Two suspected British Islamic State recruits seized by the Taliban at the border | Islamic State

Two suspected Islamic State recruits, one of whom had a British passport, were seized by the Taliban as they tried to sneak into Afghanistan last fall through its northern border, the Guardian can reveal .

The men, who were carrying more than £10,000 in cash, military fatigues and night-vision goggles in their bags, were arrested after a tip-off from Uzbekistan, according to a Taliban source with knowledge of the operation.

“There was a passport from England and one from another country in Europe,” the source said. He spoke of the men’s capture at the Hairatan border post on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

An Uzbek source said the two men were using British passports when they flew to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent – it is unclear whether one also had an EU passport which he used at the time. Afghan border, or if the Taliban source was confused – and both had Afghan heritage.

Their interception was a stark reminder that while the West was able to end its war in Afghanistan by withdrawing its troops, there is no such simple solution to the security threat posed by international terrorist groups sheltering in within its borders.

Hundreds of Britons have gone to live under Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but this is the first time British citizens have been caught trying to join the group in Afghanistan, and the first reported case of an attempt of international recruitment into the Islamic State since the Taliban took over. in the countryside.

Two French citizens reportedly traveled from Central Asia to join the Islamic State in Afghanistan several years ago, and another was intercepted in 2017 by the Tajik authorities, tried and imprisoned for five years.

The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan – known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), after a historical name for the region – is well-funded and resilient.

It has carried out several large-scale suicide attacks in Kabul and other major cities since the Taliban took control of the country last year, and is now present in all provinces of Afghanistan, a senior official said. UN official. said in november.

The ISK is one of the few options left to Westerners drawn to violent extremism in the name of Islam now that the Syrian civil war has largely been reduced to a bloody stalemate in one corner of the country.

“One of the reasons people go to Afghanistan is simply that there is nowhere to go. It may be the most likely place for aspiring jihadists to see the fight,” said Ashley Jackson, an expert on armed groups in Afghanistan and author of Negotiating Survival, on civilian relations with the Taliban insurgency.

Last week, US special forces carried out a rare raid in northwestern Syria to kill Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The risky military operation clearly shows that Washington still considers the group a major threat in the world.

An Uzbek source confirmed that authorities there had reported the two men to Afghan authorities for checks because they had raised intelligence concerns but had not broken any Uzbek laws – the country has visa-free entry for UK passport holders – and were not on Interpol’s wanted lists.

“In terms of visas, they were all in order,” he said. “We couldn’t stop them coming in because they’re British. We couldn’t stop them from continuing because they had Afghan visas.

They told border guards they had family ties to Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, and initially claimed they were visiting relatives, the Taliban source said. However, they struggled to explain their luggage.

In addition to cash and military fatigues, they had packed combat vests which the source described as “suicide vests without explosives”. When questioned, the men reportedly said it was only about things they found “interesting”.

They flew to Tashkent and then made the 430-mile (700 km) journey to the border crossing by road, the Uzbek source said. It is believed that they recovered at least some of the military equipment along the way.

Although a flight to Islamabad would have offered a much shorter overland trip to eastern Afghanistan, currently the main ISK stronghold in Afghanistan, the men would have needed a visa to enter Pakistan if they traveled on British passports.

The Guardian saw photos of the men taken shortly after they arrived in Afghanistan. Their appearance matched descriptions of two men whom Taliban operatives accused of links to Islamic State, independent Afghan sources said.

The resurgence of the Islamic State

The September 11, 2001 attacks drew troops from the United States and its allies to Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban because they had offered al-Qaeda a safe haven. Thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, the Taliban are back in power, and although al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead, his legacy lives on.

Even before the Taliban took Kabul, British and American intelligence officials warned that the terrorist threat from Afghanistan was likely to grow with the responsible group, while the Western ability to monitor it has precipitously declined.

The Taliban promised Washington, in the deal that paved the way for the US withdrawal, that they would not offer safe haven to international terrorist groups. But it was a commitment they couldn’t keep, even if they wanted to.

The Islamic State and the Taliban have been at war since the group emerged in the region in 2015, attracting recruits from other international extremist groups. It was taken down by the combined efforts of the United States, Afghan government and Taliban forces until 2019, but has since been rebuilt. It was given a big boost by the Taliban-orchestrated prison breaks in the last days of the republic, which returned between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters to the battlefield, according to a recent report on the resurgence of the group.

Among them is the man suspected of carrying out the bloody Kabul airport attack in the final days of the foreign evacuation last August. More than 400 were foreign fighters, hailing from across Central Asia and beyond, including a handful from Jordan and the Maldives, according to the report.

“My worst fear is that the Taliban is underestimating the challenge of countering terrorism as a government,” Jackson said. “They were very effective at taking on the Islamic State when they were fighting a rival insurgent group, but it’s very different to be a state power in place.

“It is not in the interests of the Taliban for these groups to operate, but we must not underestimate their arrogance and incompetence. They don’t have the money, the capacity, the resources to secure the borders, monitor the groups and react.

Recent Islamic State suicide bombings have shown their reach, including those targeting Taliban leaders at a family funeral service, and another in Kandahar City, where the group has deep roots and strong support.

Abdul Sayed, an analyst specializing in extremism in Afghanistan and co-author of the ISK report, said: “It was a show of force in carrying out for the first time a very brutal attack in Kandahar, a stronghold of the Taliban. , a message that if we can strike here, we can carry out attacks anywhere in the country.

For now, their focus is primarily national and regional. Although some Westerners may try to find their way to the group, they are not actively targeted.

“I don’t think the ISK will invite or welcome foreign fighters at least until they have an area of ​​territory more firmly under their control. Supporting foreign fighters is an expense and a liability for them,” he said. said Sayed, “They claim to have global ambitions, but I haven’t seen any particular direct threat from their propaganda material against the West or any particular Western country. Right now they’re more directed at states regional.

They recruit widely in Afghanistan, from extremist Taliban disillusioned with compromises on harsh doctrine, from poor Taliban foot soldiers who need salaries the government cannot afford, and even from the ranks of former government forces who feel they need protection against revenge killings by the Taliban.

In response, the Taliban deployed harsh tactics, including extrajudicial executions young men in the eastern strongholds. The two British men, who were taken to the regional capital of Mazar-e-Sharif from the border, may have suffered similar treatment.

“The mujahideen are very aware of Daesh and work very hard on this issue,” the Taliban source said when asked how the men would be treated. He had no direct information about their future, but the general policy for IS detainees was clear, he added. “Our leader’s rules are to just finish them off, don’t let them do anything. Without mercy.”

Afghanistan has a long history of human rights abuses committed by all sides in its long-running conflict, aimed at rooting out opposition. They usually have the opposite effect, resulting in the recruitment of angry and bereaved communities, and if the Islamic State in Afghanistan grows stronger, it won’t just be the Taliban’s concern.

Vera Mironova contributed reporting

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