The Taliban and Global Jihad
Over the last month, many have expressed concerns that - despite pledges from the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan being used for terrorist activity - a Taliban-run government will inevitably increase the risk of the country becoming a safe haven for Islamist militants to recruit, train, and plot reprisal attacks on the Western forces that occupied the country for 20 years. The cautious consensus amongst the international community is that the Taliban’s desire for recognition as a legitimate government overrides any desire to ‘get back’ at the powerful Western forces that largely withdrew before the Taliban were in a strong enough position to topple the fragile Afghan government. It is widely accepted that if the US were given reason to intervene in Afghanistan again, the Taliban neither have the numbers or the resources to stay in power. Therefore, it is in the group’s interests to honour their promise and contain al-Qaeda and other associated militant groups, such as the Haqqani Network. What we have seen so far, following the fall of Kabul, have been deadly attacks either carried out, or inspired by, Islamic State (IS) – a group the Taliban has been fighting for many years.
The Taliban’s success in Afghanistan could lead to a surge in support for Islamist groups, heightening the general global risk of terror attacks. While the IS has attacked the Taliban as “apostates” following their takeover of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has celebrated the group’s victory. Therefore, although the Taliban’s focus is mainly regional, the fall of Kabul will have consequences worldwide, wherever jihadist groups exist. The threat will particularly apply to the West - which has long been demonised and targeted by Islamist extremists.
The US and 9/11
The September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC) buildings and the Pentagon are intrinsically linked to America’s 20-year presence in Afghanistan. The recent withdrawal came shortly before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which killed 2,977 people. The war in Afghanistan started on 7 October 2001, when the US and British forces carried out aerial strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda camps before ground troops invaded – resulting in the Taliban being overthrown by US-led coalition forces with the fall of Kandahar two months later. Al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden initially denied knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, claiming it had been carried out by the jihadists of their own accord; however, three years after the attack, bin Laden admitted to personally directing his followers to target the WTC and the Pentagon.
Following the US exit from Afghanistan, many have questioned whether the country won its ‘war on terror' and whether that in the lead up to the milestone anniversary of 9/11, jihadists inspired by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan may choose to commemorate the event with further attacks. Last month, the US issued a terrorism advisory ahead of the upcoming anniversary, warning that the date could serve as a catalyst for targeted violence. New York police officials have also confirmed that all units are in a “heightened threat position” ahead of the anniversary following the Taliban takeover, fearing the date could be seen as a “symbolic target” for would-be terrorists. The FBI has also expressed concerns that foreign terrorist organisations could exploit the anniversary, but also clarified that the agency was not currently aware of any specific or credible threat related to the date.
The impact of 9/11 on the world has continued to resonate, 20 years on. The coordinated hijacking of four commercial airliners and the deliberate targeting of major US buildings with the intention of causing mass casualties and infrastructural destruction shocked the world on a scale never seen before. American Airlines Flight 11 was first flown into the North Tower of the WTC, followed shortly by United Airlines Flight 175, which flew into the South Tower. American Airlines Flight 77 then crashed into the Pentagon just over half an hour later, while United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers and crew attempted to retake control of the plane. The fourth plane had been en route to Washington – its intended target presumed to be either the White House or the US Capitol. Within two hours of the initial attacks, both WTC towers collapsed, leading to the collapse of the WTC 7 building as well. Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists were involved in the hijackings – organised into three groups of five and one group of four. One hijacker in each group had received specialist flight training. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in modern history and prompted many governments to pass legislation to combat terrorism.
Impact on the UK
In the UK, the 2005 London bombings (7/7) serves as a reminder of the deadly impact of large-scale coordinated suicide attacks. Fifty-two victims were killed in four blasts, targeting the city’s public transport system. Three attackers detonated explosives within a minute of each other on London Underground trains, near Aldgate (Circle Line), Edgware Road (Circle Line), and Russell Square (Piccadilly Line). A fourth bomber targeted a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square an hour later. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks. British officials suggested that the bombers had no direct assistance from the group but may have had connections to key al-Qaeda operatives based in Britain. The deadly attack was followed up two weeks later by four attempted bombings in the capital, which claimed no lives.
Former British soldier and Afghan veteran Col Richard Kemp has warned of an imminent risk of attacks in the UK inspired by events in Kabul. The threat level in the UK was last raised to ‘severe’ (meaning an attack is highly likely) in November last year following a spate of attacks in Austria and France. It was lowered from severe to ‘substantial’ (meaning an attack is likely) in February earlier this year and as of 9th September 2021 remains unchanged.
Major coordinated terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and 7/7 are increasingly difficult and costly for extremists to plan and carry out successfully. The resources and training needed to carry out sophisticated complex attacks are extensive – more so now than in 2001, when international transport security measures were considerably less stringent than they are today. Following 9/11, groups with the resources and power to launch a large-scale attack on foreign soil have now been significantly reduced, weakened, or splintered. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda has persevered, albeit in a more limited form; the group’s network has dispersed with no single geographic centre following the proliferation of groups with affiliations to al-Qaeda or the IS – which has, in turn, made them more resilient to efforts to track and contain them. The increased regional insecurity in Afghanistan is something that could enable these networks to grow and reconvene. Although these groups currently lack the ability to orchestrate a large-scale attack similar to that of 9/11, their scope is not so diminished that they represent no imminent risk.
Part of 9/11’s legacy has been to bring about a critical global shift from a reactive approach to terrorism to a preventative and pre-emptive one. Intelligence-driven operations now monitor threats and intercept attacks before they happen. While more large-scale coordinated attacks are now stopped than are carried out, a downside to this shift has been the emergence of ‘lone-wolf' attacks. Harder to monitor, harder to anticipate, and harder to stop – the lone-wolf attacker is often a covertly radicalised individual, inspired by jihadist ideology. Although harder to predict, lone actors represent a small fraction of individuals, with limited resources.
A recent IS-inspired attack in Auckland, New Zealand, has further fuelled concerns that radicalised individuals may now be more motivated to carry out attacks. The attack in Auckland occurred at a supermarket on 3 September 2021, leaving six people wounded. The suspect was under police surveillance and was shot dead within 60 seconds of the attack. The incident demonstrates how efficient response teams can be, but also highlights how, even with close monitoring and surveillance, counter-terror efforts can’t predict precisely when an attack will occur and will subsequently always, to some extent, be reactionary.
In 2021, governments have shifted their focus from international large-scale terrorist attacks to domestic terrorism, inspired by jihadist groups abroad. Domestic terrorism has become more difficult to address due to the ability of individuals to carry out sudden, opportunist attacks with little preparation or resources. In the absence of any network through which to track would-be perpetrators, strategies to identify potential lone-wolf terrorist attacks have become increasingly reliant on analysis of online activity; however, attempts to track and contain radicalised individuals through social media are subject to the risk of being further hindered by false alarms and fake news.
Former British Army officer and Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood recently raised concerns over the increased risk of an imminent terrorist attack in the West following withdrawal from Afghanistan: “The world is a more dangerous place because of what Joe Biden has done. I am concerned we will have a terrorist attack somewhere in the world that will almost bookend 9/11 as we near the 20th anniversary.” Echoing Ellwood’s concerns, former British intelligence officer Mike Tapp – who served for five years in Afghanistan and Iraq – also fears the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK has increased, citing the concern that the departure of the foreign forces from Afghanistan could allow the country to become a training base for jihadists if the Taliban fail “to honour their commitment”. Tapp suggested that the immediate risk to the West was an increased possibility that jihadists from the UK and the West will seek to travel to Afghanistan, where they will look to train [with IS or al-Qaeda]. Individuals who go out there to train may then return to the UK, which leaves us in increased danger. The movements of these groups could be hard to monitor and track if they exploit regional insecurity and fly into neighbouring countries to cross the border into Afghanistan.
Former chief of MI6, Sir John Sawers has also warned that there is an increased risk of both foreign-based and homegrown attacks following the fall of Afghanistan. "I do think the terrorist threat is a notch greater today than it was when we were able to operate in Afghanistan. But I think perhaps the more immediate risk is that those extreme Islamists, violent people who take inspiration from the Taliban success in Afghanistan, might take it into their own hands to carry out attacks." However, former national security adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant was less sure the risk had increased, stating that, while the Taliban victory will have encouraged other extremist groups across the world, it didn’t necessarily translate into an increased risk in the UK. Grant went on to explain that the Taliban themselves pose no direct international terrorist threat and don’t stand to benefit from allowing more extreme groups to operate out of Afghanistan.
As the world marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, memorials will be marked by a fear of what’s next. There appears to be no evidence of imminent threat or specific risk of a planned terrorist attack; however, the risk of lone-wolf attacks cannot be ruled out over the coming days and weeks.
General security precautions should always be taken when travelling to minimise the threat of terrorism. Maintain self-awareness and remain vigilant in crowded places, including public transport, hotels, embassies, markets, places of worship, and tourist attractions. In the unlikely event of an attack, check for emergency exits and escape routes, or hide if it is safe to do so and contact the police. Be aware of the risk of secondary attacks or explosions.