Can Terrorists Become Counter-Terrorists?
Photo Credit: ISIS Khorasan Province members (Voice of Khurasan magazine)
By Ambassador Edmund Fitton-Brown
To ensure that readers are clear on my relevant experience, the Monitoring Team (MT), which I led from 2017 to 2022, works for the UN Security Council’s committees dealing with sanctions on ISIL, Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban. It provides technical advice on sanctions implementation and is also the UN body responsible for assessing the threat posed by those groups. To do that, it is – uniquely, within the UN – tasked to consult with Member States’ intelligence, security and other counterterrorism (CT) agencies.
The MT publishes three reports each year that contain declassified intelligence about the Taliban, ISIL-K and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan; and insights into the relationships between them. The most recent report, published in February 2023, described Afghanistan as the main source of terrorist threat for Central and South Asia. That threat emanates from ISIL-K, from AQ, and from terrorist groups opposed to neighbouring states. These latter regional groups include the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Tajik Jamaat Ansarullah and the Uyghur Turkestan group (ETIM/TIP).
I consider the threat latent more than current. Apart from some cross-border activity it will take time for a more sophisticated international threat to evolve. These groups and the many others present in Afghanistan are mostly aligned with the Taliban and AQ. ISIL-K is hostile to the Taliban and AQ but is keen to recruit disaffected members from them and regionally-focused groups. It has had great success in attracting former TTP members, especially.
ISIL-K adopts a hard-line ideological position and accuses the Taliban of betraying the jihad, a strategy that worries the Taliban and inhibits any impulse to take measures to control these groups or compromise in other ways. As the MT report mentions, ISIL-K also mounts operations designed to challenge regional security and the credibility of Taliban authority.
ISIL-core has established a structure of regional networks that enable it to continue to function with some degree of coordination despite its military defeat in Iraq and Syria. Afghanistan is the hub of the Central and South Asia network and the entity in Afghanistan that coordinates ISIL’s regional interests is the Al Siddiq Office of ISIL’s General Directorate of Provinces. This is co-located with the leadership of ISIL-K and apparently works smoothly alongside it.
The changed context in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over in 2021 apparently has not caused ISIL-core to alter its approach to Afghanistan as a key hub; but it sees opportunity for ISIL-K to thrive in the context of Afghan instability and exploit Taliban limitations. It has accordingly increased investment in ISIL-K.
The number of ISIL-K fighters has increased somewhat these past two years, from about 2,000 to about 4,000. Some of this is accounted for by reckless prison releases by the Taliban in 2021, some by increased recruitment. Besides the Afghan majority, there is a large contingent of Pakistanis in ISIL-K, many of them originally from TTP. Then there are smaller numbers of Central Asians, other South Asians, and Arabs.
The Pashtun chauvinism of the de facto Taliban authorities has alienated Afghans of Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnicities, boosting ISIL-K’s appeal to them. Economic and political circumstances have caused some Afghans from the displaced government and security forces to join ISIL-K.
Regarding ISIL-K sources of revenue, ISIL-core made $500k of new money available to ISIL-K in late 2021, in recognition of the new opportunity that might be opening up in Afghanistan. Since then, ISIL-K has received further tranches of funding from its parent group, payments in which the Al Siddiq Office’s equivalent hub in Somalia (the Al Karrar Office - AKO) has been instrumental. This is a fascinating instance of ISIL’s global network structure delivering real-world effect. It concerned the US sufficiently for them to mount a special forces operation in Somalia in January, killing Bilal al-Sudani, the key AKO official in channelling funding to ISIL-K.
Although ISIL-K regards AQ and the full range of broadly AQ- and Taliban-aligned groups as enemies, not all of those groups see ISIL-K as enemies – indeed some of them have ISIL-K leanings that they keep secret in order to avoid antagonizing the Taliban. Even the hostility of the Taliban to ISIL-K needs to be qualified: the Taliban are not monolithic and there will be some ISIL-K activity that some Talibs may not regard as unhelpful.
The MT reported, when the Taliban was in its insurgency phase, on operations that were claimed by ISIL-K but bore hallmarks of the Haqqani Network. This complexity is one reason why the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” approach will not work in Afghan CT. The Taliban cannot be relied upon to assess ISIL-K accurately, share its assessment honestly and act responsibly (and with due process) in partnership against it.
It is important to ask whether the ISIL-K threat is sufficiently serious to be allowed to dominate the calculations of the international community regarding the balance of interests at stake in Afghanistan. The threat is primarily internal at present, with some limited cross-border threat to some of the neighbours. There is intent to work with ISIL-core to mount more ambitious international attacks – but not yet the capability. Hence, to base policy towards the Taliban on this would be to allow the tail to wag the dog.
Apologists for the Doha Accords, in trying to rescue some benefit from them, are exaggerating both the ISIL-K threat and the Taliban’s potential utility against them to justify a hasty embrace of the de facto authorities. But the Taliban do not reciprocate concessions, they just pocket them and demand more. So what are our options? Both in regard to ISIL-K and to bilateral dealings with the Taliban, my recommendation is that we pursue a neighbours-first policy. Interventions by various global powers in Afghanistan over almost two centuries have all failed.
However, for Iran, China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, there is no option but to engage with the authorities on the other side of their Afghan border. These countries also understand Afghanistan well because of their intertwined histories and the presence of related communities on both sides of each border. They invest in bilateral relations, in trade, in border controls, and in intelligence. They have leverage: the ability and willingness to hold the Taliban to account for behaviour that undermines their interests and security; and to incentivize better behaviour with practical rewards. It is the neighbourhood that holds out the prospect of a better future for Afghanistan, a horizon of prosperity through economic integration.
Given that the present threat from ISIL-K is primarily internal to Afghanistan, and secondarily directed against neighbouring states, this same calculation holds true in the field of CT. As discussed earlier, most of the neighbours have CT concerns about Afghanistan – and especially about ISIL-K and its relationship with their ethnic cousins in Afghanistan and with their nationals.
It is not just about controlling ISIL-K, it is about the Taliban living up to the Doha Accords and creating the conditions for defusing extremism inside Afghanistan. The neighbours will not be fooled by Taliban policies that do not genuinely make them feel more secure. And their achieving increased security and stability would be a good indicator of greater security for the wider international community.
Of course, the neighbours need to concert their policies and have each other’s backs – not to be played off against each other by the Taliban. Meetings that they have held since 2021 have shown some promise in this regard but not been conclusive. Here I see an expanded role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and its Regional Anti-Terror Structure, which has its HQ in Tashkent. This forum brings together all key non-Western stakeholders.
Finally, I believe that the 1267 and 1988 sanctions regimes also remain important tools in the international toolkit for responding to developments in Afghanistan. It would be premature to ease sanctions on the Taliban. However, the 1988 regime will need to be adapted to the changed circumstances in Afghanistan since 2021, as soon as the Security Council can agree on how to do this.
Ambassador Edmund Fitton-Brown, Former United Nations Security Council Coordinator, ISIL-Al-Qaeda-Taliban Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, and Former UK Ambassador to Yemen.
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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.