area around Lake Chad and northeast Nigeria” are among the areas hit by terrorist attacks.

“Corruption, lack of political cohesion and weak armed forces” have all contributed to the rise in African Islamic groups, according to Marc. Other contributing factors include “local grievances, competition for local resources (in particular land for grazing), poor governance and the lack of capacity by governments to deliver services and provide economic opportunities”.

The Economist agreed that “bad government creates an opening for jihadism” - and pointed to fears about what may come next for Afghanistan as “the Taliban were also dreadful rulers” when they last ran the country.

However, attacks on the West are unlikely, suggested Shahid in The Spectator, as “the new jihad will be pragmatic enough not to declare war on the next superpower”. But on the other hand, international governments will need to “be even more accommodating towards Islamist regimes’ domestic abuses” in order to preserve “stability” in areas overrun by terrorist organisations.

In the New Statesman, Maher argued that the Taliban has learned that if the global jihad movement is to “survive into the future”, it will “have to adopt an ostensibly softer and more inclusive approach to governing areas under its control”.

“Recognising the success of this approach helps explain how jihadists have not just endured – but also thrived under – two decades of a so-called War on Terror,” he continued.

Many lessons can be drawn from Afghanistan, and countries like France are starting to change strategies” in their battle against extremism in Africa, said the Brookings Institute’s Marc.

We now know that “simply pulling the plug on security efforts can be disastrous” and that “just moving out does not resolve the problems”, he continued. But the West needs to “reflect on some of these lessons and apply them” to combat future jihadi insurrections.

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