Khorasan as the Next Syria?

Khorasan as the Next Syria?

As NATO forces prepare to finally depart Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State threaten to reverse two decades of progress. Given the toxic combination of poor governance, political exclusion, dysfunctional economies, security vacuums and repressive regimes along Afghanistan’s porous borders, the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda and emergence of new challenges such as Islamic State-Khorasan Province threatens to transform the country into the epicentre of a new regional conflict complex across South and Central Asia. Despite assumptions that NATO’s withdrawal represents a conclusive end to the ‘War on Terror’, current indicators suggest this merely represents a dangerous new chapter in the struggle against global jihadism.

Last week, the ex-head of MI6, Sir Alex Younger, provided a sobering assessment of the situation in Afghanistan as U.S. and British forces prepare to leave the country ahead of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. In his first ever publicly broadcast television interview, Sir Alex cautioned that the withdrawal of NATO forces threatened to create a security vacuum allowing transnational jihadist groups to regenerate and warned that it would be an ‘enormous mistake’ for the West to neglect the regional security challenges posed by a revitalised civil war in Afghanistan.

Such dire warnings appear to have been vindicated as a revitalised Taliban have swept across the country during recent weeks, capturing key border crossings with Iran and Turkmenistan. As this whilst also seizing two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border in an offensive which forced over 1,000 Afghan National Army soldiers to abandon their posts and flee into Tajikistan. Currently, Taliban forces are estimated to fully control 46% of Afghan districts and contest a further 30%, including areas where the group have historically lacked any significant presence, such as the ethnic Hazara districts of central Afghanistan or the remote Badakhshan province in the northeast. Lacking NATO airpower, special forces or direct intelligence support, senior officials warn of an imminent descent into civil war and inevitable state collapse within as little as six months, ominously echoing Afghanistan’s descent into anarchy following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Thirty years ago, the security vacuum that emerged following the Soviet-Afghan war provided fertile ground for the rise of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and, ultimately, a safe haven for al-Qaeda to coordinate its global activities. In 2021, as Washington winds down America’s ‘Forever War’ in Afghanistan, history appears set to be repeated, with Islamic State’s Khorasan Province, a newer, more dynamic and ambitious jihadist group, taking centre stage.

Al-Qaeda: Down But Not Out

Since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda has withered to a shadow of its former self. A decade ago, al-Qaeda’s sprawling network of training camps and madrassas straddling the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan frontier represented the epicentre of global jihad, providing a sanctuary from which regional affiliates such as the East Turkestan Islamic Party and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan could coordinate their activities. However, relentless pressure from U.S, Afghan and Pakistani counter-terrorism operations have degraded and defanged the organisation’s central leadership, leading more dynamic regional affiliates from Syria to the Sahel to assert their autonomy from the out-of-touch leadership ensconced in the Hindu Kush.



Nonetheless, with the Taliban ascendant, it would be incredibly myopic to negate the continued threat posed by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite key ideological discrepancies and distinct strategic objectives, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have long enjoyed an extremely close relationship, united by a shared hardline conservative Islamic worldview and antagonism towards the West.

During the 1990s, the Taliban’s willingness to provide refuge to Osama bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with a sanctuary from which to coordinate transnational jihadist attacks, including 9/11. Even if the Taliban seek to distance themselves from al-Qaeda to obtain a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community–as some influential commentators including the UK’s Chief of General Staff Sir Nick Carter have suggested–Afghanistan’s descent into civil war is likely to create vast swathes of ungoverned space from which al-Qaeda can regenerate, irrespective of Taliban patronage or lack thereof.

Indeed, Pentagon officials estimate that al-Qaeda may regain its former strength ‘within two years’ of U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whilst al-Qaeda has itself pledged to continue their ‘war on all fronts’ against the U.S, the inescapable fact remains that the group remains crippled in its historical core territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with many of its most experienced leaders and fighters either dead, in hiding or having fled to more promising theatres of global jihad, such as Syria. Perhaps the most significant obstacle to a hypothetical al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan comes from the allure of even more extreme strands of Salafi-Jihadism propagated by groups such as ISIS, whose stricter ideological purity and higher profile at the international level attract idealistic younger recruits, thus starving al-Qaeda of a potential new generation of recruits.

ISKP Ascendant

Since 2014, ISIS has enjoyed a significant presence in Afghanistan under the brand of Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). Centered upon the remote Nangarhar and Kunar provinces of eastern Afghanistan, ISKP coordinates the transnational jihadist group’s operations across South and Central Asia, claiming recent attacks in India, Pakistan and Tajikistan as well as a broader regional network spanning from Kyrgyzstan to Myanmar.

Following its formal declaration in January 2015, ISKP rapidly rose to become ISIS’s most successful affiliate beyond Syria and Iraq, commanding over 5,000 fighters from a territorial enclave in al-Qaeda’s former heartland along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Much like al-Qaeda, ISKP has come under significant pressure from U.S and Afghan counterterrorism operations over recent years, which coupled with repeated Taliban offensives, has resulted in the group losing its territorial foothold. Moreover, ISKP has been beset by significant losses amongst its upper echelons, notably the capture of the group’s leader, Aslam Farooqi, during a raid by Afghan forces in April 2020.


However, ISKP has demonstrated remarkable resilience, repeatedly showcasing the group’s capacity to conduct highly coordinated operations, including an August 2020 assault which freed over 200 ISKP fighters from a Jalalabad prison. They have also conducted high-profile mass casualty attacks in major urban centres, such as the May 2021 Kabul school bombing that left 85 people, predominantly teenage girls, dead. Such attacks illustrate that even under considerable pressure from both the Afghan government and Taliban, ISKP possesses the ability to conduct large-scale attacks, ensuring that the group will continue to pose a significant threat to Afghanistan’s future stability.

Nevertheless, current indications suggest that ISKP is rebounding from its recent losses and stands poised to exploit the security vacuum created by America’s withdrawal. Originally established by disaffected Pakistani militants, ISKP has consolidated its linkages with communities and demographics sympathetic to Salafism, thus embedding the group with the local populace. There has also been a greater emphasis on “quality over quantity”, with ISKP reportedly concentrating on the recruitment of smaller cadres of educated professionals and highly experienced fighters in a worrying bid to make the group a more coherent, dynamic and resilient force. Even more concerning, ISKP has reportedly expanded beyond its traditional strongholds along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, establishing a significant presence near Balkh and Mazar-e-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan, areas which historically experienced negligible jihadist influence.

Some analysts have suggested that the silver lining of a Taliban’s resurgence may constrain ISKP’s influence within Afghanistan. Whilst it is true that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are hostile to ISKP, seeing the groups are apostates and rivals in the global jihadist struggle, neither group is opposed to collusion when it suits their respective interests. Notably, Taliban operatives have reportedly assisted in the planning and coordination of ISKP attacks against Afghan government targets via the semi-autonomous Haqqani Network. 

The Regional Dimension: Khorasan as the Next Syria?

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the likely resurgence of al-Qaeda and ISKP is the possibility that Afghanistan will return to being the epicentre of a regional jihadist menace across South and Central Asia. Indeed, the threat posed by transnational jihadism radiating from Afghanistan is arguably even greater than that posed at al-Qaeda’s peak. Moreover, enabling environments for jihadist insurgencies fuelled by a toxic combination of poor governance, marginalisation and repression are more plentiful than ever in Afghanistan’s near abroad.

ISKP’s enlarged presence across Northern Afghanistan has already raised alarm bells in Central Asian capitals. For over two decades, jihadist groups such as the Islamic Movement of the Uzbekistan have employed Afghanistan as a base from which to coordinate attacks across the ex-Soviet republics. Post-Soviet Central Asia has never harboured a significant Islamist insurgency on its own soil. However, Syria represented a magnet for foreign fighters across the region, particularly from the impoverished mountainous republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. As jihadists come under increased pressure in Syria, the threat of an exodus of hardened fighters to Afghanistan, a stone’s throw away from Central Asia, becomes ever more likely. ISKP has reportedly sought to establish networks across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and has already committed attacks in Tajikistan, notably the killing of four Western cyclists in July 2018.


Central Asia is far from the only region at risk from a resurgence of transnational jihadist groups in Afghanistan. Despite Islamabad’s recent efforts to consolidate control over the borderlands, the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier remains extremely porous. Afghanistan’s looming potential collapse risks reigniting the recently contained insurgency in Northwest Pakistan, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 2004. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a militant group closely linked to al-Qaeda, has claimed a spate of attacks over recent weeks, most notably the bombing of a hotel in Quetta during May which left five Chinese expats dead.

Afghanistan’s geographical proximity to Muslim-majority regions such as Kashmir and Xinjiang raises the possibility that the country may become a base from which Kashmiri and Uyghur jihadist groups such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Turkistan Islamic Party can reignite their insurgencies, exploiting longstanding grievances stemming from securitisation and repression of Muslim populations. Given the multifarious zones of weak, repressive or non-existent governance immediately adjacent to Afghanistan, the Kabul regime’s collapse is highly likely to produce contagion effects.

Of course, the security ramifications of flowing from the revival of al-Qaeda and ISKP are unlikely to be confined to Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. Perhaps the most worrying trend in South Asian jihadism over recent years has been the emergence of small, decentralised networks exploiting local dynamics and grievances yet pledging allegiance to transnational jihadist groups, thus allowing al-Qaeda and ISKP to gain a foothold in conflict ecosystems and ungoverned spaces across the region.

If ISKP regain their former territorial foothold following NATO’s withdrawal, Afghanistan may become ISIS’s next Syria, providing a base from which regional affiliates can train, coordinate and conduct attacks, thus fuelling localised jihadist insurgencies in places like Rakhine State. Crucially for the West, Afghanistan may even revert to its former role as a safe haven from which jihadist groups can plan direct attacks against western targets, harking back to the pre-9/11 era. 

Whilst America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades may represent a symbolic end to the ‘War on Terror’, the continued long-term threat posed by transnational jihadism is unchanged. Despite Washington’s desire to recalibrate towards tackling domestic extremism and emerging great power competition with Moscow and Beijing, the situation in Afghanistan, if sidelined, may allow al-Qaeda and ISKP’s sprawling transnational networks to metastasize, risking a repeat of ISIS’s dramatic rise across Syria and Iraq in 2014, or even another large-scale terrorist attack.

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