Following the full and shambolic withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden insisted that the consequences of that debacle would be few and not especially far-reaching. “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago,” Biden insisted. The mission, as he defined it, was to degrade the terror group al-Qaeda. That objective was secure, and the locus of transnational terrorism had long ago moved out of Afghanistan. It was time for America to refocus on the more active terror threats.
To the extent that was true, it was due to active counterterrorism operations aimed at disrupting and deterring terrorism in the Afghan-Pakistan region. As the failure of “over the horizon” operations and Washington’s frantic efforts to secure basing rights in the Central Asian republics that surround Afghanistan suggest, that mission is on hiatus. The consequences of our abdication and an Islamist outfit’s victory over the West are plainly apparent: Islamist terrorism is back.
The threat of terrorism never disappeared from Afghanistan, of course, but the tempo of terrorist attacks in Central Asia has intensified since the fall of Kabul. In the last 30 days, hundreds have died and scores more were wounded in suicide attacks targeting Taliban fighters and civilians alike. On October 3, a bomb exploded outside a mosque in Kabul amid a memorial service for a Taliban spokesperson’s mother. On October 8, at least 46 died when a suicide attacker detonated an explosive device inside a Shiite mosque in the city of Kunduz. Forty-seven more worshipers were killed following a similar attack on a Shiite mosque in Kandahar on October 15. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for each of those attacks, raising the once-moribund organization’s global profile.
The steady pace of deadly terrorist events has not been limited to Afghanistan.
Last Thursday, a Danish citizen was arrested in Norway on suspicion of having executed what police said, “appears to be an act of terror.” The suspect used a bow and arrow to kill five people and seriously wound three others. The alleged assailant was known to police. “There earlier had been worries of the man having been radicalized,” one regional police chief told reporters. Officers declined to speculate about the suspect’s motives, but they did make note of his conversion to Islam.
The following day, British MP David Amess was stabbed to death. His alleged killer, a U.K. citizen of Somali descent, is suspected by police of executing an attack that was “potentially linked to Islamic extremism.” The U.K.-based media reported that Amess’s alleged murderer was referred to domestic security services’ “Prevent” program, which is designed to stop impressionable minds from being courted by militant Islam. The program failed. Police believe that the attacker was “self-radicalized”—inspired, perhaps, by the North African al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab.
Perhaps. But why now? Domestic and international law enforcement have identified a conspicuous uptick in chatter among aspiring terrorist actors linked to the Taliban’s successful reconquest of Afghanistan. “That’s where they see this rallying cry and their opportunity. Now it’s ‘time to buy a gun, run people over with a car,’ do whatever they’re going to do,” one FBI official told Defense One reporter Jaqueline Feldscher.
Among those who might be enthralled by terroristic violence but find the Taliban uninspiring, the revivified Islamic State presents an attractive alternative. “ISIL has unmistakably positioned itself as the uncompromising rejectionist force in Afghanistan and has the potential to recruit quite a lot of people on that basis,” the FBI official continued. “You may see ISIS grow significantly in Afghanistan.”
Indeed, you’re likely to see every manner of radical Islamist organization enjoy a recruiting boom, particularly inside Afghanistan. That became apparent to foreign intelligence agencies mere hours after the collapse of the Afghan government. “Foreign intelligence officials said they are detecting signs that the Taliban’s victory has energized global jihadists,” the Washington Post reported one day after the fall of Kabul.
Although the ideological distinctions between groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State matter a great deal to Westerners, they don’t seem to preoccupy those inclined toward violence as long as violence is the result. “God willing,” on al-Qaeda militant quoted by the Post said, “the success of the Taliban will be also a chance to unify mujahideen movements like al-Qaeda and Daesh.” Just as the Islamic State’s short-lived caliphate in Syria and Iraq inspired acts of self-radicalized terrorism all across the globe, the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is likely to have the same effect.
As former National Counterterrorism Director Michael Leiter wrote recently, the U.S. and its allies “have made incredible strides” in the struggle against Islamic radicalism since 9/11. We are “vastly safer” now “than we were the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.” But that didn’t happen by accident. It was an unfinished labor involving the development of local informants, friendly governments, actionable intelligence, and, of course, well-placed military assets capable of executing kinetic operations in a timely manner.
We’ve sacrificed those resources in Central Asia. We should not be surprised by what comes next.