WASHINGTON – Twenty years after the al-Qaida terror group based in Afghanistan launched the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States, there are indications a new generation of terrorists is looking to call the country home.
Seemingly encouraged by the Taliban takeover following the departure of U.S. and NATO forces, terrorists in other parts of the world are talking about making the journey, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.
“There’s no doubt that the chatter is about this,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations team that monitors the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Taliban, told an online forum Friday.
“There is definitely a very strong sort of sense of enthusiasm out there for Afghanistan,” he said. “The inspiration is there, people saying this is where it’s happened, this is where the U.S. has been defeated, where the West has been defeated.”
Analysts, too, say talk of a new flow of terrorists to Afghanistan is picking up.
“I’ve heard from a couple Southeast Asian government officials in the last 10 days or so,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terror and Extremism programs at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“One of them told me 100% of the chatter they were intercepting from known jihadist networks in their immediate region, 100% was focused on, ‘How do we get to Afghanistan?'” Lister said.
“Almost all of that was focused and oriented around ISIS (the Islamic State group), not around AQ (al-Qaida) or the Taliban,” he added.
U.S. officials who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence declined to comment on any specific “chatter,” but they did not minimize the potential threat.
“There’s a concern,” a U.S. military official said.
More broadly, U.S. officials have said they are bracing for both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group’s Afghan affiliate, known as IS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, to take advantage of the situation.
“I think the nature of al-Qaida and ISIS-K is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a small group of reporters Thursday during a visit to Kuwait.
“I think the whole (U.S. national security) community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaida has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan,” Austin added.
Central Asian nations have also expressed concerns, especially about IS-Khorasan, telling Pentagon officials the group was “creating the potential for destabilization.”
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials have been paying close attention, noting IS-Khorasan has a history of being able to recruit from multiple countries in the region.
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There are also doubts about the extent to which the Taliban, already aligned with al-Qaida, would be willing or capable of preventing an influx of foreign fighters, even those seeking to join with the rival Islamic State group.
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Complicating matters further, Afghanistan has a long history as a destination for foreign fighters.
According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at King’s College in London, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 drew up to 20,000 foreign fighters.
Even now, recent intelligence estimates from U.N. member states put the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at 8,000 to 10,000.
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) June 3, 2021
Some intelligence agencies warned that Afghanistan was already seeing a “trickle” of incoming foreign fighters earlier this year, prior to the completion of the U.S. military withdrawal.
Intel suggests only “limited relocation” so far
But states “concerned abt the possibility of such movement, in particular to #Afghanistan, should the environment there become more hospitable”
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) July 23, 2021
Whether that trickle ever develops into more of a flow, though, remains to be seen.
“I think, now, Afghanistan is a pole of attraction. … How fast that happens is another matter,” said the U.N.’s Fitton-Brown, pointing to what happened with the thousands of foreign fighters who never really left Syria and Iraq after traveling from all over the world to fight with IS until the collapse of its self-declared caliphate.
“At least up until the last time we looked at this, there was still more Afghan veterans in Syria than there were Syria or Iraq veterans in Afghanistan,” he said. “In other words, the relocation effect, although it’s real, it’s probably slower than people thought it would be.”