Analysis

The Middle East’s Jihadis Are Copying the Taliban Model

Islamist groups are hoping that a turn to local jihad will win them international legitimacy.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Fighters from the former al-Nusra Front listen to a speech.
Fighters from the former al-Nusra Front listen to a speech at an armament school after they recaptured two military academies and a third military position south of Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 6, 2016. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has boosted the morale of numerous jihadi groups in the Middle East. But it also offers a political example to emulate—namely, an agenda more focused on local or national—as opposed to global—goals. The U.S. deal with the Taliban and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan suggest Washington could learn to reconcile with, and perhaps even rehabilitate, extremist groups that do not claim to be a direct threat. Jihadis in the Middle East have noticed and are hoping to eventually cut similar deals with the Biden administration.

Some analysts feel this new strategy might indeed help the United States cut costs as well as rebalance Middle East power dynamics in its favor. Others fear the links between local jihadi groups and global ones like al Qaeda—whether through direct affiliation, indirect links, or general sympathy—will be impossible to separate. Either way, the United States seems like it might be just as desperate to retreat from the Middle East as it was to pull out of Afghanistan. That makes emulating the Taliban a timely and attractive option for jihadi groups willing to claim to have reformed.

Among those groups is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Syrian jihadi group affiliated with al Qaeda that currently controls the last rebel-held enclave of Idlib, Syria. It was among the loudest to celebrate the Taliban’s rise to power. On the day the Taliban captured Kabul, HTS dispatched its fighters to distribute sweets in Idlib’s market squares, wave the Taliban’s flag, and chant “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” In a statement, the HTS officially congratulated the Taliban and promised to derive “steadfastness from such living experiences,” with an eye to recruiting more Syrians to continue fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has boosted the morale of numerous jihadi groups in the Middle East. But it also offers a political example to emulate—namely, an agenda more focused on local or national—as opposed to global—goals. The U.S. deal with the Taliban and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan suggest Washington could learn to reconcile with, and perhaps even rehabilitate, extremist groups that do not claim to be a direct threat. Jihadis in the Middle East have noticed and are hoping to eventually cut similar deals with the Biden administration.

Some analysts feel this new strategy might indeed help the United States cut costs as well as rebalance Middle East power dynamics in its favor. Others fear the links between local jihadi groups and global ones like al Qaeda—whether through direct affiliation, indirect links, or general sympathy—will be impossible to separate. Either way, the United States seems like it might be just as desperate to retreat from the Middle East as it was to pull out of Afghanistan. That makes emulating the Taliban a timely and attractive option for jihadi groups willing to claim to have reformed.

Among those groups is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Syrian jihadi group affiliated with al Qaeda that currently controls the last rebel-held enclave of Idlib, Syria. It was among the loudest to celebrate the Taliban’s rise to power. On the day the Taliban captured Kabul, HTS dispatched its fighters to distribute sweets in Idlib’s market squares, wave the Taliban’s flag, and chant “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” In a statement, the HTS officially congratulated the Taliban and promised to derive “steadfastness from such living experiences,” with an eye to recruiting more Syrians to continue fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said the HTS finds a suitable model in the Taliban for a variety of reasons. “The HTS will use the example of the Taliban’s steadfastness to inspire its cadre and convince them that there is no need to negotiate with Assad and that they must keep up the fight,” Tamimi said. “It would also model itself after the Taliban in the sense that it will engage with the international system to its advantage.”

HTS and other groups are learning it is possible to rebrand and be rehabilitated by the West. The Taliban’s diplomatic maneuvering and meetings in world capitals broke the taboo of engaging with so-called infidels and illustrated the advantages of reducing enemies. “The Taliban reached out to China, Russia, and Iran with the message that it is not a security threat to them and reduced its enemies. Whereas HTS’s main enemies are Russia and Iran, so it is trying to tell the U.S. and the West it is not a threat to them,” Tamimi said.

The terrorism tag no longer seems to be a hindrance either. The Haqqani network in Afghanistan carried out some of the most brutal attacks against U.S. forces, yet two of its members, leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and his uncle Khalil Haqqani, are ministers in the Taliban government. The HTS too has started to lobby and send clandestine messages to the United States that it wants the terrorist designation dropped in exchange for cutting off ties with al Qaeda. Moreover, the Taliban have set a precedent for other groups like the HTS to impose their own understanding of sharia or Islamic law without consultations.

“There are parallels, and Tahrir al-Sham’s leaders and supporters have on occasion referred to the Taliban as a model for what they want to do,” said Aron Lund, a Middle East specialist with the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “In their eyes, the Taliban stuck firmly to their principles but have also been pragmatic about how to achieve them—for example, by accepting diplomacy as a legitimate tool alongside armed action. Sitting down to talk to the United States was not uncontroversial among jihadis. It was a taboo being shattered.” 

Lund said among groups like the HTS, the Taliban are seen as a movement that is deeply rooted in their local environment and that works among their people. “Tahrir al-Sham supporters sometimes lament how jihadi purists in the al Qaeda milieu seem perfectly happy to end up as fugitives in mountain caves—as long as they never have to stray from their principles,” Lund said. “The real goal, they say, should be to gain mass support and establish facts on the ground, putting those principles into action by being smart about how to move forward. If, for the moment, you can only do it in a small place like Idlib, then so be it.” 

The HTS has, in fact, expanded its outreach to various tribes in Idlib. Although it has imposed urf or “customary law” and introduced religious books to school curricula, it has not dictated social norms that the population, by and large, disapproves of. 

Andrew Tabler is a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has written a book on Syria and worked closely with James Jeffrey, a former U.S. special representative for Syria engagement. He said groups like the HTS are hoping cosmetic reforms will win them reconsideration by the United States. “For these groups, the Taliban’s victory holds out a chance to be rehabilitated as militant Islamist groups by the U.S. but requires distancing or cutting from more extremist elements so they are not a concern for the U.S,” Tabler said. “It puts them in a bind but not one they cannot handle. The U.S. wants to get out of the region, so it is reconsidering such groups.” 

But there is a division among experts over the HTS break up with al Qaeda. Tamimi described it as “real” while Tabler is suspicious. Can the United States trust groups like the HTS? What’s clear is Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the leader of HTS, was groomed at the Bucca prison in Iraq, which is referred to as a university of jihad by locals. He mingled with al Qaeda’s rank and file and emerging Islamic State jihadis in the prison. In 2011, he was sent to Syria by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and formed Jabhat al-Nusra but soon fell out with Baghdadi and instead swore allegiance to al Qaeda. The United States treated al-Nusra as an arm of al Qaeda in Iraq and designated it a terrorist organization in December 2012. 

Jolani now swears he has cut the umbilical cord with his ideological parent al Qaeda, saying the HTS is merely a national actor working against Assad and Iranian militias. Some people in the United States feel he can be used to contain Iran in northwest Syria, and since his group isn’t a direct threat to the United States, it could possibly be taken off the list of terrorist outfits. They say during the United States’ war on terror, a lot of groups that were not particularly a threat to the United States and, in that sense, did not make the cut were also labeled terror networks. But others are more suspicious of the HTS’s claims about severing links to al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, arguing their acts qualified them to be designated as terrorists regardless. 

The fate of the Middle East’s jihadi groups will depend on the Biden administration’s policy in the region. But the Taliban’s victory has already severely dented the appeal of more moderate Islamists who advocated democratic elections, not arms, as the path to elect their leaders. The Taliban’s strategy to reclaim the country primarily through military means and not political negotiations with other Afghan actors reinforced HTS and other like-minded groups’ existing beliefs that weapons and not democracy is the path to gain power. In that sense, the Taliban’s victory is an enormous defeat not only for the United States but also for those in the Muslim Brotherhood, and other political organizations in the Arab world, who have espoused support for elections. That shift in the Islamic world’s balance of power may be the most important of all. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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