Al-Qaeda’S Persistent Threat in Afghanistan: A Geopolitical Perspective

Al-Qaeda flag
The flag of Al-Qaeda (Credits: SonicXMasako2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 39 Issue 6
Author: Silvia Boltuc

Following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Emirate, the country has witnessed a surge in terrorist attacks targeting the Taliban, ethnic minorities, and foreigners and a rise in al-Qaeda’s activities.

Terrorist attacks span from roadside and suicide bombs to rocket and mortar fire, direct fire, kidnappings, and violent crimes. Moreover, there has been a notable increase in incidents targeting religious sites during religious festivals.

The recent evidence indicating that the Taliban is supporting and allowing al-Qaeda’s presence and activities in Afghanistan further complicates the country’s security landscape.

Background Information

A United Nations investigation team reported that al-Qaeda has opened eight new training camps and five madrasas in strategic locations all across Afghanistan. It has been reported that Al-Qaeda has established a base in Panjshir, which was previously a stronghold for anti-Taliban forces, and is now operating in 10 provinces.

The report also implies the existence of safe havens in Herat, Farah, and Helmand provinces, which aid in the movement of al-Qaeda members between Afghanistan and Iran. Furthermore, it underscores the close link between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In a statement, Mawlavi Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, vehemently denied the findings of a United Nations Security Council report regarding the existence of Al-Qaeda centres in Afghanistan. He also dismissed allegations of any involvement by certain groups within the country.

The challenging security landscape during the Taliban’s governance

From August 2021 onwards, the Taliban interim-government has been striving to gain global recognition and attract investments that are vital for enhancing the domestic socio-economic situation. Foreign companies are greatly concerned about the country’s security situation, which has been validated by numerous attacks targeting Chinese business people as well as Russian and Pakistani diplomats.

Already in 2022, following the Islamic State terrorist attack on the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Kabul, the unstable situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s failure to combat terrorism and extremist groups was clear. Despite the Taliban’s assertion of improving national security, there has been a rise in violent attacks and bomb blasts.

The primary threat to regional security and stability is still the Islamic State, as evidenced by the recent attack in Kerman, Iran. The Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) have been engaged in continuous conflicts, with ISKP carrying out targeted attacks on ethnic minorities and government institutions, while the Taliban strategically operates against ISKP’s hidden bases.

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In addition, the situation in the area is made more complex by the existence of other factions connected with Pakistan, such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a group affiliated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), along with TTP itself, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

While worsening socio-economic conditions could facilitate the spread of jihadist propaganda and recruitment, the Taliban appears to support the presence and activities of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The link between the terrorist group and the Afghan territory was clear during the entire Islamic Emirate rule, and even before. In the spring of 2019, a meeting took place between senior Taliban officials and Hamza bin Laden, son and successor of Osama bin Laden, ‘to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with al-Qaeda for any price’.

The primary aim was to personally assure Hamza bin Laden that their relationship would not be impacted by the Doha agreement signed with the United States. The presence in Afghanistan of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leader killed by a US drone attack in August 2022, proved them right.

Al-Qaeda presence in Iran

During the early 2000s, a few al-Qaeda leaders migrated to Iran, and the Iranian authorities detained a considerable number of them.

The recent UN report unveiled the existence of al-Qaeda’s safe havens in Herat, Farah, and Helmand provinces, which allegedly aid in the movement of its members between Afghanistan and Iran.

The UN and the US Justice Department believe that Sayf al-Adl, who is currently leading al-Qaeda, is in Iran.

Considering Tehran’s past actions in countering Sunni terrorism, it might be a contradiction for Iran to offer any form of help to the terrorist organisation.

Nevertheless, there are important factors that need to be emphasised. Iran has extensive rural areas that pose control challenges, which is a huge advantage for al-Qaeda fighters seeking concealment. In addition, the significant influx of undocumented Afghan migrants entering Iran annually provides an ideal opportunity to enter the country undetected.

For Iran, detaining certain al-Qaeda representatives could potentially serve as a bargaining tool in the event of tensions with Afghanistan or Pakistan, providing the option for prisoner exchanges. Moreover, Iran faces a difficult situation as it shares a border with Afghanistan and is already dealing with the aftermath of many attacks by the Islamic State. The arrival of copious Afghan migrants adds to the already difficult security situation Iran is dealing with. By forming a connection with the increasingly powerful al-Qaeda, Tehran is able to maintain a presence in Afghanistan and closely observe the situation there.

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Al-Qaeda appears to be reorganising in Afghanistan with the support of the Taliban. The country’s internal security situation has drastically deteriorated since the founding of the Islamic Emirate.

The Taliban did not fulfil their pledge to combat terrorist groups. The ISKP has significantly increased its attacks against their leadership. As a result, the Afghan government may choose to back the expansion of al-Qaeda as a means to counter ISKP.

Without a doubt, the civilian population and the Shiite minority are the primary victims of this destabilisation.

Besides al-Qaeda and ISKP, the existence of organisations like LeT or JeM, which are based in Pakistan and have conducted numerous attacks in India, is a significant worry. This concern is amplified by previous reports that have emphasised their involvement in the transportation of terrorist fighters to Afghanistan and their roles as advisors, trainers, and experts in improvised explosive devices.

Al-Qaeda leaders reportedly take refuge in Iran due to easily crossed borders and large, unmonitored rural regions. Despite ideological disparities, the Islamic Republic of Iran could leverage relationships with the group’s representatives to establish a foothold in Afghanistan and secure its borders.

For those with an interest in acquiring comprehensive insights into the geopolitical dynamics of Afghanistan, we encourage you to reach out to our team by sending an email to We are poised to facilitate an assessment of the opportunity for you to obtain a meticulously crafted and specialised report tailored to your intelligence needs.

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