Podcast with Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice and
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz, Faculty Member, Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center
Since the Taliban overthrew Afghan security forces when the U.S. withdrew, there has been widespread international concern about Afghanistan’s stability and regional security. In this episode, AMU’s Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to counterterrorism and international relations expert Dr. Mahmut Cengiz about the history of the Taliban and the rise of multiple terrorism factions in Afghanistan. Learn about the terrorism capacity of the Taliban, ISIS Khorasan or ISIS-K, and Al-Qaeda as well as their financial resources and what countries are backing these terrorist organizations. Also hear predictions for the future of Afghanistan and the likelihood of terrorist threats to the U.S. and other countries who are opposed to these terror organizations controlling Afghanistan.
Listen to the Episode:
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hello, everybody. Welcome. Thank you for joining us. Today, we are very fortunate because we’ve got a very special guest that is an expert in international relations and counterterrorism. Today, I’d like to introduce Dr. Mahmut Cengiz. Welcome.
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: Thanks Jarrod. Thanks for inviting me.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Before we begin, I’d like to introduce our guest today. Dr. Cengiz is an associate professor in research and a faculty member with the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he’s delivered training and assistance with international partners in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. He’s been involved with research projects from the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies.
Dr. Cengiz holds two master’s degrees and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and in the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology, has a master’s degree from the School of International Service Program from American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy Program at George Mason University.
His areas of expertise include counterterrorism, international security, Turkey-US relations, Middle Eastern politics, American security policy, and the Syrian conflict and refugees, as well as transnational crime. So as you could see, our guest today has a tremendous amount of background and I’m excited to hear what he has to share with us, in terms of what’s going on in Afghanistan, in the Middle East right now. So as we begin, speaking of the Taliban, can you share with us, sir, who is the Taliban.
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: To understand the Taliban, you need to know what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1989, the Soviets pulled out and then the next few years were pretty chaotic in the country. By 1992, there was a full blown civil war with tribal leaders fighting for power in the country. Two years later, a militia, called the Taliban, started getting attention, and many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. And some of them had also fought as Mujahideen.
And they had their own plans for the country. And one of its leaders in those years was saying that we want to go to Kabul and announce an Islamic government there. The people were so frustrated with this lawlessness and that the Taliban came marching alone from Kandahar to city and city, saying we are going to make cities safe for you again.
By 1996, the Taliban had seized the capital. They declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate and started imposing their own strict interpretation of Islamic law. They were like, you cannot watch movies. You cannot listen to music. Women cannot go to school. And, other than doctors, they can’t go to work. You have to wear a certain type of clothes. You have to have a certain kind of beard. It just became more and more restrictive in the country.
Then, 9/11 happened in 2001. The U.S. was after Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, who was hiding out in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s help. The Taliban said they want proof he was behind the attack, but when they refused to hand him over immediately, the Americans invaded and President Bush in those years was saying that the Taliban will pay a big price, which we have seen in this 20-year war, which is the longest war for the U.S.
Within a couple of months, the Taliban were forced out of power and Afghanistan got a new interim government. Two years later, it got a new constitution and Hamid Karzai was elected president. While that was going on, the Taliban had regrouped. They wanted foreigners out and they wanted back in. What followed those years was devastating conflict. And it’s still going on. More than 40,000 Afghan civilians killed in this 20-year period of war and at least 64,000 Afghan military and the police, and the more than 3,500 international soldiers, and most of them are Americans, lost their lives in this war.
The U.S. alone spent almost a trillion dollar on the war and the reconstruction projects. And after all that, Afghanistan is still deeply unstable and one of the poorest countries. I think the GDP per capita is around $500, which is even one third of another poor country, Haiti, in the world.
And also it’s one of the most corrupt state. According to the Corruption Perception Index, Afghanistan has been placed as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. I think also yesterday, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime published the Organized Crime Index. And we have seen that Afghanistan is the seventh country with the most crimes.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: So, in terms of the turmoil that’s going on there, in addition to the Taliban, who is ISIS-K, the Haqqani network and the Pakistani TTP?
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: In Afghanistan, terrorism databases have recorded several active groups. And one of them is Taliban. And in the terrorism databases in the last several years, Taliban is the first group with the most terrorist attacks. And also Afghanistan recorded other active groups and one of them is ISIS-K. ISIS Khorasan also was the perpetrator of the recent deadly attack in Kabul last month, killing 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.
ISIS-K announced the group’s formation in 2015 and appointed former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militant, Hafiz Saeed Khan, as its leader. ISIS-K also recruited defectors from the Taliban. And this resulted in a fight with Taliban. And in those years also, we have seen Jihadist groups from different parts of the world, pledging allegiance, or declaring loyalty to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. And in 2014 and 2015, in its peak, the ISIS was the most popular group.
We saw that also in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, this group was pledging allegiance to ISIS. And similar to that, in those years, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan pledged allegiance to ISIS-K, and declared that they were the members of Khorasan Wilayat of the group, which is ISIS’s franchise.
And the ISIS-K and the Taliban, I can say that they’re not good friends. Terrorism databases are recording some clashes between ISIS-K and the Taliban. And the ISIS-K sees the Taliban as an irreconcilable enemy that needs to be militarily defeated. The enmity between the two groups has been aggravated by sustained military hostilities, but the main cause remains their sectarian difference, which in ISIS-K, subscribes to the Jihadist Salafism ideology.
I can talk about this clash, which I mentioned before, I think it is similar to these clashes in the region. ISIS-K also was the perpetrator of more than 3,000 casualties. So ISIS-K, has been listed as one of the most deadliest organizations.
And by the way, maybe it’s better to emphasize here, the table about these terrorist organizations with the most casualties. And then this table recorded four out of 10 groups. They were all ISIS franchises, and one of them was ISIS-K.
We know that ISIS and Taliban had clashes for territorial fight in Kunar. Interestingly, both groups were fighting not only for ideology, but also for illegal logging, for generating revenue in Kunar province in Afghanistan.
How about the goals for ISIS-K? The group intended to topple the Pakistan government, punish the Iranian government for being a vanguard of Shias like the Hazaras in Afghanistan. Interestingly, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have seen that this Shia community have been especially targeted by ISIS-K.
So, it seems that in the future, we will hear more about ISIS because this group has a great capacity in the region. Just let me give you also some numbers showing us the group’s capacity.
This year in 2021, the group had already launched 77 attacks. And then in the first four months of 2021, an increase from 21 in the same period last year. This renewed capacity for mass casualty attacks could further destabilize Afghanistan, already precarious security situation.
Another information about its capacity, ISIS-K appears to target Afghans who worked with the U.S. government and others in the international community. This was evident in the August 26 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, which killed, as I said, 170 civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers. And also there are indicators that the group has plotted some international attacks from Afghanistan. And since 2018, the United Nations has reported the detection of plots in Europe, traceable to ISIS-K.
For example, last year, the German government charged four Tajik nationals for a plot to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities. The German government notes that these individuals were in contact with senior Islamic state leaders, including an ISIS-K leader in Afghanistan.
There is one more interesting information about the group and the ISIS-K’s regional and transnational terrorism ambitions are also concerning. The group has a cadre of foreign fighters from South Asia, the Middle East, and the powers of Europe. Additionally, ISIS-K appears to work closely with the al-Sadiq office. This is ISIS’s node for regional operations that is based in Afghanistan.
So as a result, I can say that ISIS-K seems to be one of the most active groups in the future. Then, also we will be hearing some attacks of ISIS-K in the region especially not only targeting region, but also the Western world.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Which reflects the threat that they pose both in Afghanistan, as well as in the international community. What do you see as a threat with ISIS-K in terms of the United States?
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: ISIS-K, looking at some incidents, some attacks or some plots in Europe since 2018, as I mentioned before, the German government did some investigations about these four Tajik nationals. And also we know that like ISIS or other Al-Qaeda groups, AQAP, Al-Qaeda in the Arab peninsula, Al-Qaeda franchise group, also has targeted U.S. before and has made some attempts targeting the U.S. It wouldn’t be surprising to see in ISIS-K’s agenda that they’re targeting the Western world and especially the United States.
And another important point here, these groups are aware of what makes them popular. Because we have seen that any target and attack in the Western world, especially the U.S., is making these groups so popular. Then thanks to this popularity, they can have more recruits and get more funding.
I think the U.S. needs to, according to me, give its attention on ISIS-K because after the Kabul attack, we have seen the group’s capacity and also after some investigations in Europe, now we are very well aware of what group is capable of doing attacks, not only in the region, as I said, but also targeting the U.S.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s important information for people to know. Who has sponsored the Taliban in that region?
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: That’s a great question, because we know that these groups are resilient and they have some financial resources. And also there are some states backing and sponsoring these organizations in the region, or in different parts of the world.
When we look at U.S. State Department list of states sponsoring terrorism, you can only see three or four countries, Iraq, Syria, in the past years, now I think North Korea and Syria and some others. But we know well that, there are some groups, also some states behind these groups in the region. And there are some accusations about Pakistan and also about Iran in the region, targeting or sponsoring these groups in the region.
And also, we know well that when Taliban was ruler in 2001, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan were the only three countries officially recognized the Taliban when the Taliban was a ruler. But after the Taliban took over Kabul, the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that the Taliban were breaking the chains of slavery.
And also we know that there are some long-standing and overlapping reasons why Pakistan is behind the Taliban. We need to talk about, for example, first, that Pakistan has vested ideological interest in the Taliban. And Pakistan is more interested in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions, which have large Pashtuns or Pashtuns-speaking populations. And in these regions, Pakistan has established madrassas to emphasize and teach a particularly strict brand of Islam in the hopes that Islamic nationalism will suppress Pashtuns nationalism.
And second reason in this context would be Pakistan, officials worry about the border with Afghanistan and believe that a Taliban government could ease their concerns. Since 1947, Afghan governments have rejected the Durand Line, which separates Pakistan Pashtun-dominated territories from Afghanistan.
And the third one here would be it is imperative for Pakistan to have Pakistan-friendly government established in Afghanistan. So, we were knowing well that former Ghani government had very close relations with Indian government, which Pakistan found it very, very concerning. And that’s why because of the regional interest of Pakistan, we have seen these accusations, especially sponsoring and providing some logistics to the organization.
Of course, always there is a second country, very active in the region, which is Iran. And it is very complicated to speak about Iran because, you may give the sense of conspiracy theories, but it wouldn’t be wrong to speak about the Iran’s very influential relations in the conflict zones. Also, in the Middle East and also with Taliban in Afghanistan as well.
We know that not only Taliban or ISIS-K has some relations with Iranian officials and also Iran is hosting today, Al Qaeda’s number two guy. And then also, we know that Iran is more concerned as I mentioned before, ISIS-K is especially targeting this the Shia community. That’s why, Iran is actively involved in internal affairs of Afghanistan. And also Iran is using this strategy, which is “my enemies’ enemy is my friend.” So, wherever there are U.S. interests, we have seen the active Iranian involvement just to giving its support to any group or any organizations, which U.S. forces are fighting.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: It’s amazing to me, how much is going on out in the world that a lot of U.S. citizens aren’t aware of, and this is certainly information that the people should be aware of. And as we talk about Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, what, sir, would you say is the Taliban’s capacity?
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: Taliban is a very well-organized group. In the United States Department of State statistical annex report, the Taliban is listed in the last years as the top organization with the most incidents, attacks and with the most casualties. And we know that Taliban had already set up a parallel state with leader and under it, local officials in charge of everyday practices.
And also Taliban had its own courts because justice has been a really very big issue in the country. And then, the courts were very popular because as I said, justice has been a huge gap where the state courts have failed. These Sharia courts are able to come into communities who may even be reticent to support the Taliban, but they offer justice. And the Taliban today is 85,000 full-time fighters and training camps across the country.
And the Taliban had a strong presence in almost all states in the country. I think terrorist databases have recorded the Taliban attacks in almost all 34 provinces in Afghanistan in 2019. Taliban had the capacity of doing these attacks in 33 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.
When it comes to its financial revenues and Taliban’s money, it’s one of the wealthiest organizations in the world. For example, according to United nations committee, Taliban make close to $1.5 billion a year. They always make a lot of money from growing opium poppies and the drug trade, but they have found more ways to generate income. Last year, they made, for example, around $500 million from mining and trading minerals and even producing methamphetamine. They also have their own tax collection system and receive funding from abroad, although suspected sources, with which we spoke about, like Pakistan and Iran, but they deny it.
When we look at, for example, the last 10 years, terrorist attacks and incidents in Afghanistan, I have seen some surges, especially starting from 2012. And then, the recent databases recorded more than 1,400 terrorist attacks in the country. It was very high in 2015, which it was very close to 2,000 attacks.
And let me give you some other details from State Department index report about Afghanistan and in 2019, almost 1,800 terrorist attacks happened in Afghanistan. And then the casualty, more than 16,000 people killed or wounded in these attacks in the country. And the Taliban itself was responsible for 83% of incidents, but the ISIS-K was responsible for 3% of all incidents as well.
I think also there are some interesting details in State Department’s statistical index report, which is showing us the capacity of this organization. For example, Taliban mostly targeted the government officials and the military. When we look at the victims, the group, especially targeted the government, I think I need to repeat here.
And when we look at this capacity, some details about Afghan Talibans’ targets or tactics, and the group’s mostly used shootings and the planted mines, IEDs, and also storming and rapid assault. So these are the tactics, which are used by especially the most capable organizations. And similar to that, and the group selectively targeted the military and then the government officials. Also the group, as I said, was really active, but the group’s Taliban’s attacks happened more in Kunduz and the Balk region, and also Kandahar as well.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Now, speaking of the attacks that have occurred, why did the Afghan security forces collapse so quickly?
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: We have seen some criticisms about the resilience and also the capacity of the Afghan government. And U.S., for example, just poured more than $83 billion in weapons and equipment and training into the country’s security forces over two decades. And, of course, former Afghan members, they complained about there was no air support, or they had run out of supplies and food.
I think also the Taliban’s strategy worked in the field because the group began with the individual attacks targeting outposts in rural areas, where storing and the ammunition deployed the soldiers and the police units were surrounded by Taliban fighters. And they promised safe passage if they surrendered and left behind their equipment.
It was slowly giving the insurgents more and more control of roads and then, entire districts’ positions collapsed. The complaint was almost, and always the same. Why the security forces collapsed, I think we really need to speak about the corruption because it is a facilitating factor for not only crime or money laundering, but also terrorism.
And in the region, as I said, Afghanistan is listed one of the most corrupt countries in the world and the US, and its NATO allies spent billions of dollars over two decades, training and equipping Afghan security forces. But the Western-backed government was rife with corruption and the commanders exaggerated the number of soldiers, which was also called as “ghost soldiers” in the region to siphon off resources and the troops in the field often lacked ammunition, supplies, or even food.
Also we can say the morale further eroded when it became clear the U.S. was on its way out. As the Taliban, they put advanced in recent days, entire units surrendered after [inaudible 00:23:17] and the Kabul and some nearby provinces fell without the fight.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: We all watched it unfold on television. And it just was just horrifying to see the 13 soldiers or servicemembers that were killed in the suicide bomb and to just see things deteriorate so quickly, it was definitely very disheartening. And it brings up the question, I think in a lot of our minds are, what implications does this have for the future? And would you be able to speak on future predictions?
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: I think there are some lessons, first, we need to speak about because there are some criticisms, for example, about Iraq. And the criticism was about that the Western world didn’t take some lessons from Iraq because in Iraq, the Western world ignored the role of corruption. And then that’s why we have seen this failure in Afghanistan.
And another important lesson would be, in this context, that the Western world needs to take some lessons about how much it is a decent strategy to push some nations in the Middle East or in Asia to transit from authoritarianism to democracy. And we have seen that culture is really very important element. And then also, it is really very important element in Afghanistan as well. And that’s why, we really need to take some lessons from Iraq and also the Afghanistan cases. And also, we really need to review our policies, especially in our fights countering terrorism or fighting against these violent groups that threaten, not only the original state, but also, the U.S.
But for the future predictions, I think Afghan case is seen as a model for extremists and the terrorist groups in other regions. A few days after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, a convoy of, for example, militants drove close to Idlib in northwestern Syria, and also they were doing some celebrations.
And also, we have seen in some other regions some celebrations, they began to believe that they can get some victories if they have the Taliban’s model like being resilient and also using more war tactics against the government.
Of course, another future predictions we were talking about more, does terrorism work? Because after 9/11, we haven’t seen any group being successful, but except for Taliban ultimately aimed its goal. Now, there is a discussion in the world about how much terrorism works. Also, there are some predictions about how much this case can serve or inspire other groups. As I said, other extremist groups, in the regions they’re operating.
And also a perception of Islam, because we have seen, it’s a big problem in European countries, Islamophobia or xenophobia. And also we know well that ISIS and Al-Qaeda, their brutality, their violence, their beheadings, and those other Jihadist terror organizations have really shaped the perception of the Western world.
But now, today we have seen how Taliban is exploiting Islam and it’s strict interpretation of Sharia Law and also doing this so called religious practices in the country. I think we can say that in the future, there might be, again, some biases, some prejudices on how Islam is having close linkages with terrorism or violence, which it is not true. It is more the issue of the matter of how Islam has been exploited and by these groups, and also how these groups are really using this strict interpretation of Islam in the region.
And also another one, we are really wondering about Taliban’s keeping its promise because the Taliban have sought to present themselves as a more moderate force in recent years. And since taking over, they promise to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought against them and they prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terror attack, but many Afghans are skeptical of those promises.
And also, another future prediction would be about the Al-Qaeda’s presence in the region, because we know that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are competing with each other to be like the caliph, like the leader of the Islamic world. That’s why both groups have some franchises in different parts of the world.
And we are much concerned the Haqqani network, another one, I think it is an active group in Afghanistan, which they mostly operated in Kabul, in the capital. But of course we know well that there is a very strong linkage with the Haqqani group and also with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
I think also looking at the current Afghans government, because as I said in the beginning of my talk, there are three active groups: Haqqani network, ISIS Khorasan, this ISIS franchise, and the Taliban. Interestingly, we have seen that except for ISIS-K, Haqqani network and also Taliban now, they have some representations in the government.
Interestingly, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of this Haqqani group now is the Minister of Interior. I don’t believe that we will see some effective cooperation about terrorism issues, then we are seeing the leader of Haqqani network as the Minister of Interior in the country.
And looking at this government in Afghanistan, I can say that, the future doesn’t seem to be promising. I am not much hopeful about Taliban and also about the future of Afghan people in the region.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: It definitely is an eye opening, what’s going on in the Middle East. Well, Dr. Cengiz, I would like to thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for sharing your expertise.
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz: Thanks for inviting me.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: And thank you for attending our podcast today and listening. And we look forward to you joining on our next podcast.