Al Qaeda Is Back—and Thriving—in Afghanistan

Al Qaeda is back to its old tricks in Afghanistan. Much as it did before masterminding the 9/11 attacks, the terrorist group is running militant training camps; sharing the profits of the Taliban’s illicit drug, mining, and smuggling enterprises; and funneling the proceeds to affiliated jihadi groups worldwide.

Al Qaeda is back to its old tricks in Afghanistan. Much as it did before masterminding the 9/11 attacks, the terrorist group is running militant training camps; sharing the profits of the Taliban’s illicit drug, mining, and smuggling enterprises; and funneling the proceeds to affiliated jihadi groups worldwide.

An unpublished report circulating among Western diplomats and U.N. officials details how deeply embedded the group once run by Osama bin Laden is in the Taliban’s operations, as they loot Afghanistan’s natural wealth and steal international aid meant to alleviate the suffering of millions of Afghans.

The report was completed by a private, London-based threat analysis firm whose directors did not want to be identified. A copy was provided to Foreign Policy and its findings verified by independent sources. It is based on research conducted inside Afghanistan in recent months and includes a list of senior al Qaeda operatives and the roles they play in the Taliban’s administration.

To facilitate its ambitions, al Qaeda is raking in tens of millions of dollars a week from gold mines in Afghanistan’s northern Badakhshan and Takhar provinces that employ tens of thousands of workers and are protected by warlords friendly to the Taliban, the report says. The money represents a 25 percent share in proceeds from gold and gem mines; 11 gold mines are geolocated in the report. The money is shared with al Qaeda by the two Taliban factions: Sirajuddin Haqqani’s Kabul faction and Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada’s Kandahar faction, suggesting both leaders, widely regarded as archrivals, see a cozy relationship with al Qaeda as furthering their own interests as well as helping to entrench the group’s overall power.

The Taliban’s monthly take from the gold mines tops $25 million, though this money “does not appear in their official budget,” the report says. Quoting on-the-ground sources, it says the money “goes directly into the pockets of top-ranking Taliban officials and their personal networks.” Since the mines began operating in early 2022, al Qaeda’s share has totaled $194.4 million, it says.

After regaining power in August 2021, the Taliban integrated a large number of listed terrorist groups that fought alongside them against the U.S.-supported Afghan republic. The Biden administration, however, has persistently denied that al Qaeda has reconstituted in Afghanistan or even that al Qaeda and the Taliban have maintained their long, close relationship.

Those denials ring hollow as evidence piles up that the Taliban and al Qaeda are as close as ever. The U.N. Security Council and the U.S. Congress-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have consistently reported on the Taliban’s symbiotic relationship with dozens of banned terrorist outfits, including al Qaeda.

Few experts believed Taliban leaders’ assurances, during negotiations with former U.S. President Donald Trump that led to the ignominious U.S. retreat, that the group’s relationship with al Qaeda was over; bin Laden’s vision of a global caliphate based in Afghanistan was a guiding principle of the war that returned the Taliban regime, which one Western official in Kabul said differs only from the previous regime in 1996-2001 in that “they are even better at repression.”

The historic relationship hit global headlines when bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed on July 31, 2022, in a U.S. drone strike as he stood by the window of a Kabul villa. The property was linked to Haqqani, the head of the largely autonomous Haqqani network and a member of al Qaeda’s leadership structure. He is also a deputy head of the Taliban and its interior minister, overseeing security. He is believed to harbor ambitions for the top job of supreme leader, with aspirations to become caliph.

Now that they can operate with impunity, the reports says, the Taliban are once again providing al Qaeda commanders and operatives with everything they need, from weapons to wives, housing, passports, and access to the vast smuggling network built up over decades to facilitate the heroin empire that bankrolled the Taliban’s war.

The routes have been repurposed for lower-cost, higher-return methamphetamine, weapons, cash, gold, and other contraband. Militants from Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories also circulate through the al Qaeda training camps that have been revived since the Taliban takeover. Security is provided by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence.

The report includes a list of al Qaeda commanders, some of whom were bin Laden’s lieutenants when he was living in Afghanistan while planning the attacks on the United States. Those atrocities precipitated the U.S.-led invasion that drove him, and the Taliban leadership, into Pakistan, where they were sheltered, funded, and armed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

The report’s findings “demonstrate that, as expected, the Taliban leadership continues to be willing to protect not only the leadership of al Qaeda but also fighters, including foreign terrorist fighters from a long list of al Qaeda affiliates,” said Hans-Jakob Schindler, the senior director of the Berlin- and New York-based Counter Extremism Project and an expert on terrorism. “It is clear that the Taliban have never changed their stance toward international terrorism and, in particular, al Qaeda.”

Many analysts believe President Joe Biden’s decision to stick to Trump’s withdrawal deal led to Afghanistan becoming an incubator of extremism and terrorism. Leaders of neighboring and regional states, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and countries in Central Asia, have expressed concern about the threat posed by the Taliban’s transnational ambitions. U.N. figures, including Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett, have repeatedly called out Taliban suppression of rights and freedoms and the imprisonment and killing of perceived opponents.

In February, the George W. Bush Institute released the first report in its three-part Captured State series titled “Corruption and Kleptocracy in Afghanistan Under the Taliban,” which recommends action by the United States and the U.N. to rein in Taliban excesses. It calls on the United States and allies “to pressure foreign enablers of Taliban corruption and reputation laundering to stop facilitating corrupt economic trading activities, illicit trafficking, and moving and stashing personal wealth outside Afghanistan.”

Pointedly, it says the U.N. and other aid organizations “should demand greater accountability for how aid is spent and distributed” and urges international donors to support civil society, which has been decimated by the Taliban.

It’s a reference to the billions of dollars in aid that have been sent to Afghanistan since the republic collapsed—including, controversially, $40 million in cash each week, which has helped keep the local currency stable despite economic implosion. The United States is the biggest supporter, funneling more than $2.5 billion to the country from October 2021 to September 2023, SIGAR said. Foreign Policy has reported extensively on the Taliban’s systematic pilfering of foreign humanitarian aid for redistribution to supporters, which has exacerbated profound poverty.

The Bush Institute paper is one of the few comprehensive studies of the impact of the Taliban’s return to power to publicly call for the group to face consequences for its actions. It suggests, for instance, the enforcement of international travel bans on Taliban leaders, which are easily and often flouted.

Recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan “would reinforce the Taliban’s claim to power and strengthen their position” by giving them even greater access to “cold, hard cash,” the report says, a warning that comes amid growing fears that the United States could be preparing to reopen its Kabul embassy, which the Taliban would see as tacit recognition.

By “capturing the Afghan state, the Taliban have significantly upgraded their access to resources,” the Bush Institute argues, putting the group “in the perfect position now to loot it for their own individual gain.”

That plundered resource wealth also appears to be boosting the coffers of like-minded groups. The London firm’s unpublished report identifies 14 al Qaeda affiliates—most of them listed by the U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team—that are directly benefiting from the mining proceeds. They include seven inside Afghanistan (among them, the anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the anti-Tajikistan Jamaat Ansarullah, and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is fighting the Pakistani state) and seven operating elsewhere: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Yemen, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in Syria, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, al Qaeda in the Mahgreb, and al-Shabab, largely active in East Africa.

For Western governments that might be pondering a closer relationship with the Taliban regime or even diplomatic recognition, Schindler of the Counter Extremism Project sounded a note of warning. The Taliban, he said, are “not a viable counterterrorism partner, even on a tactical level.” Instead, the group “remains one of the prime sponsors of terrorism” worldwide.

Read More

Lynne ODonnell