The Israel-Gaza crisis has caused global tensions and led some Americans to re-evaluate al-Qaeda’s past comments on Palestine. Meanwhile, the global jihadist group is showing signs of revival, finding refuge in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. The Taliban has rekindled a symbiotic relationship with al-Qaeda, allowing al-Qaeda to remain under radar to maintain their international image of preventing extremist organizations from using Afghanistan as a safe haven.
Those lobbying to recognize the Taliban argue that security in Afghanistan has increased under the Taliban, but they overlook the fact that the Taliban were the biggest threat to civilian lives before seizing power. They claim that the Taliban is committed to rebuilding the nation and that engaging with the group will help moderate them on issues like state-sanctioned misogyny and harboring terrorists. Over the last two decades, al-Qaeda has had to balance legitimization and grassroots mobilization with maintaining an exclusive organization characterized by tight discipline, restricted membership, and doctrinal purity. With the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda now has the opportunity to reconcile these issues by achieving political integration with the Taliban and an armed struggle for global jihad.
Al-Qaeda’s strategy aims to address structural incongruence, ideological competition with ISIS, and legitimacy issues with emerging extremists. The strategy, outlined by al-Zawahiri, aims to avoid potential schisms and insulate al-Qaeda from future counter-terrorism operations by shifting towards greater incorporation within the Taliban, a comprehensive organizational transformation.
After bin Laden’s death in 2011, al-Zawahiri initially linked ideology with tactics, reinforcing the organization’s identity as a violent movement tasked with the revolutionary overthrow of regimes across the Islamic world. However, the necessity to survive and stay relevant forced al-Zawahiri to revise al-Qaeda’s ideology or risk divisions and dismemberment. In September 2013, al-Zawahiri issued his seminal General Guidelines for the Work of Jihad, emphasizing the need for self-discipline and local allies like the Taliban.
The Taliban’s takeover and the evacuation of Western forces from Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda to fulfill its expectation of surviving “long wars” with the U.S. and its allies. A June 2023 UN report states that senior al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan are primarily located in Kabul, Kunar, Kandahar, and Helmand, with around 400 al-Qaeda fighters operating in the southern, middle, and eastern parts of the country. Al-Qaeda has also established safe houses in Kabul, Helmand, Farah, and Herat, and training sites have been created in Helmand, Zabul, and Nangarhar.
Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group in a restructuring phase, aims to establish facilities and build operational capability. They are supported by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), primarily composed of Pakistani jihadists. The group’s infrastructure and personnel in Afghanistan are designed to provide safety and connectivity, with senior leaders situated near the border with Pakistan. Training camps and safe houses along the borders of southwest Pakistan and Iran offer insulation from counter-terrorism operations and a gateway to the Middle East. Kabul serves as the mainframe for these activities, conducted under the protection of the Taliban regime.
Al-Qaeda’s bureaucratic nature allows it to work seamlessly with the Taliban regime. Members of the Haqqani Network, responsible for thousands of Afghan deaths and hundreds of coalition soldiers, have sought employment in the Taliban’s law enforcement and public administration agencies to protect and oversee their cells across Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda members have provided support and protection to top Taliban figures, with Taj Mir Jawad serving as the Deputy Director of the Taliban General Directorate of Intelligence. The Taliban provides monthly welfare payments to al-Qaeda members, some of which are distributed to affiliates like AQIS. The Ministry of Defense uses al-Qaeda training manuals, and the Ministry of the Interior maintains ties to al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda, led by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, established a robust Pakistani resistance base against the U.S. and allied forces, subsequently triggering a Taliban resurgence. Al-Zawahiri also collaborated with the Haqqani Network to consolidate their power in Afghanistan over other Taliban factions. The distinction between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and IS-KP is debatable, as the Haqqani Network serves as a bridge between these entities.
The inextricable links between al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been further consolidated through marriage and kinship ties, the pledging of bay’ah (oath of allegiance), and a shared history on the battlefield. Al-Zawahiri’s legacies include developing and enhancing these relationships to ensure al-Qaeda remained relevant, albeit in a deliberately understated way. By demonstrating strategic patience, al-Qaeda has successfully entrenched itself within the Taliban by diversifying in proto-governance, which has been designed to build deeper roots within Afghan society and garner the Taliban’s support.
Al-Qaeda remains a clandestine army in Afghanistan, but under the blueprint laid out by al-Zawahiri, it is now a key element of the Taliban’s political infrastructure. It retains the belief that it is a self-appointed vanguard of the global jihadist movement whose actions will spearhead the removal of apostate rulers from the Middle East and North Africa. As Afghanistan remains under Taliban rule, al-Qaeda can continue to thrive and cultivate a new generation of foreign terrorist organizations.