Riding high off of an enormous victory over the West and armed with billions of dollars of American-made weapons and military equipment, could Afghanistan become the new focal point of jihadism in the Greater Middle East? Al Qaeda certainly seems to think so. On a recent episode of the SpyTalk podcast, counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan described how Al Qaeda and the Taliban believe that Afghanistan is the capital of the mythical “Khorasan” caliphate, an Islamic empire that extends over large swaths of Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan and is destined to extend to Jerusalem on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This prophecy helps explain why Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Taliban—as Osama bin Laden had before him—and why the terrorist organization will remain an intimate part of the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
Will the Taliban and Al Qaeda appropriate this prophecy to recruit foreign fighters from the world over like ISIS once did? As Daniel Byman underscored in Foreign Affairs, between 10,000 to 20,000 jihadist volunteers passed through Afghanistan’s terrorist training camps from 1996 to 2001, becoming indoctrinated in Al Qaeda’s worldview of anti-American global jihad. They could do so again. Furthermore, with ISIS’ caliphate in ruins and Al Qaeda and the Taliban looking ascendant over a defeated West, the Taliban could even lure disillusioned members of ISIS to its side, simultaneously co-opting their capabilities while removing them as a threat to its control. Undoubtedly, there is a new jihadist superstar on the block, and extremists have a reason to feel emboldened. “This is way bigger than Kabul… way bigger than, frankly, Saigon,” Soufan says. “This is a great geopolitical shift in the world order.”
Adam Lammon is the Managing Editor of The National Interest and a Junior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He received his master’s degree in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He tweets @AdamLammon.