Beyond Af-Pak: Varied Impacts of the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan in the Rest of South Asia
The impact of the one-year Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has been varied in a few South Asian countries beyond the Af-Pak region. Bangladesh is arguably the most affected country with a few tangible impacts in the political and militant spheres. Meanwhile India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have been less affected although concerns of growing extremist narratives in the discursive space and jihadist militancy’s revival in conflict-prone regions such as Kashmir remain. For India in particular, the Taliban government in Afghanistan serves as a catalyst for violent extremism due to the Taliban’s linkages with groups such as Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), among others.
In the aftermath of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan in August 2021, there were concerns that this could inspire a wave of terrorist attacks across South Asia. So far, this has proven not to be the case. In the one year since the Taliban’s return, a somewhat varied South Asian extremism landscape has emerged. In the rest of South Asia (beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, or the Af-Pak), the impact of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has been confined largely to the informational spheres. That is, the impact is felt through extremists’ publications and social media propaganda that vary from country to country, with little physical impacts. The diverse nature of ongoing conflicts and threat situations in different parts of the region, the vast geographical distance between Afghanistan and most South Asian countries, and the leadership style, political priorities and approaches of the Taliban 2.0 are some contributing factors to the trends observed.
In this context, it may not be possible to highlight a generalised regional impact. At any rate, some varying trends can be observed between the impact on the Muslim majority and non-Muslim majority South Asian countries. In the former, a few jihadist groups have become more emboldened following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. For instance, Pakistan, Afghanistan’s closest South Asian neighbour, has faced direct and tangible impacts – such as terrorist attacks, cross-border militant movements and refugee inflows. In other South Asian states, primarily in India and Bangladesh, but also to some extent in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, the impact of the Taliban takeover has been intangible and confined mainly to the pro-jihadist online extremist narrative spheres. In particular, the triumphant narrative of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and associated narratives have shaped jihadist narratives. Additionally, in the non-Muslim majority South Asian nations, where communal polarisation was already on the rise, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has led to an increase in Islamophobic sentiments by the far-right groups.
A Mixed Threat Picture for India Amidst Cautious Engagement with Taliban
The overthrow of the former US-backed Afghan administration was a significant setback for India, which has since been concerned with the possible revival of cross-border terrorism and increased militant activity in Indian-administered Kashmir.[i] There were also apprehensions that the Taliban regime – which includes entities such as the Haqqani Network that are opposed to India[ii] – would provide a sanctuary to terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to launch attacks against India. However, thus far, these threats have not materialised. The threat situation for India has surprisingly been somewhat subdued (mostly uneventful) since the Taliban’s return to power. India has not witnessed any large-scale attacks despite multiple threats and aggressive statements from various anti-India jihadist groups. This could be in part due to the Taliban’s diplomatic calculation not to compromise its relations with India, given the latter’s humanitarian aid to the cash-strapped and poverty-stricken nation where the humanitarian situation has considerably deteriorated in the last one year.[iii]
Furthermore, the lack of terrorist attacks in India since the Taliban takeover could also be due to India’s robust counter-terrorism capabilities, which have successfully identified and thwarted a multitude of threats in recent years. However, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan gives India-centric jihadist groups an opportunity to use Afghanistan as their operational base to launch attacks against India and its regional interests. India expects the Taliban regime’s cooperation to address threats from LeT and JeM as well as Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K). [iv]
The current Indian approach to engage with the Taliban is quite different from its 1990s policy of disengagement. Then, India sought to undermine the former Taliban regime’s control over Afghanistan by backing anti-Taliban forces such as the Northern Alliance.[v] India also invested heavily in the Western-backed Afghan government following the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001 in an effort to prevent Afghanistan backsliding into Taliban rule. Given Delhi’s consistent anti-Taliban stance in the past, its current openness to talk with the Taliban probably stems from its hope that some benefits could result from its direct engagements, especially on security matters. The Trump and Biden administrations’ direct engagements with the Taliban prior to the US withdrawal would also have reduced Delhi’s reservations to engage.
Some notable engagements of India include the visit by an Indian team to Kabul in June 2022 to assess the possibility of reopening the Indian embassy to continue consular services. The Indian team noted improvements in the security situation, although it also observed that non-traditional security issues such as health and education have worsened.[vi] Soon after the visit, India opened its embassy in Afghanistan. The Indian foreign minister is also expected to meet the acting Afghan foreign minister on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation foreign ministers’ meeting in September 2022.[vii] While these engagements do not imply normalisation of relations, they show willingness from the two sides to cooperate to safeguard their respective interests.
Perhaps the most significant terrorist threat for India after the Taliban takeover comes from AQ, a close affiliate of the Taliban that is at the forefront of jihadist groups’ attempt to “refocus” the attention on Kashmir. [viii] AQ has also been localising its propaganda to take advantage of the communal tensions that have recently surfaced in parts of India. The recent hijab controversy,[ix] for instance, was addressed in an audio released by now-deceased[x] AQ chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, where he justified his group’s motives and agenda and linked it to Muslim grievances. AQ also threatened to carry out suicide bombings in India as revenge attacks for controversial comments made by a former ruling party spokesperson.[xi] Moreover, the conspicuous silence by other anti-India groups such as LeT and JeM in recent years has opened the space for AQIS and IS-K to fill the anti-India discursive vacuum from terrorist groups in the region. In the last few years, AQIS and IS-K “have been trying to outdo each other in the discursive space over India by reaching out to different demographic groups of the Indian Muslim community”.[xii] As a result, there is the possibility of some of the jihadist base in India shifting towards the more vocal AQ and IS-K.
Although AQ’s narratives have almost no appeal among the Indian Muslims, except to fringe segments of the society, in light of the growing communal polarisation in India, its rhetoric might end up radicalising some members of the community. While the radical Islamist threat has increased post-Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the attendant feed-offs – that is, reciprocal radicalisation of far-right Islamophobic groups that equate the Taliban and Islamist terrorism as mainstream Islamic belief and vilify the general Muslim population – also need careful monitoring as they could further deteriorate inter-communal tensions and spark violence.
Increased Pro-Taliban Propaganda in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s threat landscape, since the Taliban’s return, is marked by continuity and change. The Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies have claimed to keep the terrorist threat under check through continued surveillance. The current threat landscape is essentially an extension of the threat situation from 2019 to 2021. However, Bangladesh has concerns about how long this quiescence will continue, particularly as the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is energising a segment of local militants, supporters and sympathisers.
In September 2021, a few weeks after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, Bangladesh saw a failed bomb attack in the capital Dhaka. The attacker was described as a self-radicalised follower of Ansar al Islam,[xiii] an AQ-centric group that has been involved in killing secular Bangladeshi bloggers and activists.[xiv] Although the country has not seen any major terrorist incidents since then, there has been an increase in vernacular pro-Taliban propaganda on the internet that promotes it as a role model.[xv] Likewise, radicalisation through social media continues to remain a key challenge. While the return of the Taliban has energised the AQ-centric groups in Bangladesh, it remains to be seen how these groups will respond in the coming months as the COVID-19-related travel restrictions are lifted.
A wave of pro-Taliban and pro-AQ messaging on social media by Bangladeshi extremist groups and individuals actually pre-dated the Taliban August 2021 return as it has been underway since April 2021. The August 2021 takeover merely exacerbated the trend. Many radicals and extremists saw the rise of the Taliban as the “liberation of Afghanistan” from a “foreign occupation”.[xvi] Some of these supporters have also openly expressed their desire to establish an Islamic Emirate in Bangladesh, which will be ruled by Sharia law. Though the demand for Sharia law is not new, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has amplified it.[xvii] If militant activities under the Taliban administration increase, it might become a new inspiration for Bangladeshi militant groups.
At present, the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Ansar al Islam (AAI), and Harkat ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI-B) are associated with the AQ ideology, while the Dawlatul Islam Bengal (ISB) or Neo-JMB adhere to the so-called Islamic State (IS) ideology. According to Bangladeshi authorities, the AQ-centric groups are working closely. The AAI is reportedly recruiting women and teenagers.[xviii] In the country’s south-eastern region, the group has also tried to recruit the Rohingya refugees who escaped persecution in Myanmar.[xix] Generally, the current trajectory of the Bangladeshi extremist groups will depend on the direction of the groups they follow.
Though there is no direct link between Bangladeshi militant groups and AQ or IS leadership at present, the ideological similarity enables local extremist groups to gain financial support and/or training from global terrorist groups. Therefore, the possibility of gaining support from Afghanistan-based AQ or the IS-K cannot be ruled out. It is noteworthy that in 2014, AQ’s As-Sahab Media published a nine-minute video showcasing some Bangladeshi fighters alongside Taliban and AQ fighters in a camp in Afghanistan.[xx]
AQ-centric groups in Bangladesh continue their recruitment and training campaigns,[xxi] which is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. AAI is also building dens in the India-Bangladesh border areas to run its activities with the goal of dominating the Indian sub-continent (known as the Ghazwa-e-Hind narrative, or the conquest of the Indian subcontinent).[xxii] Besides, the outfit reportedly views Kashmir as a possible shelter and the Rohingya community in Bangladesh as a recruitment source.[xxiii]
According to Bangladeshi observers, there exists some level of support for the Taliban and AQ among the country’s Islamists. A militant clique within a hardline Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), known as the Manhajis,[xxiv] is known to openly support the Taliban and AQ and promote a Taliban-style of governance in Bangladesh.
Being geographically distant from Afghanistan, it is natural that the implications of the Taliban’s return in Bangladesh are more likely to be gradual, indirect and long-term. Such implications will also be conditioned by Bangladesh’s internal dynamics and external environment. Internally, although Bangladesh currently has a much stronger counter-terrorism capability and zero-tolerance policy against terrorism, it remains to be seen how its domestic politics play out, especially as some politicians often court Islamists for votes. Externally, the future threat in Bangladesh will also depend on the broader, complex and diverse South Asian conflict and threat environment, which has both direct and indirect influence on the local extremists in the country. As it stands now, the impact of the Taliban’s return on Bangladesh may not be the same as in the 1990s when the Taliban first arrived on the regional scene. The Taliban 2.0 regime has shown some political flexibility and pragmatism in its geo-political relations but it has yet to shake off its support of terrorist elements such as AQ and Pakistani radical groups.
Separately, there has not been any conclusive evidence of Bangladeshi militants travelling to Afghanistan in recent times. But since Islamist militancy in Bangladesh has its historical roots in Afghanistan, and Taliban followers and sympathisers continue to exist in Bangladesh, the future implications cannot be ruled out. Therefore, Bangladesh must continue to monitor developments both in Afghanistan as well as at home, and take necessary security measures to respond to this fluid threat environment, especially the radicalisation of vulnerable local youth in the online domain and the threat of lone-actor terrorism.
Impact on Sri Lanka and the Maldives
The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has had considerably lesser impact on the threat landscapes in Sri Lanka and the Maldives when compared to their larger South Asian neighbours. This is not surprising given that the two countries have not figured prominently in assessments on Islamist extremism in the region. However, when observed relatively and contextually, the growth of Islamist extremism in the two countries gives some cause for concern. In recent years, there have been a few instances of high-profile jihadist violence which suggests the Islamist threat landscape in the two countries might be rapidly evolving. The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka[xxv] and the bomb attack targeting the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed,[xxvi] are some high-profile attacks which, although not directly linked to the Taliban, suggest a potent Islamist ecosystem in the two countries that could get a further boost from the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Additionally, the Maldives and Sri Lanka – both small island nations – have lesser resources when compared to their larger South Asian neighbours on whom they have tended to depend heavily for security and intelligence assistance and cooperation. Unlike their larger neighbours, the two countries do not have the capacity to provide economic assistance or exert other forms of soft power vis-à-vis the Taliban government to extract concessions from the latter. The Taliban takeover has also renewed concerns of drug traffic and trade,[xxvii] especially in the seas surrounding south India, which forms part of the funds that go into financing terrorist organisations in the two countries.
Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan
Another concern among observers following the Taliban takeover was the possibility of jihadists across South Asia travelling to Afghanistan, in a replay of what happened when the Taliban first came to power in the 1990s. Before the August 2021 fall of Kabul, a senior Bangladeshi police official claimed that some Bangladeshis were trying to reach Afghanistan to join the Taliban,[xxviii] leading to concerns that this could be the beginning of a worrisome trend. However, this worry appears mitigated by a few contemporary factors for now. In the year since the Taliban takeover, perhaps except for Pakistan which shares a long border with Afghanistan, no significant travel of jihadists to Afghanistan had been reported. A few factors explain the lack of appeal of travel to Afghanistan among jihadists in South Asia. First, considerable logistical issues, COVID-19 travel restrictions and increased border protections make it harder for fighters to physically travel to Afghanistan. Second, the threat’s nature has evolved with jihadist narratives localising, adopting of lone-actor terrorism and migrating to online spaces for radicalisation and training, for which travelling to Afghanistan is not necessary. Third, there is a genuine lack of charismatic jihadist leaders with pulling power in Afghanistan. In the current scenario, there is no one of the stature of the Taliban’s founding leader Mullah Umar or AQ chief Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan who could attract overseas fighters. Fourth, there might also be a reluctance on the part of the Afghan Taliban to host overseas fighters given the grave humanitarian situation the regime is confronted with. This is notwithstanding the fact that AQ continues to enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, though reportedly confining itself to advising and supporting the de facto authorities.[xxix]
Overall, one year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the threat picture for South Asia looks somewhat varied, with Muslim majority countries – Pakistan and Bangladesh – having witnessed some noticeable traction in the activities of jihadist groups. In the Maldives, while there is no clear evidence to suggest a direct impact of the Taliban takeover, extremist activities by jihadist groups have continued, albeit with limited impact. In the non-Muslim majority countries such as India and Sri Lanka, the impact of the Taliban takeover on their threat landscapes looks limited. In the former, the jihadist narratives – especially that of AQ – have increased and become more India-focused. As one year is not sufficient for the regional impact of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan to be fully manifested, security agencies should nonetheless continue to keep a close watch on incipient signs of the revival of the AQ network in the region and its context-specific nuances.
About the Authors
Iftekharul Bashar is an Associate Research Fellow and Kalicharan Veera Singam is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. They can be reached at [email protected]; [email protected].
[i] “India Fears Taliban Fallout in Kashmir,” The Economic Times, October 16, 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-fears-taliban-fallout-in-kashmir/articleshow/87054555.cms.
[iii] Ayaz Gul, “Taliban Commend India for Sending Humanitarian Aid to Afghanistan,” Voice of America, January 7, 2022. https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-commend-india-for-sending-humanitarian-aid-to-afghanistan/6386809.html.
[iv] “Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba Back with Taliban, Set up 11 Camps since Takeover: UNSC Report,” The Economic Times, May 30, 2022, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/jaish-e-mohammed-lashkar-e-taiba-back-with-taliban-set-up-11-camps-since-takeover-unsc-report/articleshow/91875669.cms
[vi] Shubhajit Roy, “Security Better, Health, Education Infra Crumbling: Indian Team after First Afghanistan Visit under Taliban,” The Indian Express, June 6, 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/afghanistan-taliban-indian-team-visit-security-health-education-infra-7954097/.
[vii] Nayanima Basu, “Jaishankar Likely to Hold 1st in-Person Meet with Taliban Foreign Minister Muttaqi in Tashkent,” The Print, July 29, 2022, https://theprint.in/diplomacy/jaishankar-likely-to-hold-1st-in-person-meet-with-taliban-foreign-minister-muttaqi-in-tashkent/1059596/.
[viii] “Worry for India? UN report says Al-Qaeda refocusing from Afghanistan to Kashmir,” The New Indian Express, May 30, 2022, https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2022/may/30/worry-for-india-un-report-says-al-qaedarefocusingfrom-afghanistan-to-kashmir-2459725.html.
[ix] “Al-Qaeda Targets India in Hijab Row,” The Hindu, April 6, 2022, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/al-qaeda-chief-uses-karnataka-hijab-row-to-target-india/article65297049.ece.
[x] Abdul Basit, “Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Assassination Spells Bad News for the Taliban,” Al Jazeera, August 4, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/8/4/ayman-al-zawahiris-assassination-spells-bad-news-for-the-taliban.
[xi] Praveen Swami, “’Will Tie Explosives to Our Kids’ – Al Qaeda Warns India of Suicide Attacks over Prophet Remarks,” The Print, June 8, 2022, https://theprint.in/world/will-tie-explosives-to-our-kids-al-qaeda-warns-india-of-suicide-attacks-over-prophet-remarks/987789/.
[xii] Abdul Basit, “How the Jihadist Threat against India Has Evolved since the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Jamestown Foundation, July 29, 2022, https://jamestown.org/program/how-the-jihadist-threat-against-india-has-evolved-since-the-us-withdrawal-from-afghanistan/.
[xiii] “Failed lone wolf militant attack in Gulshan,” Prothom Alo English, September 6, 2021, https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/crime-and-law/failed-lone-wolf-militant-attack-in-gulshan.
[xiv] Iftekharul Bashar, “Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Security Implications for Bangladesh,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, Vol. 13, Issue 4 (September 2021), pp.19-24, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/CTTA-September-2021.pdf
[xv] Based on ICPVTR’s monitoring of Bengali extremist social media platforms.
[xvii] While the current propaganda on social media might be indicative of the reception of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh, it is noteworthy that there is also a group of extremists in Bangladesh who condemn the Taliban for making compromises with the West.
[xviii] “CTTC arrests first female member of Ansar al-Islam in Bangladesh,” Dhaka Tribune, August 29, 2021, https://archive.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/dhaka/2021/08/29/cttc-arrests-first-female-member-of-ansar-al-islam-in-bangladesh.
[xix] “Three Ansar Al Islam Operatives Arrested: They tried to infiltrate Rohingya camps: CTTC,” The Daily Star, June 28, 2021, https://www.thedailystar.net/city/news/they-tried-infiltrate-rohingya-camps-cttc-2119481.
[xx] “Our Markaz,” An Nasr Media (Bengali), September 30, 2014.
[xxi] Mohammad Jamil Khan, “Ansar Al Islam: Lying low, continues recruitment,” The Daily Star, December 24, 2021, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/ansar-al-islam-lying-low-continues-recruitment-2924231.
[xxii] Iftekharul Bashar, Exploitation of Ghazwatul Hind Narrative in South Asia, Unpublished report, May 2019.
[xxvi] Amit Ranjan, “Mohamed Nasheed Attacked: Rise of Islamic Radicalism in the Maldives,” ISAS Insights, May 18, 2021, https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/mohamed-nasheed-attacked-rise-of-islamic-radicalism-in-the-maldives/.
[xxvii] Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, “Why are small South Asian states resorting to the wait and watch approach towards the Taliban?” Observer Researcher Foundation, September 22, 2021, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/why-are-small-south-asian-states-resorting-to-the-wait-and-watch-approach-towards-the-taliban/.
[xxviii] “Some from Bangladesh trying to join Taliban in Afghanistan: DMP chief,” The Daily Star, August 15, 2021, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/some-bangladesh-trying-join-taliban-afghanistan-dmp-chief-2152446.
[xxix] Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2022, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N22/394/29/PDF/N2239429.pdf?OpenElement.