Victorious Taliban inspiring a new gen of Islamic extremists

On May 15, 1989, the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan. The Soviets, who had been slugging it out for 10 years with Islamist fighters, finally threw in the towel. The withdrawal was immediately hailed as a significant victory by Afghanistan’s mujahideen.

The impact of the Soviet withdrawal was immediate. The Taliban soon emerged from the chaos of Afghanistan, forging an Islamist state. The nation became a safe haven for a number of extremist groups, include one forged by a mujahideen fighter named Osama bin Laden.

But the shockwaves were not limited to Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters hold their flag as they celebrate one year since they seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.
The Taliban marked the first-year anniversary of their takeover after the country’s western-backed government fled and the Afghan military crumbled.
AP/Ebrahim Noroozi

A month later, a coup d’état brought to power a Muslim Brotherhood government in Sudan. Khartoum became a safe haven for terrorist groups around the world.

Nearby, Islamists organized themselves and secured electoral victories in Tunisia. Jordan experienced similar convulsions when the Islamic Action Front, a Muslim Brotherhood splinter faction, made significant electoral gains.

The Palestinian organization Hamas evolved alarmingly from a popular protest movement to a terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction. A suicide bombing campaign soon followed. Meanwhile, violent protests and firebombing attacks inspired by an Iranian fatwa against author Salman Rushdie rocked Australia, Norway, India, France, Pakistan and the United States.

Rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel, over Gaza City, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022
Iran-backed Islamic Jihad launched 1,000 rockets on Israel this month.
AP/Adel Hana

Could President Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last year create a similar domino effect? Could the propaganda victory the Taliban achieved in 2021 encourage Islamic extremism in other nations just like it did 32 years ago?

It appears so.

Afghanistan is once again a safe haven for Al Qaeda, as evidenced by the American operation that killed Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the group’s commander. Just after the withdrawal last year, the Middle East was rocked by yet another Gaza war, with Hamas showering more than 4,500 rockets on Israel. Earlier this month, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad picked another fight with Israel, raining down another 1,000 rockets on the Jewish state.

The Islamic State may be weakened in Syria and Iraq, but a faction in Congo is active. The jihadist group has conducted two prison raids in the last year.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Al Qaeda affiliate group Al Shabaab attempted an incursion into Ethiopia. The group remains active in Somalia. Here at home, Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage last week as he prepared to deliver a lecture. That stabbing, reportedly encouraged by Iranian agents, came on the heels of foiled Iranian plots against former national security advisor John Bolton and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia
Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area.
AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh

Elsewhere, Iran continues to foment unrest through the use of violent proxies. This includes attacks by Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthis) in Yemen, and a panoply of Shi’ite militias operating in war-torn Syria and Iraq.

The Biden administration’s aim last year was to end what some Democrats and Republicans have called America’s “forever war” against jihadist groups in the Middle East. Washington’s herd mentality decided it was better to “pivot to Asia,” where a great power competition with China looms.

What these neo-isolationists didn’t realize: Jihadists have become emboldened by America’s ignominious defeat in Afghanistan. And they appear to be mounting a global offensive. Just like they did back in 1989.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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