There is mounting, controversial evidence that Afghanistan is rapidly turning into a cauldron for terrorist activity, with both al-Qaida and the Islamic State terror group’s Afghan affiliate growing substantially, in numbers and capabilities, without U.S. or Western forces on the ground.
The dire assessment, shared in a recently released United Nations report based on member state intelligence, concludes the terror groups “have greater freedom of maneuver” under Taliban rule and are making “good use of this.”
The report by the U.N. sanctions monitoring team warns that al-Qaida and the Taliban maintain a symbiotic relationship, “with al-Qaida viewing Taliban-administered Afghanistan a safe haven.”
In contrast, the report finds Islamic State Khorasan Province, also known as IS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, has used the Taliban’s inability to establish control over remote areas, as well as dissatisfaction with Taliban rule to its advantage.
"Attacks against high-profile Taliban figures raised [IS-Khorasan] morale, prevented defections and boosted recruitment, including from within the Taliban’s ranks,” the U.N. report said.
In each case, the U.N. report contends, the terror groups have significantly grown their footprints.
Al-Qaida, assessed to have had as few as several dozen members in Afghanistan a year ago, is believed to have 30 to 60 senior officials based out of Afghanistan, as well as an additional 400 fighters, 1,600 family members and a series of new training camps.
IS-Khorasan, according to the U.N. data, has grown to between 4,000 to 6,000 members, with strongholds or camps in at least 13 provinces and a network of sleeper cells that can reach Kabul and beyond.
But as alarming as the estimates in the U.N. report may be, multiple U.S. officials told VOA they have seen nothing to support such findings.
“These stats do not align with our intelligence community’s analysis in a number of areas,” one U.S. official told VOA on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters.
Another official was even more blunt, calling the estimates for the size of al-Qaida and Islamic State in the U.N. report “wildly out of whack.”
"These numbers are wildly out of whack with the best estimates of the U.S. intelligence community, and indeed the best estimates of our partners and allies," that senior administration official told VOA, likewise speaking on the condition of anonymity.
According to the senior official, U.S. intelligence assesses there are fewer than a dozen al-Qaida core members currently in Afghanistan and that there has not been a senior al-Qaida core leader in the country since the U.S. killed then al-Qaida core leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an airstrike in July 2022.
Al-Qaida “simply has not reconstituted a presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. departure in August 2021,” the official said, adding that it is unlikely attempts by al-Qaida to establish training camps in Afghanistan, as the U.N. report claims, would go unnoticed by the U.S. and its allies and partners.
“We are postured to see indications of al-Qaida activity were to be resurgent in various forms, whether it's a training camp, whether it's plotting that doesn't require a training camp," the official said.
The U.S. also rejected intelligence shared by some U.N. member states that al-Qaida’s de facto leader, Saif al-Adel, left his base in Iran and visited Afghanistan in 2022, with at least one member state asserting al-Adel is now based out of Afghanistan.
“We do not have indications that the likes of Saif al-Adel have traveled to Afghanistan,” the senior official said. “Al-Qaida, as far as we can tell, and we look pretty closely, they do not see Afghanistan right now as a permissive or hospitable environment in which to attempt to operate.”
As for the U.N report’s assertion that IS-Khorasan has grown to between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters, including family members, "that is thousands more than the [U.S.] intelligence community has assessed or assessed there to be," the senior official told VOA.
And while the U.S. agrees that IS-Khorasan has the desire to attack the United States, “it is clear that the terrorist group’s ability to do so, to actually fulfill that ambition, has faced setbacks in the last two years,” the official said.
“Our view is that ISIS-K has not closed that ambition-capacity gap that it very much hoped to close after the U.S. departure, and indeed has faced some very real setbacks and some very concerted pressure from the Taliban,” the official added.
The U.S. officials who spoke to VOA were unable to explain the divergence between the assessments of al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan as presented in the U.N. report and those of the U.S. intelligence community, noting previous reports by the U.N. sanctions monitoring team have tracked much more closely with Washington’s own findings.
But a source familiar with the production of the report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told VOA that U.S. officials were aware of the conclusions before it was published and did not raise objections.
The source also said that there appeared to be some disagreement among U.S. agencies, with some falling in line with some of the U.N.’s findings.
Western officials and researchers generally have viewed the U.N. reports as a valuable source of information, especially because they include the viewpoints of multiple countries, some of which sometimes have unique insights into developments on the ground.
And while they admit estimates from member states on how many fighters or members groups such as al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan have can vary significantly, the trends identified in the reports are significant.
“The [U.N.] monitoring team goes to great lengths to try to triangulate information, and it publishes things that it's reasonably confident of, and that goes through a rigorous editorial process,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former senior United Nations counterterrorism official and monitoring team coordinator, told VOA.
Fitton-Brown, now an adviser to the nonprofit Counter Extremism Project, said that even if there are disagreements over the extent to which al-Qaida or IS-Khorasan have grown their footprints in Afghanistan, the larger point remains.
The report “makes it very clear why the Taliban cannot, will not, live up to their responsibilities under the Doha accords,” he said, citing intelligence in the U.N. report that some Afghan Ministry of Defense courses now feature some al-Qaida training manuals.
Some analysts also have raised concerns based on the report’s findings.
“Historically, the U.S. has woefully underestimated al-Qaida’s strength in Afghanistan,” Bill Roggio, senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told VOA.
The U.N. report “is far more realistic than what U.S. intelligence is trying to present as the true estimate of al-Qaida strength in Afghanistan,” he added.
Other analysts highlighted the reported establishment of al-Qaida training camps in various Afghan provinces, as well as the ability of other, smaller terror groups to operate more freely.
“Afghanistan seems eerily reminiscent to pre-9/11 Afghanistan, with the number of groups that are allegedly active,” Colin Clarke, director of research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group, told VOA.
“That's what I think the nightmare scenario was for a long time, that the U.S. would have limited-to-no-presence in the country, and these groups would reconstitute, begin reestablishing training camps and then training these fighters — either Afghans or foreign terrorist fighters — for external operations,” Clarke said. “Terrorist groups thrive and indeed flourish amid instability. And that's exactly what we have here.”