Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Will ISIS Succeed in Attracting Taliban Defectors?

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan two months ago, the international community has tentatively engaged with the new ‘government’ in Kabul, seeking to explore what kind of relations are possible with a Taliban-run entity. Until now, this phase of exploratory dialogue has resulted in very little meaningful openings, leaving Afghanistan and its 38 million people at the edge of a deeply concerning precipice.

Even before the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s economy was heavily dependent on foreign aid and over half the population lived in poverty. With the sustainability of foreign aid unclear and the public treasury effectively empty, an economic and humanitarian crisis appears virtually guaranteed.

While the root causes of extremism and terrorism are many in number, there can be no doubt that high rates of poverty, displacement and humanitarian suffering are potent drivers. While the Taliban has provided assurances of its intention to prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghan soil to plot international terrorism and to combat ISIS, there is little reason for confidence. On the one hand, the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda is deeply embedded and the most important linkage between the two, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is Afghanistan’s new Interior Minister.

While the Taliban similarly claims to have moderated in recent years, it celebrated its victory in August with a high-definition video lauding its squadrons of suicide bombers. This week, Haqqani himself convened a mass gathering of the families of Taliban suicide bombers, to celebrate their role in securing victory.

With the Taliban running the new Afghan government and the Haqqani Network holding key positions of power, al-Qaeda will be looking for opportunities to quietly recover in the shadows. It may take time for that recovery to become clear, but it is all but guaranteed. When Taliban militants swarmed into the Panjshir Valley to confront and ultimately disperse fighters of Ahmad Massoud’s National Resistance Front, they were accompanied by at least several dozen al-Qaeda members from Central Asia – according to an informed Western source.

What is most concerning though, is the opportunities that Afghanistan’s slow descent into economic collapse, humanitarian suffering and instability provides to ISIS’s local branch, ISIS Khorasan. In recent weeks, ISIS has conducted a significant campaign of violence in an expanding array of Afghan provinces, claiming responsibility for at least 40 attacks in the last four weeks. This ISIS campaign has focused primarily on two target sets: The Taliban and Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara community. For two Fridays in a row, Shiite mosques have been struck by ISIS suicide bombers, with hundreds killed and injured.

Precipitating a sectarian conflict is clearly on ISIS’s agenda, much like its years-long campaigns in Iraq and Syria, where exploiting ethnic and sectarian divisions proved to be particularly successful – and extremely deadly.

In response to ISIS’s challenge, the Taliban appear to have launched a series of localized crackdowns on Salafist communities, mostly in eastern Afghanistan. According to some reports, thousands of Salafists accused of being loyal to ISIS have been detained in Taliban raids in the last 10 days. While Taliban fighters have been disappearing at night and their beheaded bodies discovered hours later, men have also begun to fall victim to a series of otherwise unclaimed assassinations – widely attributed to Taliban hit squads.

Thus, within two months of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, a deadly campaign is already well underway, along with a shadowy intra-militant civil war. One particularly troubling outcome of this emerging dynamic is that within recent weeks, intelligence agencies in the US, Europe and across Central, South and Southeast Asia have all detected a clear spike in Afghanistan-focused extremist chatter at home. In almost every single case, that chatter is associated with ISIS.

A small but detectable flow of foreign fighters (from Central Asia, Indonesia, Arab countries and northwestern Syria) towards Afghanistan began weeks before the Taliban marched into Kabul, but it appears not just to have continued, but to have at least minimally increased in scale. For now, Tajikistan is their most favored point of entry.

By pushing two parallel narratives – one anti-Shiite sectarian and one critical of the Taliban for, in its eyes, having sold out fighting in favor of politics – ISIS is in a prime position to exploit Afghanistan’s newfound instability. As pressure continues to mount on the Taliban to curry more and more favor with the international community and to confront ISIS with greater resources, ISIS’s narrative will gain an increasingly potent foothold in the extremist community, both in Afghanistan and beyond. One dynamic to watch especially closely will be whether ISIS succeeds in attracting meaningful numbers of defectors from Taliban ranks, given its allegations of Taliban moderation and the fact that thousands of Taliban fighters who have known nothing but war are now stuck doing the menial jobs associated with governing.

With all of this reality in mind, it can be said with some confidence that foreign fighters are likely to travel to Afghanistan in increasing numbers in the coming months and years. The only question that remains unclear is the scale that this flow will come to represent. It is therefore incumbent upon all governments across the world that we must be prepared today to detect, intercept and prevent prospective militants from traveling to Afghanistan. Given the geographic proximity and historical trends, the Middle East could come to play a central role in this emerging dynamic.