The Taliban is learning from ISIS and al-Qaeda

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

isw-november-afghanistan-partial-threat-assessment_1While the Taliban is seeing its greatest successes in over a decade, the world’s two largest terrorist organizations are on the decline. ISIS has failed to recover from defeats in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, the Philippines, and Syria. Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks in Somalia and Yemen and lost its affiliate in Syria, the strongest of the terrorist organization’s branches.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban captured Kunduz, one of the country’s largest cities, for several days last year and encircled it again this year. The insurgents are also threatening Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, the country’s largest province and the center of Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade. These events have forced Afghanistan’s Western allies to reconsider their long-held plans for withdrawal.

As American advisors return to Lashkar Gah to bolster the Afghan policemen and soldiers besieged there, Western countries experienced in combating ISIS and al-Qaeda are struggling to counter the Taliban’s rapid advances. In fact, there is a relationship between the militants’ fortunes: the Taliban’s methods mimic ISIS’s military strategies and al-Qaeda’s political tactics, their strongest points.

The Taliban Fights Like ISIS
Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS achieved fame and notoriety not for its spectacular acts of terrorism but for its startling victories as an irregular military. Before Western intervention in 2014, ISIS had routed the Syrian opposition, the Iraqi and Syrian militaries through a combination of blitzkrieg and guerilla warfare. It ambushed, outmaneuvered, and overwhelmed them.

The Taliban has used a similar strategy on the battlefield. It mixes constant hit-and-run attacks with force concentration and shock and awe (often in the form of car bombs). Like ISIS, the Taliban uses commandos and other special operations forces as well as suicide attacks to overpower ill-trained Afghan policemen and soldiers and surprise their Western advisers.

Similar to ISIS, the insurgents cite Islam to justify violent strategies and provide religious legitimacy. “Martyrdom operations have had a very effective, influential impact in the history of Islamic jihad,” said Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, in reference to the Taliban’s use of suicide attacks. He asserted that Islamic theologians had condoned “martyrdom operations” (see also David Bukay, “The Religious Foundations of Suicide Bombings“, Middle East Quarterly 13, no. 4, Fall 2006, p. 27–36).

For practical and propagandic effect, ISIS and the Taliban infiltrate the enemies whom they label apostates. ISIS has maintained disguises and sleeper cells to strike as close as Syria or as far as Europe. The Taliban has relied on double agents in the Afghan Local Police, the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan National Police to attack its foreign and local enemies.

On a wider level, the Taliban and ISIS understand the military relationship between money and territory. Whereas ISIS has leveraged the oil-rich desert between Iraq and Syria, the Taliban has focused much of its energy on Afghanistan’s opium-producing farmland. The insurgents seized most of Helmand, which funds the Taliban by supplying the majority of the world’s opium.

Following in the footsteps of all successful drug cartels and terrorist organizations, the Taliban rarely tolerates rivals. It has subdued other Afghan insurgents, including some of ISIS’s affiliates in Afghanistan. These methods have ensured the Taliban’s hegemony in the insurgency against the Afghan government. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has used the same strategy with much success.

Reinvigorated in economic and military terms by these ISIS-style strategies, the Taliban controls a fifth of Afghanistan and influences half of it. “The Taliban has grown stronger, and is now able to concentrate larger forces over a greater swath of Afghanistan than since its ouster in 2001,” Professor Jason Lyall, who studies violence and war at Yale University, wrote for the Washington Post.

Taliban attack on Afghanistan police cadets near Kabul kills dozens end of June 2016.

Taliban attack on Afghanistan police cadets near Kabul kills dozens end of June 2016.

The Taliban Thinks Like al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda, unlike ISIS, has emphasized political flexibility at the expense of its Islamist ideology. The Syrian Civil War offers an important case study. There, al-Qaeda’s affiliate worked with other rebels — even Western-backed secularists — to overthrow the Syrian government rather than establish an Islamic state. Grassroots support worked better than did top-down control.

Later, al-Qaeda’s leadership allowed its Syrian affiliate to sever ties to the terrorist organization for political and tactical benefits: without links to an Egyptian-heavy leadership based in Pakistan, the former affiliate could better cooperate with other Syrian rebels. Al-Qaeda has prioritized local political considerations in Syria over an emirate or a worldwide caliphate.

The Taliban seems to have taken these lessons to heart in Afghanistan. Because the insurgents lost so much popularity in the later years of the country’s civil war, they are working on outreach and public relations. They have even taken to social media, posting on Facebook and Twitter and running channels and chatrooms on Telegram and WhatsApp in six languages.

Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, condemned an ISIS suicide attack against Afghanistan’s Shias earlier this year during a conversation on Viber. Though the Taliban had massacred this same minority in 1998, Ahmadi argued: “These people [ISIS] strive to exacerbate our regional, linguistic, and religious differences. We would never do [what the suicide attackers did]”.

An injured victim is aided after a suicide bomb attack on a protest by ethnic Hazaras (Shias), in Kabul (Photo: Hedayatullah Amid).

An injured victim is aided after a suicide bomb attack on a protest by ethnic Hazaras (Shias), in Kabul (Photo: Hedayatullah Amid).

The rebels frame themselves as local, Muslim revolutionaries fighting a foreign, Islamophobic enemy: the Americans and their Afghan proxies. According to them, they represent all Afghans (even Shias) in a jihad against infidels. In a nod to al-Qaeda’s local shift in Syria, Zabihullah Mujahid, another Taliban spokesman, claimed that the Taliban “does not interfere in the affairs of that country”.

Just as al-Qaeda was willing to coordinate with American-friendly moderates in Syria, the Taliban has cooperated with current and former enemies to realize its goals. The Western news media accused the insurgents of sharing intelligence on ISIS with Iran, which has fought the Taliban, and Russia, which had invaded Afghanistan and killed hundreds of thousands during the Cold War.

A deft manipulation of propaganda and realpolitik has brought the Taliban gains at home and abroad even if its popularity has yet to improve. The Afghan government’s own corruption and weakness has allowed the insurgents to make inroads in once-peaceful regions, where locals see the Taliban as an anti-government, Islamic alternative to cronyism and despotism.

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, an intergovernmental organization composed of the Afghans, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Pakistanis and focused on bringing peace to Afghanistan, has given more ground to the Taliban in the hope that the insurgents will participate in the peace process. The American government has asked them to join negotiations even as it kills Taliban leaders.

Through over a decade’s worth of patience and a well-managed insurgency in the style of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the Taliban turned Afghanistan’s war to its advantage. Whatever happens to those two preeminent terrorist organizations as they decline, diminish, and disappear, Afghanistan’s insurgents have ensured the Taliban’s military and political longevity in the War on Terror.

More information
Austin Michael Bodetti, “The U.S. must stop the Taliban’s Rise“,, 18.10.2016.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Security Policy, Terrorism.

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