New Terrorist Trends in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 22

Nearly three years after the war that ousted the Taliban, security in Afghanistan remains precarious- some one hundred people (excluding insurgents) have been killed in violence in the country so far this year. However, many of these killings – and indeed much of the violence in general – has probably not been committed by al-Qaeda, the Taliban or affiliated militants. Still, the latter remain dangerous, even if they are lacking broad popular support. Recent developments, including a suicide bombing, abductions and the appearance in the country of high-quality propaganda material for a global jihad, suggest they might become even more dangerous.

Afghanistan: Still in Conflict

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in May 2003 that combat operations in Afghanistan had ended. Nonetheless some 27,000 U.S., Coalition and international peacekeeping forces remain active in the country – and not without reason. The patterns of violence in June 2004 were particularly instructive: one provincial minister assassinated, a police chief blown up by a parcel bomb, one Afghan National Army soldier and one translator beheaded by the Taliban, 12 policemen and six members of the Afghan Militia Forces killed in guerrilla-style attacks. On top of this, 14 foreigners working for aid organizations or as contractors were murdered as well. Comparatively speaking, this was a very serious development insofar as for the whole of 2003, the toll of foreigners killed also stood at 14. [1] Alarmingly, all these attacks on foreigners occurred in areas of northern Afghanistan previously considered safe.

However not all of the attacks can be blamed on the Taliban. Nick Downie of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office (ANSO) told the author in an interview that he is “absolutely sure” that the majority of the killings unrelated to the October 9 presidential election were not perpetrated by the Taliban or affiliated insurgents. [2] In particular, 11 of the foreigners killed in June (Chinese road engineers working near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan) were probably the victims of a business dispute.

Aside from the Taliban-inspired insurgency, Afghanistan remains a country riddled with political, religious and economic problems. According to Thomas Muller of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), an independent Kabul-based think-tank, one should not “solely focus on the Taliban and anti-government elements” when addressing security in Afghanistan. [3]

It is difficult to establish with certainty the identity of those responsible for serious attacks in Afghanistan. The fact that the Taliban claims responsibility for most of them does not help matters either. It is not surprising therefore that the Afghan government has recently started to blame incidents not on the Taliban, but on “the enemies of Afghanistan” – a fairly wide-ranging group.

Resurgent Taliban

Since their ouster in November 2001, the Taliban have maintained their ability to strike against the new Afghan authorities and their foreign allies. This retention of capabilities is rooted in the escape of its leadership to Afghan mountain hideouts and the Pakistani tribal belt and Baluchistan. [4] Subsequently, the group managed to reorganize itself and in March 2003 the Taliban leader Mullah Omar called for a jihad against the U.S. and its Afghan allies. But the Taliban in November 2004 are different from the ascendant Taliban more than three years ago.

What is being referred to as the Taliban or neo-Taliban today does not only consist of Taliban remnants proper. Al-Qaeda members are also part of this category, as are mujahideen belonging to the two Hezb-e-Islami factions of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Yunis Khalis. In addition, an organization called Saif ul-Muslimeen (Sword of Muslims) constitutes another insurgent force in today’s Afghanistan.

It is safe to assume that many attacks can be attributed to any of these organizations individually. The bombing of the offices of DynCorp, a private U.S. security firm providing president Hamid Karzai with bodyguards, in Kabul last August has been blamed on al-Qaeda. While attacks in the Jalalabad area in eastern Afghanistan are thought to have been the work of Hekmatyar’s group. In general, however, the various constituent groups are working together and jointly organizing and coordinating their attacks. “I don’t believe any one of them can survive in Afghanistan without the other,” says Downie.

The U.S. military believe that the planning and operational hub of the insurgents is the border area with Pakistan, where they are able to maintain support bases in the lawless tribal areas. The town of Quetta in northern Baluchistan is the center of Taliban activities in Pakistan. In September, the U.S. military in Afghanistan declared that members of al-Qaeda, Taliban and Hekmatyar’s group had held several meetings in Pakistan discussing plans to derail the October presidential election.

“Everything is pointing in the direction of continued Pakistani support for the Taliban,” says Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst for Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group. [5] He says, for instance, “it would be difficult [for the Taliban] to recruit people in refugee camps in Pakistan without at the very least official complicity.”

But apart from the Pakistani border, the insurgents are active in other parts of the country as well. That remote and sparsely-populated Nuristan, in the northeast of the country, is one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan is not altogether surprising given that the Taliban and al-Qaeda use the area for training and support operations, says Downie.

And although the neo-Taliban movement is far from popular in the north, they might yet be able to create serious trouble there. According to an intelligence officer with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Taliban abandoned many hidden stockpiles of weapons when they retreated from the north. [6]

Shift in Tactics

Until October 2004, the insurgents’ main method of attack was the use of remote-controlled roadside bombs, ambushes and rockets. But this has changed with a suicide attack killing two and the abduction of three foreigners – both occurring in Kabul, considered the safest place in Afghanistan.

Such a change had in fact been expected earlier. The U.S. embassy warned of the threat of abductions around the October 9 presidential election. And after the suicide attack on October 23, a Western security consultant said intelligence had warned of such attacks during the vote. [7] According to this source, the reason behind this suicide attack was more commercial than ideological: the Taliban promised to provide financial rewards to the family of a disabled man from the southern Helmand province – a Taliban stronghold – if he agreed to blow himself up. Moreover the security consultant believes the Taliban are planning to use more disabled people as suicide bombers in the future.

Soon after this attack, on October 28, three foreigners were kidnapped in Kabul in broad daylight. Moreover, new jihadi propaganda material has started to appear in Afghanistan, including DVDs “promoting global jihad” says Downie, who has seen materials that contain footage from Iraq and also from Pakistan (showing the government’s crackdown on extremists in Waziristan). New, high-quality night-letters (or “Shabnameh” as they are known in Dari, which are political texts distributed clandestinely at night times) urging the population to resist the U.S. and its allies have also appeared.

According to Downie the fact that these three developments emerged at the same time is “a bit more than coincidental.” It might well mean that the insurgency in Afghanistan is developing in a radically new way, more akin to what is happening in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Jaish-e-Muslimeen (Army of Muslims), a new rebel group which claims responsibility for the abduction, has appeared on the scene. This group, apparently led by a one-time Taliban commander, Akbar Agha, announced its break with the Taliban in August and is now assumed to be close to Hekmatyar. “Kidnappings and targeted assassinations seem to be more Hekmatyar’s hallmark [than the Taliban’s],”says Parekh.

Whether developments in Afghanistan will more closely resemble those in Iraq in the future – with frequent abductions, car bombs and suicide attacks – depends in large part on how the kidnapping is resolved. If the hostages are eventually killed, local analysts and intelligence officers expect the situation to become worse.

But even if the case were to be resolved peacefully, it is unrealistic to expect a quick improvement in the security situation. The government is weak, international troops few, and the Taliban remains a threat, especially since they continue to operate with little difficulty in Pakistan.

Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has covered Central Asia and the Caucasus for several years. He holds an MASc in Central Asian Politics from SOAS in London and an MA in Russian and Russian Studies at the University of Amsterdam.


1. Michael Bhatia, Kevin Lanigan, Philip Wilkinson, Minimal Investments, Minimal Results: The Failure of Security Policy in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Research & Evaluation Unit (AREU) Briefing Paper, June 2004.

2. These and other quotes of Nick Downie are taken from an interview with Mr Downie on October 30, 2004, in Kabul.

3. Interview with Thomas Muller, AREU communications manager, October 28, 2004, in Kabul.

4. Most of the information on the resurgent Taliban in this article comes from: Laxman Bahroo, The Resurgent Taliban: A Bitter Harvest, Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Vol. 6(2), November-December 2003;

5. These and other quotes of Vikram Parekh come from an interview with Mr Parekh on November 1, 2004, in Kabul.

6. Conversation with ISAF intelligence officer, October 6, 2004, in Kabul.

7. Interview with Western security consultant, October 25, 2004, in Kabul.