Does the fall of Kabul increase the terror threat to the west?

In three days in earlier this month Islamist militants killed more than 120 civilians in a series of attacks in the Sahel, a belt of increasingly anarchic and violent territory across Africa, where such groups have gone from strength to strength in recent years. Thousand of miles to the east, fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabaab stormed a military base in the centre of Somalia.

None of these attacks received much attention – nor did the recent arrest of IS sympathisers in Australia, the attempted murder of a moderate politician in the Maldives or a court case against militants who attacked LGBT activists in Bangladesh.

All should serve as a reminder that events in Kabul will have consequences wherever jihadist groups exist and so for the threat facing communities across the world, including in the west.

The most obvious “game changer” is the huge boost offered by the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, with the effects of that victory amplified by the chaos and humiliation of the US withdrawal. The defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan has long been claimed by global jihadists.

This is without historical justification – only a few hundred international extremists fought and made no significant contribution overall – but has become a foundational myth of their movement. Now a second superpower has been defeated, showing that “jihad and fighting is the only realistic way”, as a Yemen-based group said.

But it is less clear that, as many analysts and pundits have said, events in Afghanistan have significantly increased the threat to the UK, US and other western states.

Col Richard Kemp, a former British soldier and Afghan veteran, warned there was an imminent prospect of attacks in the UK inspired by the fall of Kabul while Stephanie Foggett, a resident fellow at the Soufan Center in New York, said the US exit could offer “significant opportunities” for Islamist extremist groups “to find a safe haven under Taliban protection and the operational space to recruit, rearm, and reunify in such a way that would allow for a refocus on the west in the future”.

But not all experts are as convinced. Some believe the new rulers of Afghanistan will seek to restrain al-Qaida, as they did when previously in power from 1996 to 2001, despite their warm relations, and point out the Taliban have been fighting Islamic State for many years.

There is also a question of timescale.

“For regional powers this will certainly be a problem … You have to worry about Pakistan … and if Pakistan turns bad then that has an echo in the UK because of our close connections,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

A series of plots in the UK over the last 20 years involved extremists further radicalised, trained or commissioned in Pakistan. So too did a handful of attempts to cause mass casualty attacks elsewhere – in western Europe and the US.

But Pantucci said a flow of volunteers into Afghanistan or Pakistan and their return was only “a possible medium to long term potential risk” not “an immediate threat”.

In the US, the major terrorist threat remains that from rightwing extremism, which has caused more casualties than Islamist-related violence since the 9/11 attacks, experts say.

“We’ve not been immune and the list of lone actors inspired by global jihadist ideology trying to do what they can locally [in the US] with limited means is long…. But it’s such a small fraction of individuals,” said James Forest, professor at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “The ideology simply doesn’t resonate here as it does with marginalised Muslim communities in France or Belgium of even parts of the UK.”

Analysts have sought to explain this by contrasting the relative economic success of Muslim communities in the US with those in western Europe, or pointing to different models for integration of immigrants.

There is also the question of quite which lessons different extremists draw from the Taliban victory. There have long been arguments between Islamist militant leaders who favour attacks on the “far enemy” – the west – and those who want to strike first against the “near enemy”, local governments and regimes.

Factions that believe in temporary moderation to win local support oppose those that refuse any compromise. The range of reactions to the Taliban’s victory – al-Qaida has been enthusiastic whereas IS has attacked the Taliban as “apostates” – has revealed how deep these divisions are.

“The Taliban are not champions of the global jihadi agenda. The global jihadists did not achieve victory. The Taliban has a much more local and provincial focus,” Forest said.

This could be crucial. Some analysts suggest the Taliban’s pragmatic decisions to adapt to circumstances by carefully targeting its violence, emphasising governance, negotiating with the US and at least making some attempts to reassure international opinion will shape the impact of the movement’s victory.

“There is now an understanding [among extremist groups] that a gradualist strategy is effective,” said Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based thinktank. “The Taliban have achieved a transformation of a Muslim land. What we are seeing is success locally, in part because the resolve of the west has weakened. This was in the works before Afghanistan, but Afghanistan gives them hope.”

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