The U.S. Treasury Department’s latest update on its efforts to combat terrorist financing included a warning that al-Qaeda is “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection,” Afghan media reported Tuesday.
The bulk of the report discussed financing for the Islamic State and its various subdivisions, particularly the ISIS financial networks in Iraq, Syria, and West Africa. ISIS is reportedly continuing to raise significant funds through “oil smuggling networks in eastern Syria, kidnapping for ransom targeting civilian businesses and populations, looting, and possibly the operation of front companies.” The Treasury Department believes ISIS currently has up to $100 million in cash reserves dispersed across the Middle East.
ISIS is active in Afghanistan, where its finances are handled by a network of hawalas, or underground banks. Its fundraising comes largely through “local donations, taxation, extortion, and some financial support from ISIS-core.”
The good news, according to the Treasury Department, is that ISIS has been deprived of its Afghan stronghold in Nangarhar province, which “decreases the amount of money the group could earn exploiting natural resources in this territory.” The bad news is that al-Qaeda is growing stronger under the Taliban’s protection as ISIS fades.
The report said al-Qaeda obtains funding for its Afghan operations through “donations from like-minded supporters, and from individuals who believe that their money is supporting humanitarian or charitable causes.” Some of this money is passed along to allied terrorist groups in the Pakistani border region.
Al-Qaeda exercises influence in Afghanistan “through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”
“As of May 2020, the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintained a strong relationship and continued to meet regularly,” the report said.
The Treasury Department’s assertions are consistent with earlier reports about al-Qaeda activity in Afghanistan. In June, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) noted the Taliban is ostensibly required to “undertake counterterrorism efforts” by its February 2020 agreement with the United States, but al-Qaeda leaders remained in regular consultation with Taliban officials, and the only meaningful reductions of al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan came from U.S. coalition airstrikes.
The CRS report also noted U.N. member states have assessed that al-Qaeda is “quietly gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under their protection,” much as the Treasury Department would go on to state in its January 2021 update.
The Treasury Department report also mentioned concerns among regional security analysts that al-Qaeda is working on a partnership with the Haqqani Network, an infamous criminal organization linked to the Taliban that has operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with, and funded by, al-Qaeda,” the report stated.