How will the return of the Taliban affect the jihadist movements in Turkey and Syria?

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The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has raised complex questions about the future of the Salafist jihadist movements, including in Turkey and neighboring Syria, where the threat from such groups has been largely contained. Whether the risks increase in the further course will largely depend on how the Taliban shape their relationship with jihadist groups in Afghanistan.

Turkish Islamists of various stripes welcomed the Taliban’s takeover, but some apparently had to dampen their cheers.

A journalist who has been close to Islamic State (IS) sympathetic groups in the past told Al-Monitor, on condition of anonymity, that Salafist groups in Turkey welcomed the Taliban takeover, but some were too cautious of the Taliban Authorities to speak out loudly. Victory ”propaganda. “The Konya Jamaat in particular, which has close ties to the Taliban, remained quieter than expected. The Konya Jamaat has had a longstanding relationship with the Taliban since the late 1990s. They provided fighters as well as financial and political support to the Taliban until 2010, ”said the journalist. “Other, small and weak pro-al-Qaeda groups, especially one based on Van, were louder than those in Konya, even though they had no direct links with the Taliban,” he added.

Some media close to the government also applauded the Taliban. Tamer Korkmaz, columnist for the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, wrote on September 1: “The 20-year occupation of Afghanistan ended yesterday evening with the withdrawal of the last American soldiers – excuse me, terrorists. The US western idol has crumbled. An extraordinary time has begun. Various western idols around the world will collapse one by one in the years to come. “

The Taliban also received ovations from an unusual source: secular but vehemently anti-American Turks who describe themselves as anti-imperialists. Dogu Perincek, chairman of the Homeland Party – a small but vocal anti-American and Euro-Asian group that claims to have influenced President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies in recent years – compared the Taliban’s triumph to the Turkish war of liberation after World War I and argued that the international community had no choice but to recognize the rule of the Taliban.

However, some Salafist jihadist groups in Turkey were not so lucky. For them, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are deviants from Islam who “conquered Afghanistan in cooperation with the US,” says a video published on YouTube. The prospect of recognition of the Taliban by the “Taghut” states, so the argument goes, is proof that they have failed to establish real Islamic rule. The video accuses the Taliban of deviating from the aim of jihad and of giving up the fight to negotiate with Americans in “luxury and noble hotels” in Doha.

At the center of the dispute between the jihadists in Turkey seems to be methods, namely the disagreement over whether to aim for Islamic Emirates or an all-encompassing Islamic caliphate. While the Taliban pursued Islamic rule that was limited to Afghanistan, pro-IS Salafist jihadist groups advocate a state for the entire Muslim world.

In Idlib, the north-west Syrian border province on Turkey and the last stronghold of radical Islamist rebels in the country, Salafist jihadist groups were less jubilant due to Taliban statements about relations with the international community.

Although Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant group in Idlib, has denied its al-Qaeda roots and tried to rename itself as a moderate faction that only fights the Syrian regime and is not hostile to the West, the Salafi is Jihad structures in Turkey and Syria are usually groups that fundamentally reject the international system. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is an example of how one can sustain a protracted war to defeat one’s enemies.

In fact, the HTS has already tried to copy the Taliban’s strategy by trying to “Syrianize” its ranks and show that it has given up the notion of global jihad. Since 2019, the group has often expressed a desire for good relations with the West, arguing that these do not pose a threat to the West.

This rhetoric acts as a sign of the intention of the HTS to follow the example of the Taliban and to wage a long war. Nevertheless, the HTS and other Salafist groups in Syria lack a solid sociological basis and support from the majority of Syrian opposition groups and ordinary Syrians who are dissatisfied with the regime. Still, they will certainly use the Taliban’s example as motivational propaganda.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan also sparked a debate about a possible movement of Islamist fighters from Syria to Afghanistan and vice versa. A flow from Syria to Afghanistan appears possible, but only in relation to Tajik, Uzbek, Chechen and Uighur groups. The Taliban don’t need Arab or European fighters. In addition, because of the security promises they make, they are not expected to accept such fighters. As for Asian fighters, two main reasons could lead them to move to Afghanistan. First, most of the Asian fighters in Syria came from Afghanistan and there is nothing more they can do in Syria. Second, and most importantly, the Taliban can easily melt them down into Afghan society.

However, could we see further regional mobilization of armed Salafist jihadist networks in the near future? Such a perspective appears unlikely in the Turkish-Syrian as well as in the Syrian-regional context, since most of the Salafist groups in the region were either defeated like IS or restricted to relatively small areas like the HTS and forced to transform. Salafist movements are very limited in Lebanon and almost non-existent in Jordan. Iraq is another country where the armed mobilization capacity of Salafist groups was broken during the US-led occupation, the civil war that followed, and the campaign against ISIS.

Turkey, meanwhile, has restricted the mobility and propaganda of Salafist groups and related communities and organizations. In addition, Ankara has put both IS and HTS cells under severe pressure by widely expanding its network during anti-IS operations.

In view of all this, a resurgence of a regional armed Salafist-jihadist movement appears very unlikely in the medium term.

Nonetheless, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will undoubtedly lead to some volatility in the security faults in the region. Despite the Taliban’s security promises to neighboring countries and the international community, some outstanding questions could influence the future course of global Salafist-jihadist movements. First, will the Taliban try to drive foreign jihadists out of Afghanistan? If so, will these fighters return to their home countries or look for other territories to hide in? Second, will the Taliban allow these fighters to destabilize neighboring countries? If not, will this lead to a full-blown conflict between the Taliban and Salafi jihadists in Afghanistan in the near future?

In all scenarios, the Taliban’s failure to work with the international community would create a vacuum with profound implications for the region. Central Asian countries in particular could be threatened by armed groups that have been living in exile in Afghanistan for years. Such militant movements could also hit Iran, Syria and Turkey in the medium term. For its part, Pakistan is already on the brink of reviving the Pakistani Taliban, who recently stepped up attacks on the security forces and renewed their oath of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban after the fall of Kabul.

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