Few doubt that the triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan will give a historic boost to violent Islamic extremists around the world. The victory will fuel their campaigns to overthrow and replace local regimes, although it also reveals deep differences that have weakened the jihadist movement over the past decade.
Sunni militants in the Middle East and elsewhere have already made it clear that they believe the seizure of power in Afghanistan vindicates their own strategies and ideology. A few weeks after the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the events in Kabul have a strong resonance. Many statements have been jubilant.
The exception: ISIS
But there is one notable exception among jihadist groups: ISIS, which considers the Taliban “apostates” because of their willingness to negotiate with the United States, their apparent pragmatism, and their failure to apply Islamic law rigorously enough.
These criticisms are not new. The Taliban also had similar attacks in the 1990s, when the movement was in contact with the UN and Western governments.
However, the criticism now comes after fierce clashes between local ISIS supporters and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Last Thursday, after its followers spread criticism on social networks, ISIS published its first official statement on the return of the Taliban, accusing them of being bad Muslims and agents of the United States.
What other groups are saying
The contrast with the views of almost all other extremist groups is striking. On Wednesday, fighters from Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate in Al Bayda governorate and southern Shabwa province celebrated the Taliban’s return to power with fireworks and gunfire. In a statement, the group, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), congratulated the Taliban while reaffirming its own commitment to overthrowing local rulers through violence.
“This triumph and empowerment reveal to us that jihad and fighting are the only realistic way that complies with Islamic law to restore rights and drive out the invaders and occupiers,” the group said in a statement translated and published by SITE Intelligence Group.
Dozens of other statements published in the media linked to the Al-Qaeda leadership, as well as individual supporters, convey the same message: The victory of the Taliban, they say, is a great achievement and an example for the jihadists of all the world.
The senior religious leaders and officials of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Syrian-based group that formally split from Al-Qaeda in 2016 and today controls the northwestern province of Idlib, expressed similar sentiments. A prominent member of the group describes the Taliban’s takeover as “a victory for the Muslims, a victory for the Sunnis, a victory for all the oppressed.”
The Pakistani Taliban – of the group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) -, who have bases in border regions of neighboring Pakistan and maintain close ties with at least one faction of their Afghan counterparts, have described recent events as a “victory for the entire Islamic world“.
Osama bin Laden attacked the United States directly in part because he was convinced that the superpower would collapse when attacked, just like the Soviets in Afghanistan. Any new perception of weakness is likely to encourage further attacks.
Many jihadists have seen an opportunity to weaken rival Islamic groups that have sought power through elections, although many of these also welcomed the Taliban takeover. “When it comes to the game of democracy and the commitment to pacifism they are a deceptive mirage, an ephemeral shadow and a vicious circle that begins at zero and ends at zero,” says AQAP.
Divisions among extremist groups over the Taliban’s success reveal important strategic differences. Those who believe in unmitigated violence, extreme commitment to doctrinal purity, and apocalyptic predictions are up against those who have shown greater pragmatism in recent years.
Bin Laden told his followers to avoid unnecessary deaths among Muslims and to be more careful with their public image. The Al-Qaeda founder even considered changing the group’s name as part of a general revamp, out of concern that its reputation had been tarnished by the killing of Muslim co-religionists.
Since his death in 2011, his successor Aymán az Zawahirí has avoided long-range attacks against the West. Instead, it has opted for an expansion strategy by forging links with local communities in places like Yemen and Mali. However, Az Zawahirí remains committed to the endless war against apostates and non-believers, led by a radical vanguard, until he succeeds in establishing a caliphate.
That Al-Qaeda supports the Taliban is not surprising. Maintaining its alliance with the group has been key to its survival for 25 years and now it will be even more important.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group that has fought against ISIS in Syria, has recently become more pragmatic. Its leader, Mohammed al-Jawlani, has attempted to move from violent extremism to a hybrid form of civilian government and insurgency, albeit marked by constant violence. The group effectively controls the last opposition stronghold in Syria and appears to have relegated the goal of building a radical religious state in the country. Likewise, it has sought to approach international actors. Again, this aligns the group with the Taliban.
ISIS continues to represent the most extreme trend and remains fully committed to its own brutal ideology. Although some individual affiliates and “provinces” have moderated their tactics, there is no indication that this is going to change anytime soon, as their reaction this week shows.
These deep internal divisions may counter some of the propaganda momentum that the Taliban’s triumph has given Islamist militants around the world. They may also mean that the Taliban takeover does not immediately translate into a new wave of new recruits and attacks. However, this is of little consolation.
Translation by Julián Cnochaert.