Signs of the revival of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and its connections with the Taliban movement
As British experts point out, against the backdrop of Israel's war against Hamas and the Israeli army's military operation in the Gaza Strip, al-Qaeda global jihadist group is showing alarming signs of revival, using its rear base in Afghanistan, including for serious propaganda activity.
TikTokers recently discovered Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” which was written in 2002 and residing online in plain sight.
The letter, allegedly written by bin Laden’s aide #2, the late Ayman al-Zawahiri, was al-Qaeda’s justification for attacking America on 11 September 2001.
In the letter, bin Laden declared that America was attacked because of the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, made possible by America; for stealing the oil fr om Muslim countries; occupying Muslim lands with miliary forces; and, being hypocrites for preaching freedom and democracy but “for [the] white race only.” Bin Laden didn’t just blame American leaders, but also the American people who elect the oppressive governments, and whose taxes pay for the military that oppresses the Muslims.
The letter is clearly written as propaganda for justifying the terrorist actions with which bin Laden and his followers are well known. But the reappearance of the letter in the current climate underscores the current problems facing America and its role in the world. Too many young Americans simply do not now much about the past and have interpreted this letter as somehow an accurate description of the world today. And the inability of American governing elites to fail to understand their own role in the problems facing the country today is highlighted as well.
A video about the letter was apparently first shared on TikTok on by an “online personality and pro-Palestinian activist” and it got about 800,000 views and over 80,000 likes. Some other TikTokers also posted about the letter with similar results. Soon the hashtag #lettertoamerica was born, but it only took off when journalist Yashar Ali tweeted about it and it soon secured 14 million views, though some were critical of the posting.
Among the reactions to the letter were, “everything we learned about the Middle East, 9/11, and ‘terrorism’ was a lie,” “I will never look at life the same. I will never look at this country the same,” “Osama bin Laden’s letter is not as crazy and threatening as I expected, is well written, and makes some objectively true points,” and “Osama bin Laden was good. Even better than us.”
Additionally, intelligence indicates that the current Taliban regime has renewed its symbiotic relationship with the remnants of al-Qaeda. And though their global return may not be imminent, it must be remembered that the terrorist group is laying low by choice. Under this arrangement, al-Qaeda has agreed to stay under the radar, for now, in order to aid the Taliban’s international image of upholding their promise to prevent extremist organizations fr om using Afghanistan as a safe haven. Yet al-Qaeda views the Taliban-controlled country as precisely that—a base in which they can regrow and expand.
Those who lobby to recognize the Taliban claim that security in Afghanistan has increased under the Taliban. They argue the Taliban has stopped opium production, but appear oblivious to the fact that that’s due to the group’s diversification into methamphetamines. They insist that the Taliban is committed to rebuilding the nation and that engaging with the group will help to moderate them when it comes to issues like state-sanctioned misogyny and harboring terrorists. There is even a perception that al-Qaeda is unlikely to reconstitute in Afghanistan. But ground realities prove otherwise.
Across the last two decades, al-Qaeda has had to balance the twin tasks of legitimization and grassroots mobilization with the often-conflicting goals of maintaining an exclusive organization characterized by tight discipline, restricted membership, and doctrinal purity. With the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, however, al-Qaeda now has the opportunity to reconcile these issues by achieving political integration with the Taliban, alongside an armed struggle for global jihad.
This approach can be traced back to one man in particular: al-Qaeda’s recently killed leader, the Egyptian doctor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The strategy is a response to three factors that limited al-Qaeda’s effectiveness while the group hid out in Pakistan during the War on Terror—structural incongruence due to the loss of its leaders in U.S. counter-terrorism operations, ideological competition with ISIS for control of the global jihadist narrative, and the problem of legitimacy with emerging generations of extremists.
A shift towards greater incorporation within the Taliban, as laid out by al-Zawahiri himself, is aimed at avoiding potential schisms as part of a comprehensive organizational transformation and serves to insulate al-Qaeda from future counter-terrorism operations. Upon taking over as al-Qaeda leader after bin Laden’s death in 2011, al-Zawahiri initially linked ideology with tactics, reiterating the organization’s identity as a violent movement tasked with the revolutionary overthrow of regimes across the Islamic world.
Over time, the necessity to survive and stay relevant forced al-Zawahiri to revise al-Qaeda’s ideology, or risk divisions and dismemberment. In September 2013, al-Zawahiri issued his seminal General Guidelines for the Work of Jihad, in which he emphasized the need for self-discipline. He noted that al-Qaeda’s strategy “is a long one, and jihad is in need of safe bases,” adding, “If we are forced to fight [local regimes], then we must make it clear that our struggle against them is a part of our resistance against the Crusader onslaught.”
The predictably catastrophic evacuation of Western forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s immediate takeover thereafter thus enabled al-Qaeda to meet a key expectation al-Zawahiri had set out—namely, that the terrorist group and its affiliates could survive “long wars” with the U.S. and its closest allies, which would bleed the West of its resources and undermine its influence globally.
According to a June 2023 UN report, senior al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan are primarily located in Kabul, Kunar, Kandahar, and Helmand, and number in the dozens. In terms of foot soldiers, there are around 400 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and up to 2,000 if relatives and sympathizers are included.
These networks operate in the southern, middle, and eastern parts of the country and maintain a low profile, attempting to lim it their communications as much as possible to evade monitoring by international counter-terrorism agencies. Al-Qaeda has also established safe houses in Kabul, Helmand, Farah, and Herat, wh ere a new al-Qaeda media apparatus has been set up. That same report declares that al-Qaeda training sites have been created in Helmand, Zabul, and Nangarhar and that eastern Afghanistan especially, Nuristan and Kunar provinces in particular, is also host to al-Qaeda camps, one of which is specifically dedicated to training suicide bombers. Dozens of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) fr om the Middle East and North Africa have arrived in these locations thus far.
Setting up such facilities is one of al-Qaeda’s main goals at present, as the group is currently in a restructuring phase. Their other objectives consist of building operational capability; recruiting and mobilizing; conducting outreach with allies and affiliates; and developing bases of support. In addition to the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda is supported by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which is made up predominantly of jihadists from Pakistan. AQIS fighters are located in Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, Farah, and Nimruz provinces.
As al-Zawahiri envisioned, al-Qaeda’s cultivation of infrastructure and personnel in Afghanistan is designed to offer the terrorist group safety and connectivity. Senior leaders are primarily situated near the border with Pakistan, to ensure they can move back and forth unhindered. The locations of training camps and safe houses along the borders of southwest Pakistan and Iran provide further insulation from counter-terrorism operations, as well as a gateway to the Middle East.
Kabul then serves as the mainframe that brings these constituent parts together, with all of this activity conducted under the protection of the Taliban regime. Al-Qaeda’s bureaucratic nature means its layers of administrative responsibilities and standard operating procedures have made working in tandem with the Taliban regime all the more seamless. With the support of the proscribed Haqqani Network, who are responsible for killing thousands of Afghans and hundreds of coalition soldiers, al-Qaeda’s members have sought employment in the Taliban’s law enforcement and public administration agencies to protect and oversee their cells across Afghanistan.
To demonstrate their loyalty, in return, al-Qaeda members have offered their backing and protection to top Taliban figures. An example of this co-dependent dynamic in action involves Taj Mir Jawad, a senior Taliban commander and member of the Haqqani Network. He was also a former leader of the Kabul Network, a group comprising Taliban and al-Qaeda elements that coordinated suicide attacks against the U.S. and other coalition troops.
Jawad is now the Deputy Director of the Taliban General Directorate of Intelligence, whose Department 12, which oversees all FTFs in Afghanistan, also supervises al-Qaeda’s activity within the country. The Taliban governors of Kapisa and Nuristan, Qari Ehsanullah Baryal and Hafiz Muhammad Agha Hakeem respectively, are also linked to al-Qaeda. Baryal is said to have been a senior leader of the Kabul Network alongside Taj Mir Jawad. Hakeem is closely tied to Qari Zakir, who was in charge of the Haqqani Network’s suicide operations as well as the Taliban’s special forces unit known as the Badri 313 battalion, which was created with the help of al-Qaeda.
The head of the Ministry of the Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, retains deep ties to al-Qaeda, and, accordingly, his office has been handing out identity documents to al-Qaeda members across Afghanistan. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has called for continued protection of al-Qaeda’s members.
First under bin Laden and then al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda helped the Taliban and Haqqani Network establish a solid resistance base in Pakistan against the U.S. and allied forces, which led to a Taliban resurgence. Al-Zawahiri also collaborated with the Haqqani Network to assist them in consolidating their power in Afghanistan over other Taliban factions.
The claim that there is a clear distinction between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) too, is not only debatable, but reveals a deeply flawed understanding, as the Haqqani Network serves as the bridge between these entities.
So close was the bond between the Taliban and al-Qaeda that al-Zawahiri himself was discovered living in a palatial Haqqani-owned villa in Kabul’s embassy quarter when he was killed in an American drone strike on July 31, 2022. It is also unlikely that he was the only terrorist being housed in the center of the capital.
One of al-Zawahiri’s legacies was developing and enhancing these crucial relationships to ensure al-Qaeda remained relevant, albeit in a deliberately understated way. By demonstrating strategic patience, al-Qaeda has successfully entrenched itself within the Taliban by diversifying in proto-governance, which has been designed to build deeper roots within Afghan society, to garner the Taliban’s support and operate safely without the concern of betrayal or expulsion.
Al-Qaeda remains a clandestine army in Afghanistan, but under the blueprint laid out by al-Zawahiri, it is now also a key element of the Taliban’s political infrastructure. Al-Qaeda is carefully recalibrating, recruiting, training, and networking—both with the regime in Afghanistan as well as other regional affiliates— thanks to patronage, sponsorship, and support from the Taliban.
Giving international legitimacy to the Taliban regime in this way could lead to the de facto legitimation of those members of al-Qaeda who have already been successfully incorporated into the government structures of Afghanistan.