Are the Afghan Taliban Involved in International Terrorism?
September 3, 2009
In a video aired on ABC News in June 2007, Afghan Taliban commander Mansour Dadullah is shown speaking to a group of around 300 masked men. The men are presented as “suicide bombers” about to go on missions in Western countries, in particular to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. The video created considerable media attention, but was soon dismissed as “jihadist bravado” rather than representing a genuine threat. Two years after it was aired, the Afghan Taliban have yet to put Dadullah’s words into action.
The Afghan Taliban movement has changed considerably since it was first formed in southern Afghanistan in 1994, and it has been described by some scholars as an integrated part of the global jihadist movement. Afghan Taliban leaders frequently use “al-Qa`ida-style” anti-Western rhetoric, and insurgents have endorsed suicide bombing as a tactic—a phenomenon previously unknown in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban’s most immediate enemies are the United States and its allies, who they claim have occupied their country since 2001. They do not shun attacking and killing foreigners—civilian as well as military—inside Afghanistan. Is it only a matter of time before the Afghan Taliban start engaging more directly in international terrorism?
This article assesses the likelihood of the Afghan Taliban carrying out terrorist attacks in the homelands of NATO countries that are militarily engaged in Afghanistan. It argues that while individual insurgent commanders have issued threats to attack the West, the senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban are currently uninterested in pursuing such a strategy. While this may be due to a number of factors, this article stresses that such a venture could easily jeopardize the Afghan Taliban leadership’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. At the same time, it cannot be excluded that such attacks could be carried out by lower echelons of the network or by individual sympathizers, especially if the opportunity arises. The Baitullah Mehsud-led faction of the Pakistani Taliban has already shown willingness to exploit such opportunities, making them a greater immediate terrorism threat to Western countries than the Afghan Taliban.
Attacks on Westerners Inside Afghanistan
The Afghan Taliban’s insurgent campaign uses a mixture of guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics. Most attacks have targeted Afghan police and security forces, international troops, and Afghan civilians. Foreign civilians inside Afghanistan have also been subjected to attacks. This includes targeted attacks on foreign diplomats and NGO workers, but also terrorist attacks against places frequented by foreigners. The Afghan Taliban use these attacks to achieve political and propaganda aims and to support the wider insurgent effort. For example, the Afghan Taliban have claimed that diplomatic missions from NATO states are targeted because they have troops stationed in Afghanistan. After the bombing of the German Embassy in Kabul in 2008, a Taliban spokesman justified it by saying, “The Germans have forces in the north of Afghanistan and they are involved in the killing of innocent Afghans.” The spokesman also threatened that “the Taliban will target all those countries that have forces in Afghanistan.”
The Afghan Taliban have also expressed enmity toward the West for other reasons than the military “occupation” of their country. Countries that are perceived as insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have been directly threatened. The Netherlands received several threats in 2008 after a Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, released the Islam-critical movie called Fitna. The Afghan Taliban leadership’s statements encouraged all Muslims of the world to take revenge against the “insults.” At the same time, however, the Afghan Taliban said these retaliations would be limited to attacking Dutch soldiers inside Afghanistan, and they also claimed to have carried out actual attacks to this end:
On our part we pledge revenge—Allah willing—on these Dutch soldiers with the value of their skulls, who came to our land as occupiers and where most are present in Uruzgan Province. The killing of two of them yesterday and the destruction of their tanks are a part of the series of revenge…
Overall, there is little doubt that the Afghan Taliban are hostile to the West and that they do not shun attacking foreigners—civilian as well as military—inside Afghanistan. Yet, attacking Western targets outside of Afghanistan’s conflict zone is a different matter.
Specific Threats and Plots to Attack in Western Countries
Mullah Dadullah and his brother Mansour Dadullah were the Afghan Taliban leaders who most explicitly threatened to take the battle outside Afghanistan’s borders. Mullah Dadullah, who was a member of the Afghan Taliban’s shura council and commander in southern Afghanistan, was killed in May 2007. He was succeeded by his brother, Mansour Dadullah, who subsequently appeared in a series of interviews and propaganda videos. Mansour Dadullah, for instance, was the leader who threatened to dispatch suicide bombers to Western countries in June 2007. Interestingly, Mansour Dadullah was sacked from the Taliban in December 2007, officially because he refused to obey the chain of command.
The exact nature of the relationship between the Dadullah brothers and al-Qa`ida is not known. Mullah Dadullah’s statements, and those of his brother Mansour, have on several occasions contradicted the official statements of the Afghan Taliban leadership. The Dadullah brothers were also known to run their own media campaign (through a local “media agency” called Umar Studio), indicating a certain desire to act autonomously. Ultimately, there were few indications that Mansour Dadullah had the actual will or capabilities to follow up on his threat. In the two years after the video was issued, no firm links have been established between arrested terrorist suspects in Western countries and Dadullah or the Afghan Taliban.
Another example of threats against the West was a video aired on al-Arabiya in November 2008. The video showed a local Afghan Taliban commander nicknamed “Farouq,” who claimed responsibility for killing 10 French soldiers in an ambush in Kabul Province on August 18, 2008. He warned France that they should withdraw from Afghanistan or “they will hear our response in Paris.”
The local commander’s threats to carry out attacks in Paris appeared to be bravado. In December 2008, however, explosives were found in a department store in Paris, and a group calling itself the Afghan Revolutionary Front claimed responsibility. In a letter, the group stated,
Send the message to your president that he must withdraw his troops from our country before the end of February 2009 or else we will take action in your capitalist department stores and this time, without warning.
It is not publicly known whether any members of the alleged group were arrested, but in any case there were few indications that the group had any organizational links to the Afghan Taliban or al-Qa`ida. As analysts noted, the language in the letter as well as the group’s modus operandi seemed to resemble left-wing activists more than militant Islamists. As far as is known, neither the Afghan Taliban leadership nor Farouq’s group issued any further comments in the case. The failure of the Afghan Taliban leadership to publicly refute Farouq’s statement, or statements from the Dadullah brothers, is not necessarily indicative of their tacit approval; the Afghan Taliban leadership generally avoids criticizing members in public to avoid fueling rumors of splits or disagreements within the movement.
Pakistani Taliban a Different Case
The Pakistani Taliban, which is distinct from the Afghan Taliban, has a record of involvement in international terrorism. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Baitullah Mehsud until his recent death, has made explicit threats to attack the West, and it has even claimed responsibility for such attacks. While not part of the Afghan Taliban, it is useful to compare the TTP’s claims with those of Afghan Taliban militants. Some of the TTP’s claims have been unsubstantiated, such as in April 2009 when Baitullah Mehsud claimed responsibility for a firearms attack on a U.S. immigration center in New York State, carried out by a Vietnamese national. A more interesting case is the Barcelona plot, revealed in January 2008, when a dozen Pakistanis and two Indians were arrested in Spain and accused of plotting to attack Barcelona’s public transportation system. In a videotaped interview released in August that year, TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar took responsibility for the plot. He said that the men “were under pledge to Baitullah Mehsud” and indicated that the attacks were motivated by Spain’s military presence in Afghanistan. There were other indications of links between the arrested militants and the TTP. Notably, one of the group’s members claimed to have received training in Waziristan and Afghanistan, as well as having met with the TTP’s leader.
The Barcelona case indicates that the TTP leadership is willing to be associated with, and possibly also directly involved in, international terrorist plots. This is in contrast to the Afghan Taliban, which have not yet been associated with any plots to launch attacks in Western countries.
Capabilities and Opportunities
An important reason why the Afghan Taliban leadership is not taking their battle to Western countries may be the lack of capability. Unlike groups such as the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) or al-Qa`ida, which have both staged a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, the Taliban do not have strong and active support networks in the West. Most of its foreign support networks are believed to be located in the Gulf region and in Pakistan. Nevertheless, they could theoretically coordinate with the al-Qa`ida network or other foreign militants present in Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry out attacks on their behalf; it appears, however, that they have decided against this strategy. For example, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) has attracted volunteers from Europe who have carried out operations in Afghanistan on behalf of the Haqqani network. In the most publicized incident, a German national of Turkish origin, Cüneyt Ciftci, carried out a suicide attack against a U.S. military base in Khost. The attack was commended by Jalaluddin Haqqani himself, illustrating the direct link between the foreign militants and the local group. It appears that if the Haqqani network wanted to send militants to carry out attacks in Europe, it would have enough candidates. Notably, the Sauerland cell—a group of German nationals who plotted to carry out terrorist attacks in Germany in 2006—was said to have ties with the IJU and had received training in North Waziristan. Still, there were no indications that they were acting on behalf of the Afghan Taliban or other local groups, despite the fact that the Afghan Taliban have identified Germany as one of its main enemies.
It appears that while Afghan militants may use foreign volunteers to fight in their local guerrilla war, they seem less interested in using them to carry out attacks abroad. When Sirajuddin Haqqani was asked about the foreigners he trained—in particular the militants from the IJU—he stated that “we are concerned with the war here in Afghanistan, and prefer them to carry out attacks here.” In another interview he was even more explicit, saying:
We have asked our allies whether living in Pakistan or any other part of the world to carry out attacks against Americans only in Afghanistan and not in any other country. Our policy is that we would not interfere in the affairs of any other country whether it is an Islamic or non-Islamic country.
This also appears to be the policy of the Afghan Taliban leadership. In 2008, the official spokesman of the Afghan Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, stated that “the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are based in Afghanistan, the leadership is in Afghanistan, and our activities are inside Afghanistan.” Notably, the Afghan Taliban have also distanced themselves from al-Qa`ida’s global terrorist campaign. In an interview in 2009, Zabihullah Mujahid said, “Taliban is one thing and al Qaeda is another. They are global we are just in the region.” It should be noted that the Afghan Taliban leadership has not officially denounced al-Qa`ida or its activities, and they have stated that al-Qa`ida and other foreign Muslims are welcome to join their fight in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it appears that the Afghan Taliban leaders themselves do not wish to be associated with al-Qa`ida’s global jihadist strategy.
One might argue that it is merely a question of “ideology” and traditions. The Afghan Taliban leadership, however, is not static and unchangeable; the endorsement of suicide bombing as a tactic after 2001 is one example of that. A more accurate answer may be found by looking at the incentives and disincentives the Afghan Taliban leadership may have for carrying out a terrorist attack in the West.
Incentives and Disincentives
A possible incentive for the Afghan Taliban to plot attacks in the West would be to create a “Madrid effect.” This refers to the terrorist attack carried out by militant Islamists in Madrid in 2004. The attack was executed shortly before the Spanish elections, and probably contributed to the opposition party’s victory because it had promised to pull Spanish forces out of Iraq. A document was circulated on jihadist websites prior to the attack arguing in favor of such a strategy, and it is possible that the document had inspired the attackers.
Similarly, the Afghan Taliban leadership is fully aware of the disagreements and fault lines within NATO, and they understand that in several European countries there is low public support for the war. The Afghan Taliban have issued statements  to European audiences encouraging them to stop supporting their country’s politics and to stop “serving America’s interests.” Nevertheless, one might wonder why the Taliban have not sought to better exploit NATO’s weak points.
The answer may lie in the fact that the Afghan Taliban have strong disincentives for carrying out attacks abroad. Although not stated directly, the Afghan Taliban leadership is probably reluctant to carry out activities that would increase the pressure on its sanctuaries in Pakistan. Since 2001, the Pakistani government has been allied with the United States in the “war on terrorism,” but at the same time it is widely believed that the Afghan Taliban have enjoyed unofficial support from within Pakistan’s territory. This might explain why the presence of Afghan Taliban leaders on Pakistani soil has been somewhat “tolerated” by Pakistan since 2001, while a number of al-Qa`ida members have been actively pursued and arrested. In 2004, the Pakistan Army started to crack down on Pakistani militants in the tribal areas, initially because they were suspected of hiding international terrorists but more recently because they have become a security threat to the regime itself. Today, Pakistani authorities are under increasing pressure to do more about the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries as well, especially since these sanctuaries are seen as an impediment to the U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban have consistently denied having any organizational affiliation with the Pakistani Taliban, or to have any ambition outside Afghanistan at all. Under the current circumstances, to start engaging in international terrorism would be too risky for its overall strategy. As long as the Afghan Taliban are experiencing relative success with their present strategy, there is a lack of incentive to venture into new territory.
Anne Stenersen is a Research Fellow and Ph.D. candidate with the Terrorism Research Group at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). She holds an M.Phil. in Arabic studies from the University of Oslo and is the author of the book Al-Qaida’s Quest for Weapons of Mass Destruction: The History Behind the Hype. Her current research focuses on Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She would like to thank Dr. Thomas Hegghammer for his assistance with this article.
[1 ] “Inside the Taliban Graduation,” ABC News, June 28, 2007.
 Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2007), p. 13.
 As a starting point, it is essential to distinguish between the various layers of the Afghan insurgency. The Afghan Taliban leadership (Mullah Omar and his shura council, also referred to as the Quetta shura) gives general directions and speaks on behalf of the organization, while local commanders in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan carry out militant activities in the Taliban’s name, often with a high degree of autonomy. Foreign militant networks such as the “Pakistani Taliban” and al-Qa`ida support the Afghan Taliban insurgency, but they typically have wider agendas and carry out attacks in their own name. Moreover, in this article it has been assumed that the official views of the senior Afghan Taliban leadership are those that are expressed through the official websites, communiqués and spokesmen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Mullah Omar himself stated in 2007: “The comments of the Islamic Emirate are those which are released by our official spokesmen and our al-Emarah web page.” For more, see Mukhtar A. Khan, “Quetta: The Headquarters of the Afghan Taliban,” CTC Sentinel 2:5 (2009).
 For other studies discussing the internationalization of local conflicts, see Åshild Kjøk, Thomas Hegghammer, Annika Hansen et al., Restoring Peace or Provoking Terrorism? Exploring the Links between Multilateral Military Interventions and International Terrorism (Kjeller: Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2003); Brynjar Lia and Åshild Kjøk, Islamist Insurgencies, Diasporic Support Networks, and Their Host States – The Case of the Algerian GIA in Europe 1993-2000 (Kjeller: Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2001); Matthew Levitt, ”Could Hamas Target the West?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30:11 (2007): pp. 925-945.
 For more on the European plot that allegedly involved the Baitullah Mehsud-led Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, see Fernando Reinares, “A Case Study of the January 2008 Suicide Bomb Plot in Barcelona,” CTC Sentinel 2:1 (2009).
 “Two Dead in Explosion Near German Embassy,” Der Spiegel, January 17, 2009.
 In 2005, a series of 12 cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad appeared in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which sparked a wave of protests across the Muslim world.
 Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, “The Eternal Enemies of Islam Have Committed Another Historic Crime!” April 1, 2008.
 Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, “Statement from the Shura Council on the Production of a Film Desecrating the Qur’an by a Member of Parliament in Holland,” March 30, 2008; Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, “Heavy Casualties Were Inflicted on the Dutch Forces in Uruzgan (in revenge for the film Fitna by Geert Wilders),” March 31, 2008; Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, “Killing 8 Dutch Occupiers, Including the Son of the Commander of the Dutch Forces, in the Series of Revenge Operations in Retaliation for the Publishing of the Harmful Film ‘Fitna,’” April 21, 2008.
 “Inside the Taliban Graduation.”
 There was speculation that he was trying to establish an independent power base with support from his al-Qa`ida allies, and it was feared that he would become a rival to Mullah Omar. See “Dadullah Sacking Highlights Taliban Rifts,” Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, January 16, 2008.
 There are few details of this relationship in open sources. It can be noted, however, that besides Shaykh Muhammed Yasir, Mullah Dadullah and his brother Mansour are the only high-ranking Taliban members who have been featured by al-Qa`ida’s propaganda agency al-Sahab.
 “Taliban Threatens to Carry Out Operations ‘in Paris’ Unless France Withdraws from Afghanistan,” al-Arabiya, November 18, 2008; “Taliban Video Warning to France,” Reuters, November 17, 2008.
 “Taliban Kill 10 French Troops in Afghanistan,” Reuters, August 19, 2008.
 “Explosives Found in Paris Store,” BBC, December 16, 2008.
 “Explosives Found in Paris Department Store,” Times Online, December 17, 2008.
 The official sacking of Mansour Dadullah by the Taliban leadership in December 2007 was an exceptional case.
 “Pakistani Taliban Chief Claims U.S. Shooting,” Reuters, April 13, 2009; “FBI Rejects Mehsud’s Claim for NY Attack,” Dawn, April 4, 2009.
 For a detailed analysis of this plot and its international links, see Reinares.
 “NEFA Exclusives: Video Interviews with Top Pakistani Taliban Spokesman Maulvi Omar,” NEFA Foundation, August 29, 2008.
 “Taliban’s Foreign Support Vexes U.S.,” Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2009.
 Einar Wigen, Islamic Jihad Union: al-Qaida’s Key to the Turkic World? (Kjeller: Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2009).
 “Germany’s First Suicide Bomber in Afghanistan?” Der Spiegel, March 15, 2008.
 “Video: Afghanistan: Veteran Mujahadeen Defies West,” Adnkronos International, undated.
 Petter Nesser, “Lessons Learned from the September 2007 German Terrorist Plot,” CTC Sentinel 1:4 (2008).
 “Interview with Taliban Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani,” NEFA Foundation, August 18, 2008.
 “Taliban’s Siraj Haqqani Shrugs Off $5m Bounty,” AfPax Insider, July 4, 2009.
 “Interview with Taliban Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid,” NEFA Foundation, February 1, 2008.
 “Transcript: Afghan Taliban Spokesman Discusses War,” CNN, May 5, 2009.
 “Agha Jan Mu’tasim: The Struggle in Afghanistan and Opportunities for Dialogue,” al-Jazira, May 10, 2009. Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer, “Jihadi Strategic
 Studies: The Alleged Al Qaida Policy Study Preceding the Madrid Bombings,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 27:5 (2004): pp. 355-375.
 It should be noted that the Taliban’s propaganda does not resemble jihadist “strategic literature” with its quasi-neutral analyses and specific strategy recommendations. Rather, the propaganda aims at justifying the Afghan Taliban’s actions in retrospect, and it quotes sources selectively to convey the impression that a Taliban victory is inevitable.
 The IJU and al-Qa`ida have been even more explicit, encouraging people in Germany to vote for politicians in the upcoming elections who want to pull German troops out of Afghanistan, and also threatening actual attacks. For example, the propaganda uses the low public support for the war in Germany as “proof” that NATO is about to collapse; it is not written as an explicit recommendation to its followers to carry out attacks inside Germany.
 “Taliban’s Sanctuary Bases in Pakistan Must be Eliminated,” RAND Corporation, June 9, 2008.
 “Interview with Taliban Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid,” NEFA Foundation, February 1, 2008.