Back from the battlefield and a continuous war of 20 years, a resurgent Al Qaeda has gotten a ''political'' rebirth after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. This is the second big boost to the global terrorist outfit, which first tasted success in executing four coordinated terrorist attacks against United States on the morning of September 11, 2001, making it the world's most dreaded terror group. Outside Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda of 2001 has grown into several Al Qaedas around the world, from Africa to Turkey, Yemen to India—all vowing allegiance to Taliban 2.0.
After two decades, Al Qaeda has gotten its natural place in Taliban 2.0. But, this time, Taliban's return to rule Kabul has also given them political legitimacy through prominent roles in the new cabinet of 33 ministers, of which 17 are UN designated terrorists. The Taliban based in Pakistan has got 20 ministerial berths; on the other hand, the Taliban group based in Doha, which had negotiated with the US, has largely been sidelined.
The Al Qaeda's comeback in a new avatar is evident from four main developments.
For two decades , Al Qaeda leaders were in the shadows either facing global sanctions, or getting killed in US drone strikes, but they continued to sacrifice their lives to bring victory to the Taliban.
Secondly, the Al Qaeda played a major role in providing bomb and mine experts to Taliban's offensives on the front line in southern, eastern and northern Afghanistan over the years. When Taliban's bases in Afghanistan were being destroyed after 9/11, and its leaders hunted down in Pakistan, its allies like LeT and JeM contributed their members and bomb experts to fight the so-called “forces of disbelief” who had set their eyes upon the Islamic nation.
Thirdly, the Al Qaeda managed to keep all the forces together to extend total support to the Islamic emirate in all fields. There is mounting evidence of how Taliban's victory has been dubbed as the ''ummah's victory'' by various affiliates of Al Qaeda around the world. From Al Qaeda Central (AQC) to Al Qaeda in Indian Sub-continent (AQIS), Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’a Nusratul Islam wa al Muslimin (JNIM), and other Al Qaeda affiliates like Yemen-based Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Syria-based Hayaat Tahreer al Sham (HTS), Afghanistan based Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and Pakistan based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, all have put their weight behind Taliban.
The AQ and AQIS, in the forefront in supporting Taliban, have lost many important leaders as late as up to March this year. In March, Dawlat Bek Tajki, alias Abu Muhammad al Tajiki, a commander of AQIS, was killed in Gayan district in Paktika province. Last year, on October 20, Al Qaeda media chief Husam Abd al-Rauf, also known as Abu Muhsin al-Masri, was killed in Andar district of Ghazni province in southwest of Kabul. On November 10, 2020, AQIS deputy Mohammed Hanif Abdullah was killed in Bakwah district of Farah province, where he had been providing bomb-making training to Taliban militants.
The AQIS chief Asim Umar was killed in September 2019 in Musa Qala of Helmand Province. In the same way, many AQ cadres got killed in airstrikes in the last few years for the cause of the Taliban. Naturally, after Taliban's victory, there is not only rejoicing within Al Qaeda and its affiliates, but they have once again asked all their leaders and cadres to unite around the leadership of the Islamic Emirate .
The AQC has called upon the Afghan nation to unite under the Taliban at this critical juncture, and abide by their decisions and Sharia-based policies. On August 18, the Al Qaeda in Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) pledged support to Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada. On August 23, two other Al Qaeda affiliates—AQIM and JNIM—said that the Afghan people have won against the US-led NATO forces after two decades of their occupation. Praising Mullah Omar, it said that jihad is the only way out for Muslim ummah. AQIM has been active in North Africa since January 2007 whereas the JNIM, formed through the merger of four local Jihadi groups, operates in Sahel region of Africa.
In the face of a reinvigorated and emboldened Al Qaeda, all countries are once again trying to reshape their counter terrorism strategy. Former RAW chief Vikram Sood said India must adopt a cautious approach since the outcomes are yet to be seen. As per intelligence reports, the AQC has mentioned Kashmir in the context of Palestine liberation from the “Zionist occupation”, the Islamic Maghreb from “French occupation”, the Levant region, Somalia and Yemen from the “enemies of Islam”.
''From time to time there have been inputs about the design of LeT and JeM To carry out acts against Indian interest in South Asia using Afghan soil. The elevation of these groups and Haqqani network will significantly increase the threat against India," warned a senior security official. Former RAW chief A.S. Dulat said that, unlike the US, which is geographically disconnected with Afghanistan, India has reasons to worry, particularly since the Taliban leadership has forged deep links with Pakistan ISI in last twenty years. "The ISI's Kashmir project is its pet project which it won't give up easily,'' he said.
Now that the new Taliban cabinet is filled with leaders from the previous regime of 1996–2001, it is causing considerable worry to Indian security agencies since they are considered extremely close to the Pakistan ISI. Most of the ministers of the government are UN-designated terror entities. For example, HQN, who is in charge of the capital Kabul, is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani who has been made interior minister, a key charge that will determine the security outcomes in the region. He is wanted by the FBI and accused of involvement in several suicide attacks.
On September 8, the Al Qaeda issued a condolence statement after the demise of hardliner Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, hailing him as a flag-bearer of Kashmiri freedom. Al Qaeda said Geelani's death has come at a time when the world has witnessed the Afghan Taliban‘s victory in the Afghan nation, "proving that the dignity of Islam and Muslims lie in persistently waging jihad against the infidel forces and practising the Sharia".
The message was clear. The Al Qaeda had made a comeback, and this time it is the Taliban supported by Pakistan that is ruling Kabul again. Lastly, the new Taliban government has already freed all arrested Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorists from prisons across Afghanistan. Therefore , it may not be a matter of surprise if any of them launch actions to show their signature once again.