Terrorists in Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan – The Diplomat


Afghanistan remains a simmering cauldron of jihadist terrorist groups, various actors seeking to counter them, and conflict and cooperation between the groups themselves.

Terrorists in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Taliban fighters stand guard at the site of an explosion in front of a Sikh temple in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, June 18, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

In October 2021, the US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr. Colin Kahl, for the US Congress on the security status in Afghanistan. When asked about the potential resurgence of international terrorism from the country, Kahl replied that the US intelligence community assessed that both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s “Khorasan” branch (known as ISK) “intend to carry out external operations, including against the United States, but none of them currently has the capacity to do so.” Kahl went on to state that ISK could potentially develop such a capability within 6 to 12 months, while al-Qaeda could take a year or two to do so.

We are now within the window of Kahl’s assessment that these two groups have potentially reconstructed their capabilities to threaten Afghanistan’s neighbors and beyond. But have they done it?

A year after Kahl delivered this assessment, it is worth taking stock of notable terrorist groups in Afghanistan and what various actors are doing to counter them. The rest of this article examines the recent developments and current status of four terrorist groups in Afghanistan, namely al-Qaida, ISK, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM, also known as Turkestan) Islamic Party ). After discussing each group in turn, the article will describe what – if anything – the Taliban has done to them, as well as what we can expect in the coming year.


Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan consists of a cadre of its “core” leadership as well as members of its regional affiliate, known as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). At the time of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, al-Qaida’s core leadership issued a statement warmly congratulating the group on its achievement. It also took the opportunity to energize its global affiliates and to reinvigorate operations with new recruits and funding.

Al-Qaida’s leadership was recovering from a period of losses, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as head of the organization, released a video in September 2021 that put to rest persistent rumors of his death. As of early 2022, al-Qaeda was estimated to have several dozen senior leaders in the country, some of whom were reported to be living in Kabul’s former diplomatic quarter. Zawahiri was believed to be in eastern Afghanistan along with several other core leaders.

In May 2022, the UN monitoring team concluded that “al-Qaeda’s operational activities in Afghanistan have been limited to advising and supporting the Taliban … al-Qaeda appears to be free to pursue its objectives, except for international attacks or other high-profile activity , that could embarrass the Taliban or harm their interests.” It also assessed that al-Qaeda is likely to remain focused on internal reorganization to better pursue its global jihadist aspirations. The US government largely agreed with this assessment.

By July, however, al-Qaeda had re-established its media wing, and Zawahiri had issued regular audio and video messages urging his followers to “besiege America with terror.” These activities seemed to indicate a newfound level of comfort for the al-Qaida leader in Taliban-run Afghanistan.


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