September 9, 2021

IntelBrief: African Jihadist Groups React to the Taliban’s Victory

(AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Taliban’s conquests in Afghanistan show African jihadist groups that withstanding – and ultimately defeating – superior military forces is possible.
  • The Taliban is still considered too moderate to serve as a model Islamic State affiliate in Africa and possibly some al-Qaeda branches.
  • While al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali praised Afghans for their victory, its tone towards the Taliban was unenthusiastic, likely due to perceptions of Taliban “moderation.”
  • Islamic State in West Africa Province is the strongest ISIS affiliate in Africa and already viewed the Taliban as “infidels,” and the group may take pride in IS Khorasan disrupting the Taliban’s rule. 

The Taliban’s conquest of Kabul and seizure of control in Afghanistan is already reverberating throughout Africa’s sprawling jihadist scene. The Taliban has shown that a jihadist group can withstand superior foreign military forces and a national government’s counterterrorism efforts for two decades. This resonates with al-Qaeda affiliates, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel and al-Shabaab in Somalia. While JNIM has fought a French-backed regional military alliance since 2012, al-Shabaab has fought the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the Somali national army, and other foreign militaries since at least 2007. 

Neither France nor AMISOM has any imminent plans to follow the U.S. path in Afghanistan and withdraw, but it was notable that French president Emmanuel Macron indicated in May the intention to draw down forces from the Sahel and end the campaign against JNIM through Operation Barkhane. Macron was, however, primarily focused on pressuring Sahelian militaries to do more to counter JNIM and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS). It nevertheless raised the possibility that, at some point in the future, France could leave, just as the U.S has in Afghanistan. In both contexts, this leaves the United Nations as the key international presence and increasingly vulnerable to attacks by terrorist groups; UN Missions will have limited if any resources or the requisite political support and mandate to address these threats comprehensively. Neither JNIM nor al-Shabaab appear to be communicating closely with the Taliban, if at all. However, JNIM’s leader, Iyad ag Ghaly, is formally loyal to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while al-Shabaab has expressed praise of the Taliban throughout its history. Some of al-Shabaab’s early leaders trained in Afghanistan in the years surrounding 9/11. Observing the Taliban’s conquest can, therefore, only inspire them.

At the same time, JNIM’s statement on the events in Afghanistan did not mention the Taliban itself, but only the good works of the “Afghan nation.” Also praised was Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s now deceased former emir, but not any current Taliban leaders. One way of interpreting this is that JNIM is aware of the “moderate” steps the Taliban has taken to win acceptance from the international community, including speaking to the “Western” press, engaging the United Nations and other international organizations, and pursuing diplomacy with “anti-Muslim” nation-states such as China. JNIM may, therefore, disapprove of the current Taliban leadership. Alternatively, JNIM may have simply been seeking to create distance between itself and the Taliban to not implicate the Taliban with al-Qaeda affiliates and undermine the former’s efforts to gain international legitimacy.

The Taliban’s relative moderation has also led Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) to consider Taliban members as “infidels.” This is despite the fact that ISWAP’s predecessor, as early as 2003, was known as the “Nigerian Taliban,” because the members emulated the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, since ISWAP became more extreme than the Taliban and affiliated with Islamic State, the Taliban victory will not be praised by ISWAP or its other African Islamic State-loyal counterparts in Congo and Mozambique. If anything, efforts by Islamic State in Khorasan Province (IS-K) to undermine Taliban rule and its arrangements with international militaries will likely win approval from these Islamic State affiliates in Africa.

We can expect that the Taliban’s successes in Afghanistan will be met with mixed emotions in Africa. On one hand, the Taliban showed a superpower could be defeated. However, it is unrealistic that the Taliban’s level of immersion into the “infidel” international system will be replicable, at least for now, by any African jihadist group, except possibly for JNIM. Iyad ag Ghali was once himself a Malian diplomat and Tuareg nationalist rebel and therefore has some diplomatic experience to potentially follow the Taliban’s path. Nevertheless, Iyad ag Ghali’s shift towards Wahhabism and embrace of al-Qaeda has led to his seemingly renouncing his prior engagements. None of the al-Qaeda or Islamic State groups in Africa are in an “endgame” position like the Taliban. For now, they are all fighting a mix of national, regional, and international forces that have no serious plans to withdraw immediately. However, with national governments on the continent often corrupt and unaccountable, as many saw the previous Afghan governments that were supported by the West, they may realize that as long as they can militarily withstand opposing forces, they can also count on errors, misdeeds, and ill-conceived military objectives by political leaders to ultimately provide them a path to victory.