Afghanistan: UK security services concerned about potential terrorist activity in ‘ungoverned spaces’

Afghanistan: UK security services concerned about potential terrorist activity in ‘ungoverned spaces’

British intelligence agencies are monitoring the impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on jihadists in the UK and groups that may take advantage of “ungoverned spaces”.

In a 2020 deal that ensured the withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban pledged to ensure terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Isis were not able to use Afghan territory to train and plot foreign attacks.

But there are concerns that the agreement may not be honoured, or that the Taliban may lose control of parts of the country to its rivals.

Security services in the UK are also monitoring the impact of the Taliban’s sweep into power on jihadists in Britain and around the world, and if it could increase the threat of lone actor attacks.

They are watching for any indication of foreign fighters attempting to travel to Afghanistan, either from the UK directly or from Syria.

All refugees being relocated to Britain under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) are also undergoing security checks.

Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that jihadists worldwide would be “encouraged” by an Islamist group’s apparent victory over Western superpowers.

“Violent extremists right across the spectrum will see this as a strategic shift and a victory they will take encouragement from and should take advantage of,” he told The Independent.

British intelligence agencies also fear that areas of Afghanistan will become permissive environments for Isis and other terrorist groups to operate.

The stance the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” will take towards al-Qaeda is unclear, following a long-running association and links between senior figures.

Isis, which has a smaller presence in Afghanistan, has fought the Taliban and officially declares the group an “apostate militia”, although the two groups have also collaborated in the past.

Official propaganda announcements seen by The Independent show that Isis was claiming regular attacks on Taliban militants as recently as Saturday.

A propaganda photograph of an Isis militant alongside rockets the group claimed were used to attack the presidential palace in Kabul on 20 July 2021

( Isis propaganda channel)

A discussion on a pro-Isis forum monitored by the Site Intelligence Group showed some supporters saying they were “optimistic” over the situation, particularly because of the release of jihadists from prisons.

A post said that instability could also give Isis fighters “opportunities to work freely”, because they are difficult to distinguish from Taliban militants, adding: “All this must be exploited.”

Mr Barry said the Taliban was likely to attempt to uphold the agreement struck with the US, or at least appear to, to prevent any military intervention or financial retaliation.

“If they get the slightest hint of an emerging threat the US certainly would attack them,” he added.

“Isis are going to be concerned about the degree to which the Taliban controls the security inside Afghanistan – whether Isis’ previous havens can be re-established or whether the Taliban are going to bear down on them

“There is also a question about whether the US might assist the Taliban in that by passing them intelligence.”

But Mr Barry warned that it was unclear how US and UK intelligence flows would recover from the sudden loss of Afghan allies and the withdrawal of their own staff in the country.

Emily Winterbotham, director of the terrorism and conflict research group at RUSI, said the UK would no longer have “eyes on the ground” in the same way, adding: “That means our ability to assess threats is greatly diminished.”

Ms Winterbotham said that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups “never went away” after the 2001 invasion.

“Afghanistan was always touted as a location where Isis might go next after its losses in Syria and Iraq,” she added.

“The reality is the Taliban have been a very successful insurgent force, but that’s a very different thing from maintaining control of the whole country, and an army and air force.

“It’s so beyond their recent experience that they could well struggle to maintain stability.

“If security deteriorates you have more ungoverned spaces, more safe havens for groups and that’s fertile ground for terrorist activity.”

Ms Winterbotham said the membership of Isis’s “Khorasan Province” included disgruntled former Taliban fighters, who may be falling back on old allegiances in light of the group’s recent success.

Links to the Taliban, either personally or through relatives, are among the criteria being examined for Afghans applying to be relocated to the UK under the ARAP scheme.

It is intended to protect interpreters and other Afghan staff who worked for the British government and military, but the government said anyone judged to present a national security risk or who has committed violent or sexual crimes would be refused.

Officials are also working to ensure that people approved under the scheme cannot be impersonated by others seeking to reach Britain.

More than 3,000 former Afghan staff and relatives have so far been relocated to the UK under the scheme, which started in April, and military personnel have been drafted in to speed up processing.

A small proportion of applicants are believed to have been refused over national security or public safety concerns, but the Home Office would not give numbers.

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