The United Nations Security Council has warned in its latest report on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that both groups maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan. The UN describes al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban as robust and it points out that finding international terrorist organization continues to see Afghanistan as a “safe haven” for its leadership.
The new assessment was authored in January and released online in early February. The US is currently negotiating with the Taliban, with their special representative for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad having already stated that he is satisfied with the Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.
However, as the UN’s two reports demonstrate, international terrorist organizations are already operating throughout Afghanistan, including in areas controlled by the Taliban.
The UN notes that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hamza bin Laden and the Taliban leadership have repeatedly, in public statements, emphasized the importance of the alliance between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Al Qaeda continues to view Afghanistan as a safe haven and members of the group act as instructors and religious teachers for Taliban personnel and their family members.
Badakhshan and Paktika provinces are particularly two areas of concern. Citing information from member states, the UN reports that there are approximately 500 foreign terrorist fighters in Badakhshan province who are from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, the North Caucasus and Pakistan and that these fighters reportedly operate under the umbrella of the Taliban. The UN warns that the security risks for Central Asia stem mainly from these extremists in Badakhshan.
Elsewhere, in Paktika province, the UN says al Qaeda is eager to expand its presence in Barmal district. Pakitika is a known stronghold for the Haqqani Network as well. The UN reminds that the Haqqani Network, which is an integral part of the Taliban, also maintains close ties with al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda-linked Uzbek jihadists continue to fight under the Taliban’s banner as well. Two other Uzbek groups namely, the Islamic Jihad Group and Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) – provide military training for Taliban fighters.
The UN estimates that the Islamic State has between 2,500 and 4,000 militants in Afghanistan. Its main strongholds in Afghanistan are in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman, according to the UN. The U.S. military has waged a counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State in these areas, especially Nangarhar, but the jihadists still operate some training camps and have created a network of cells in various Afghan cities, including Kabul.
Despite suffering a “severe setback” in the northern Jowzjan province last year, the Islamic State’s arm in Afghanistan maintains a presence in other parts of the country, especially in eastern Afghanistan. Lastly, the Haqqani Network also maintains a significant terror network in Kabul.