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Taliban victory: A likely boost for Islamist extremists in the Middle East

While the West is anxiously watching developments after the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan, "Islamic State" (IS), al-Qaeda and other terror militias are also observing what is happening with keen interest — to say the least.

"We have to expect that not only IS, but also al-Qaeda and other smaller groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan will become stronger," Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert and researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told DW in a video chat.

However, Steinberg believes that it is impossible to say so far where this increased strength will become evident at first. "Obviously, there are some areas where the jihadis are strong anyway — in Afghanistan first of all," he said. In particular, the Afghanistan branch of IS, called Wilaya Khorasan, has grown ever more powerful despite the Taliban's attempts to fight it in the past.

No longer all against all?

Various international jihadi groups and organizations, above all IS (also sometimes called ISIS or Daesh) and al-Qaeda, have a complicated past and present. "On the one hand, we have the so-called Islamic State with its provinces in Afghanistan, in the Caucasus, in Africa and in Yemen. And this 'Islamic State' is hostile to al-Qaeda, but also to the Taliban. And that's the fundamental difference. So, if the Taliban form their Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, or rather rebuild it in the way we already experienced it from 1996 to 2001, it does not automatically mean that IS will also gain strength at the same time," Steinberg explained.

He sees the main problem as being the boost to morale that jihadis, Salafists and Islamists all over the world have received: "They see that the Americans can be beaten. The Taliban have now proven that."

New alliances instead of old animosities

New alliances among Islamic extremists could be one way that they become stronger. "In Yemen, a compromise is already in place that ensures no fighting between al-Qaeda and IS," Jassim Mohamad, a terrorism researcher at the European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, told DW via video.

Another such "deal" has already been sealed between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. "Some people might think that al-Qaeda hasn't been very active in the past 10 years or since the assassination of bin Laden, but documents and investigations show clearly that the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is very much alive, with al-Qaeda supporting the Taliban," Mohamad told DW.

The analyst feels that more "peace agreements" of this kind are likely. "The next could be a deal between the Taliban and ISIS, for example, that they carry out their operations not inside Afghanistan but only outside Afghanistan," he said.

Overall, he fears that Afghanistan, Libya and Syria will turn into bases for preparing terrorist attacks on European and American targets.

The new political Generation X

Steinberg sees another problem arising in connection with these deals: A new generation of leaders. "After many ISIS, Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders who were enemies with each other were killed in the past years, a new generation might no longer carry on with this old conflict but work together," he told DW.

What is more, the number of jihadis has multiplied since 2001, according to Steinberg. "There are quarrels among themselves, and they are distributed all over the world, but now there are tens of thousands. And in 2001 there were maybe a few thousand," Steinberg said.

However, while IS has the aim to establish a caliphate far beyond the borders of the Middle East, the Taliban are set to build an emirate only within Afghanistan. This goes hand in hand with their perception of themselves as true natives of the country.

"In contrast to their presence before 2001, they have worked on their political ambitions, and I believe they will have contact with their financial backers Russia, with Iran, with Pakistan. They need to introduce themselves as a political movement and not just a radical group," explains Mohamad.

The next few weeks will show if the Taliban have the power to emerge as a reliable political party and credible international negotiators.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for one, remains unconvinced. He has just insisted that the international community "must unite to make sure that Afghanistan is never again used as a platform or safe haven for terrorist organizations."

[Source: By Jennifer Holleis and Mehyeddin Hussein DW, Berlin, 18Aug21]

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