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As Syria’s foreign jihadis eye Afghanistan, new challenges arise for Moscow

The potential that foreign fighters may move from Syria’s Idlib province to Afghanistan could pose major threats to Russia and its Central Asian allies.
A van belonging to members of Syria's top jihadi group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The situation in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, escalated sharply Thursday after a suicide attack by militants from the local affiliate of the Islamic State killed over 100 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops at a gate to Hamid Karzai International Airport.

US Central Command head Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie said American military leadership is in a state of readiness for new attacks in Kabul by the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) terrorist group. “We’re prepared to continue the mission,” he told reporters at a briefing Thursday. According to him, the United States has shared limited intelligence with the Taliban — who are guarding the airport — about threat assessments and preparations by IS to commit terrorist attacks. “We believe attacks have been thwarted by [the Taliban],” he added.

These attacks demonstrated that after the United States and its allies ceased their anti-terrorist activities in the country due to the rapid advance of the Taliban and their capture of the capital, the security situation began to deteriorate sharply.

The situation also poses new challenges for Russia and its Central Asian allies such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. While the Americans were present in Afghanistan, they could provide counterterrorism measures that benefitted Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors. But after the arrival of the Taliban, a security vacuum may emerge, and the Taliban may face serious difficulties in solving this problem. After the Americans left, Russia hoped that the Taliban would be able to take control of the security situation and destroy terrorist cells in Afghanistan, something Taliban representatives had repeatedly assured the Russians they could do.

However, it should be borne in mind that the main reason for the rapid advance of Taliban forces was not so much the group’s military power as it was the collapse of the government in Kabul, which was unable to fight without external support. Such a quick establishment of power by the Taliban suggests that the group was able to easily take full control of all areas from which government troops fled practically without a fight, and where fighters from other radical groups — including the Islamic State — could now find refuge.

Thus, it remains possible that Afghanistan will once again become a base for international Salafi jihadism. And the reason for this may be not only "gaps" in the activities of the Taliban to exert their power, but also the purposeful position of some groups within the Taliban that have their own views different from the leadership of the movement. For example, this concerns the Taliban’s so-called Peshawar shura, or council, which became a cover for the activities of the shadowy Haqqani Network. The latter is the subgroup of the Taliban most ideologically close to al-Qaeda and has used suicide bombers to attack civilian targets.

Despite statements by the Taliban that Afghanistan will no longer serve as a base for the activities of terrorist groups that threaten other states from its territory, in addition to the Islamic State there are still al-Qaeda militants who may try to start taking advantage of the security vacuum. These could be, for example, international jihadis remaining in the Taliban structures from the so-called 055 Brigade, an organization entirely composed of al-Qaeda militants who committed numerous crimes against peaceful Afghans. The brigade was integrated into the Taliban army between 1995 and 2001.

Anton Mardasov, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Institute's Syria Program, told Al-Monitor that over the past years the Taliban have actively been in contact with the core of al-Qaeda as well as its rather autonomous branch al-Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent. According to Mardasov, members of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent are present in 13 provinces of the country, including Helmand and Kandahar. Al-Qaeda, he noted, has also strengthened its presence in Badakhshan, a province in the east of the country that borders Tajikistan. There are other areas of al-Qaeda presence, including Barmal County in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika where the Haqqani Network dominates, and more generally on the Afghan-Pakistani border where al-Qaeda operates in close cooperation with the Haqqani Network with the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

There is also the potential for Afghanistan to see the arrival of radical groups from Syria’s Idlib province. Recently Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the terror group that controls Idlib, began to pursue a policy aimed at eradicating non-Syrian jihadis from its territory. In this regard, it is highly probable that under pressure from HTS, a number of such groups may move to Afghanistan. This could happen both with the approval of some structures within the Taliban and in spite of them.

Such factions capable of transit from Syria to Afghanistan may include, for example, Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (not to be confused with the Iraqi group of the same name), consisting of fighters from the Central Asian republics, primarily Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, many of whom came from Russia where they were looking for work. Abu Salah al-Uzbeki (Sirojiddin Mukhtarov), the leader of this group, was arrested by HTS’s security services back in June. Another Uzbek radical Islamist, Abu Rofik al-Tartarstani (Sukhrob Baltabaev), was killed in action by HTS militants.

Thus, the activities of the remaining radicals from Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad in Idlib are threatened and they could try to infiltrate the territory of Afghanistan.

Imam Bukhari Jamaat is a fairly large Uzbek group fighting in Idlib. Although at the moment the group has no conflict with HTS, nevertheless — based on HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s conviction of the need to "cleanse" the region from non-Syrian factions — it is another candidate for transfer to Afghanistan.

In addition, the local branch of the Uyghur Islamic Party of Turkestan, whose cells are also located in Afghanistan, remains active in Idlib. It is possible that under pressure from the HTS, this group may also move to the Afghan regions. The same applies to the Caucasian jihadist groups — Junud al-Sham and Ajnad al-Kavkaz. In particular, Junud al-Sham has already been disbanded by the HTS, and its militants are looking for opportunities to continue their activities directed primarily against Russia in other countries.

Of course, much will depend on Turkey's position on this issue and its readiness to provide a corridor for the transfer of foreign fighters from Syria to Afghanistan. Considering the current level of relations between Ankara and Moscow on the one hand and the Central Asian republics on the other, it’s unlikely Turkey will provide assistance to these groups. But their presence in Idlib and the potential for them to move to the Turkish-controlled zones in Syria also threatens Ankara’s security interests.

The areas where militants from Idlib could potentially move are the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Kunar and Nuristan. These regions became known as the Afghan Waziristan and were not completely controlled by either the former Afghan authorities or the Taliban. This is where branches of various radical Salafi groups have found their refuge.

For example, in Badakhshan, fragments of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are still operating — namely, the part of them that refused to be part of the local branch of IS-K. The latter also retains its presence there.

The Tajik radical group Jamaat Ansarullah, which split from the IMU and has carried out terrorist attacks in Tajikistan, is also operating in this region. There are allegations that Ansarullah is closely cooperating with the Taliban, and that it was even given the task of securing part of the Afghan-Tajik border. The Taliban denies these accusations.

In addition, these regions are a refuge for local Salafis with whom the Taliban have quite serious ideological contradictions (the Taliban are Hanafis from the Deobandi school). But it was in the regions of Kunar and Nuristan that the Taliban were forced to allow the activities of Afghan Salafis, some of whom operate under the flags of the Taliban but at the same time have their own goals and objectives. Others, meanwhile, create independent Salafi groups not controlled by the Taliban.

Thus, the rise to power of the Taliban leaves more questions not only concerning the plans of the group itself but also its ability to solve tasks entrusted to it by states working to develop ties and contacts with this movement.

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