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To the Western news consumer, groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS may be confusing. Do they work together? Are they enemies? Do they share the same goals? With the Taliban once again seizing control of Afghanistan and a splinter group of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) having launched a vicious attack on American troops defending the airport in Kabul, it can be helpful to look at the relationships and differences between the groups to understand the threats that the U.S. and its allies may be facing in the future.
Taliban means student, and it is thought that the group originated in Islamic schools that taught strict Sunni Islam. The group rose to prominence in the 1990s, eventually seizing control of Afghanistan. They imposed fundamentalist Sharia law and implemented measures such as requiring men to grow beards and women to wear burkas, carrying out public executions and amputations on lawbreakers, and denying girls the ability to go to school after age 10. The Taliban entered the U.S. public’s knowledge after the 9/11 terror attacks. The Taliban did not directly take part in planning or carrying out 9/11 but was thought to have harbored members of Al Qaeda, the group that actually was responsible for the attacks.
The group was overthrown by the U.S. military in 2001 but continued to hold remote and rugged territory in the country. While the group is no longer classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, that does not mean it is even close to be innocent of atrocities. For example, the group tried to murder Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani activist. Yousafzai later wrote about the hardship brought by the Taliban, including the forced closure of girls’ schools.
In 2014, the Taliban was also responsible for the Peshawar school massacre, leaving 141 children and staff dead.
Al-Qaeda, which means foundation, was founded by Osama bin Laden and grew in power and influence up to its perpetration of the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda has splintered over the years as a result of military engagement by the West. While the Taliban has allegedly agreed to stymie terrorist activity against the West in Afghanistan, reports indicate that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda still maintain ties and that Al-Qaeda members have expressed happiness at the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
One Al-Qaeda fighter said, “God willing, the success of the Taliban will be also a chance to unify mujahideen movements like al-Qaeda and Daesh.”
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — known by several monikers such as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh — is likely the most extreme and brutal terrorist group of the three. Like the Taliban, the group practices a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. It rose to power in 2014-2015 in the wake of the Iraq War, having recruited tens of thousands of jihadist fighters, seizing huge tracts of territory, and establishing a caliphate. Its brutal reputation was solidified when it went out of its way to kidnap and publicly torture and gruesomely kill private citizens, including children, Westerners, and Christians, as well as prisoners of war. Among its many victims were American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker.
The Taliban is no friend of ISIS and was used as an ally at times by the West in order to more effectively combat ISIS. Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University said, “There was huge concern about it and suddenly there was a desire to find some common ground with the Taliban.”
ISIS lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria in recent years due to U.S. military action, as well as the assassination of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by a group of elite U.S. special forces commandos.
However, the terror group has rebounded in part by moving into new areas, most notably Africa and Central Asia. ISIS-K — the K standing for Khorasan province, a region that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is an offshoot of ISIS that was founded in 2015 and has become a haven for disaffected jihadists from other terror groups, including the Taliban.
ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the horrific attack on the Kabul Airport that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and at least 90 Afghans. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reports that the terror group launched 100 attacks against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2015 and 2017, including on a girls’ school and a Shiite maternity ward. Moreover, ISIS-K had managed to increase its presence in and around Kabul, and in the first four months of 2021, carried out 77 terror attacks in Afghanistan
Although still relatively small compared to other terror groups, ISIS-K does have global aspirations, a CSIS paper noted, with one stated goal being to “[raise] the banner of al-Uqab above Jerusalem and the White House.”