Had it been about someone else — anyone else, really — the public announcement this week that Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was not dead might have seemed comical.
Any reaction to the news along the lines of Mark Twain’s famous description of a newspaper report about his death as “exaggerated” would have been hopelessly out of place, however.
That’s because the persistent rumours of Baradar’s supposed demise in a gunfight with rivals underscored the tenuous hold the hardline Islamist government has on both Afghanistan and the radical jihadist movement that now sees the Taliban as rock stars.
One month into the new regime, there is growing evidence that — despite the Taliban’s stunning victory — there remain significant internal rivalries within the movement, while more radical international jihadist movements are looking to exploit the new government for their own ends.
Making waves in terrorist circles
The SecDev Group, a Canadian research and analytics firm that specializes in security threats, recently drafted a new report that warns the overthrow of the western-backed government in Kabul last month is making “waves on social media” throughout South Asia.
“It is not just official channels managed by known extremist groups that are openly celebrating the Taliban’s victory but also a large number of moderate Muslims who are joining in the what some describe as Islam’s win over the ‘infidels’,” said the analysis report, which points to Bangladesh as a new potential trouble spot.
“Bangladeshis that previously fought alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban are frequently celebrated by official AQIS [al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent] social media channels. Such posts started trending again after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August.”
Anywhere between 3,000 to 10,000 people from Bangladesh fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and returned home to make trouble for successive governments.
A ‘blueprint’ for power
Observers have been reporting a spike in online chatter among extremists in Bangladesh over the last several weeks.
“More so than anything else, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan sets a blueprint that western liberalism, intervention [and] secular states are not the only path to political growth,” said Rafal Rohozinski, a principal and founder of the SecDev Group.
Extremist groups everywhere are taking heart from the Taliban’s example. The SecDev analysis notes that there have been reports of a handful of Bangladeshis making their way to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.
Rita Katz is the founder and executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, a counterterrorism non-governmental organization. She said al-Qaeda and its affiliates were elated by the Taliban victory and are calling it “the beginning of a pivotal transformation.”
In Foreign Policy Magazine on Monday, Katz said a host of new social media groups have popped up to chart the militant jihadists’ “path to glory” and many are thinking about moving to Afghanistan because it is now the indisputable “centre of global jihad.”
Threats from within
In making peace with the U.S. as the Taliban’s lead negotiator, Mullah Baradar pledged to keep al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. It’s one of the reasons the reports of his demise would not be treated lightheartedly.
Many analysts have said the promise was always suspect, given the long, friendly history between the two organizations and the Taliban’s inability to control the Osama bin Laden version of al-Qaeda in the pre-9/11 days.
In an analysis piece published online on August 31, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Brookings Institution, asked whether the Taliban regime can survive.
“The most significant threat to the Taliban regime could come from within,” wrote Felbab-Brown.
“The factions have disparate views about how the new regime should rule across just about all dimensions of governance: inclusiveness, dealing with foreign fighters, the economy, and external relations. Many middle-level battlefield commanders — younger, more plugged into global jihadi networks, and without personal experience of the Taliban’s mismanaged 1990s rule — are more hardline than key older national and provincial leaders.”
Aside from the challenge of keeping the movement together, Felbab-Brown said the Taliban could face defections to the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) movement — a long-standing enemy of both the new regime and of al-Qaeda, and the one responsible for the attack that killed 13 U.S troops and hundreds of Afghans outside the Kabul airport.
“The ISK cannot currently bring the Taliban regime down,” she said, “but it could become an envelope for any future defections.”
On Monday, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines delivered a sobering assessment of the ability of the U.S. to monitor the unfolding jihadist drama.
Speaking to an audience of government and industry officials, she noted how the closing of the embassy in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of forces have left an intelligence vacuum.
“There’s no question that as you pull out … our intelligence collection is diminished,” Haines told the 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit. “In Afghanistan, we will want to monitor any reconstitution of terrorist groups.”