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Examining the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Extremism.

In March 2020, a master’s thesis was submitted to American Military University by Genevieve Northrup discussing the Taliban’s shift of ideology. The following article displays the findings and analysis:

The United States (U.S.) has been involved politically in the Afghanistan region for many years through military operations and nation-building.  Recently, President Trump pulled out of peace talks with the Taliban due to concerns and continued attacks from different sects of the Taliban.  There has been discussion from researchers on whether the U.S. should still be involved and if so, what needs to occur to leave.  Attempts at a peace treaty have been futile based upon the back-and-forth dealings with the Taliban.  There has been little focus on the ideology of the Taliban and may cause future harm if not included.  When ideology is taken into consideration, attempting a peace treaty with the Taliban is difficult and requires significant revamping.  There are further concerns Islamic extremists are shifting their strategy to move from the non-state actor to that of a nation-state as seen with Hezbollah.  This shift should alert the Intelligence Community (IC) and the U.S. should adjust its strategy when creating peace treaties and forming alliances between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government

Afghanistan has been a controversial talking point within military and political circles in the U.S.  There has been a little answer on dealing with the Taliban and creating a stable environment free from extremism.  Historically, Afghanistan has maintained little stability due to everchanging governmental control and clashing of civilizations such as the former Soviet Union’s attempt to annex Afghanistan.  Currently, the Taliban maintains control over a large area of Afghanistan and is a driving political force in the region. 

Fig.1. Taliban control in Afghanistan as of 2020 created by Bill Roggio & Alexandra Gutowski from

            The Taliban’s steady influence creates a necessity for the IC and the U.S. government to foster an appropriate relationship with the Taliban.  This relationship should keep in mind appropriate boundaries to attempt an appropriate and viable peace treaty.  Figure 1 features areas controlled by the Taliban.  Contested areas where there is a partial rule between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban are also captured to allow for a true understanding of Taliban control.  These boundaries must consider iStart and how these factors influence a future agreement to keep terrorism and extremism at bay.   

Historical Perspective

            Historically, Afghanistan has been a nation subject to invasion and domination from outside forces.  Alexander the Great conquered the area in the 4th century, Sunni Muslim invaders stormed Kandahar in the 700’s, the Turks ruled through the 13th century, and the Mongols subsequently devastated the area in 1221. (Briscoe et al, 2003).  Afghanistan has struggled to maintain a stable environment not only in government but in protection and economic stability due to the constantly changing environment.  One area that has remained consistent is the practice of Sunni Islam, which in certain circles has morphed into Islamic extremism with a strategy that supports and perpetuates terrorism.

            The concept of terrorism has shifted throughout the years into the current understanding of domestic and international terrorism.  Many nations have recently been impacted by modern terrorism, which has been thriving since 1878.  Vera Zasulich created a resounding political statement when she asked to be known as a terrorist after attempting to kill a police commander in Russia.  This coined modern terrorism where four different waves have been identified in the process up through the early 21st century. (Rapoport, 2004).  Currently, religious extremism has been a defining factor for terrorism in the late 20th and throughout the 21st century.  Islam in Afghanistan is an ongoing factor that has consistently remained since the 7th century.  Some sects have morphed towards an ideology founded in extremism with a hatred of westernized values and perspective. 

            Afghanistan has fought to become its own entity as opposed to being controlled by other nations and regimes.  As Afghanistan became a nation-state in 1919, it formed a national army meant to protect its interests.   Political leaders were apprehensive to fully develop the army due to the different tribes and concern for takeover by a tribe that would bring harm to Afghanistan. (Chan, 2009).  This lack of engagement with the national army shifted under Turkey and the U.S. with the Soviet Union ultimately contributing significant time, training, and financial means to the Afghan Army.  Ultimately, Afghanistan ousted the Soviet Union and attempted to gain control.  The U.S. took advantage of the national army when the strategy in OEF shifted towards nation-building. 

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union advanced into Afghanistan to support the government, which was communist at the time.  Believers of Islam struggled with this invasion and were determined to rid their nation of communism.  Intently focused on purging communism on a global level, the U.S. provided money to support the believers, aka the mujahideen.  Osama Bin Laden furthered this by providing significant monetary support and upon the Soviet Union vacating Afghanistan, created Al Qaeda. (, 2019).  Al Qaeda’s strategy was focused on remaining a non-state actor where they pledged their allegiance towards Islamic fundamentalism. This fundamental approach allowed Al Qaeda to focus its strategy on globalized attacks against westernization.  Al Qaeda is still quite active as a terrorist organization, which the Taliban has failed to acknowledge as responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

            The Taliban was founded in 1994, post-Soviet Union defeat, during a time where Afghanistan was attempting to find itself as a nation and people.  Before this, in 1979, the Soviet Union attempted to annex Afghanistan to retain support as well as keep the U.S. from gaining ground to eradicate communism.  The Soviet Union remained in the region for ten years until they were forced out by Mujahideen (freedom fighters) backed by the U.S. (ISW, 2020).  While they achieved their goal of liberating Afghanistan, there were different factions within the Mujahideen creating tribal dissonance. This led to the creation of different groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, both founded upon Islamic extremism. 

The U.S. has spent significant time offering help and assistance to the people of Afghanistan.  The U.S. strategy in the 1980s focused on ensuring the fall of the Soviet Union, which was done with little consideration as to what was brewing behind scenes.  The U.S. failed to identify the ideology of the mujahideen and their long-term strategy for Afghanistan and Islamic control.  U.S. policy focused on the mujahideen wanting freedom from foreign control and created policy in 1984 allowing material aid to be given. (Galster, 2001).  This narrow focus kept U.S. policymakers from seeing the greater picture of Islamic extremism.  This extremism had been in play since the 1950s through non-state actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood and was nothing new during the 1980s.

Al Qaeda

            Al Qaeda founded in August 1988, has been one of the most active and prolific terrorist groups.  Initially, they kept out of sight, trained, and gained the necessary resources to ban together to perpetrate terrorist attacks on a global level.  Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama Bin Laden, moved to Afghanistan in 1980 to help combat the invasion of the Soviet Union. (CISAC, 2019).  Bin Laden gave much financial support to the mujahideen and many continued to follow him post-Soviet Union retreat.  Bin Laden had many connections as his father was well known within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Bin Laden was able to use this to further Al Qaeda and their ability to gather in Afghanistan with the approval of the Taliban.  The Taliban shared a similar ideology and saw the honor from Al Qaeda’s perspective.

            Al Qaeda’s ideology was founded in Islamic fundamentalism with a desire to implement Islamic Shari’a law globally.  While Bin Laden was instrumental in providing funding and support to Al Qaeda, he was not necessarily the brain behind the group.  The ideology came from Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, an Islamic extremist cleric trained under Sayyid Qutb’s ideology.  Azzam suggested Al Qaeda train with Hezbollah to understand and implement suicide bombings into their training. (Aboul-Enein, 2010).  Azzam was instrumental in influencing the ideology and culture of Al Qaeda.  Azzam successfully influenced Bin Laden and help mold him into the leader he became.  Sayyid Qutb was the greatest influencer for Azzam that ultimately led to his successful impression upon Bin Laden.

            Sayyid Qutb championed an extremist ideology of Islam and what their beliefs should consist of.   Qutb was well-known in Egypt where he joined the Muslim Brotherhood.  Qutb documented his perspective to provide guidance for other Muslims attempting to become radicalized.  Qutb suggested Islam should be a way of life void of political rule as the Muslim cleric should make the laws through Islamic Shari’a policy. (Qutb, 1964).  These writings and beliefs helped establish the ideology for Al Qaeda.  This form of extremism was then taught in their schools and in training with a goal to indoctrinate new members and establish a baseline for values, laws, and morals.

            Establishing this set doctrine paved the way to create a strategy, establish tactics, and set the course to identify targets for attacks. The initial concept was to instill proper training through a paramilitary approach tied with guerilla warfare. (Shultz, 2008).  The training allowed new recruits to become established and gain the knowledge necessary for perpetuating global terrorist attacks.   Training also sets the stage for identifying appropriate targets.  While recruits attending the training camps, ideology was heavily discussed, and targets were chosen based on Islamic values.  Anyone with a westernized perspective or those who rejected Islam became targets.

            Another source of training, which became instrumental in the 9/11 attacks was a suicide bombing.  This type of attack has the potential to be committed by individuals, which allows for multiple attacks with much less visibility than that of an army.   Al Qaeda was not equipped to train recruits and sent them to train in Hezbollah camps. (Horowitz, 2010).  While Hezbollah was a different faction of Islam (Shi’ite), they still share the same basic ideology.  This training allowed for a greater reach by Al Qaeda and allowed them to mobilize recruiters at a greater number than that of an army.  Currently, Al Qaeda is quite active as an organized terrorist group.  Figure 2, a map from 2018, depicts a significant increase in activity by Al Qaeda.  This is a concern as the Taliban has been unable to recognize Al Qaeda as those responsible for the attacks on 9/11 as well as a terrorist organization.

Fig.2. Al-Qaeda’s Resurrection by Bruce Hoffman from


            The Taliban was formed in 1994 with a desire to create a state founded upon Islamic sharia law.  The Taliban shared the same ideology and Islamic faction as Al Qaeda.  Both are Sunni and adhere to the same perspective where they seek a militant form of law.  (Stanford University, 2018).  The Taliban was an effective force that came in with such power and controls they were able to take over the government and implemented sharia law until the U.S. troops came in during OEF.  While they have a different leadership structure and background than Al Qaeda, they are still extremists in their ideology and desires.

            Taliban leadership founded their beliefs upon the Salafism perspective.  Salafism is one of the many schools of thought within Islam, each having a different leadership structure and approach.  Salafism believes the government is not necessary if Islam is being accurately followed.  Allah is the supreme being responsible for determining political aspects mixed with behavior, culture, and religion. (Joppke, 2013).  With this thought comes an extremist approach where those not adhering to this perspective are apostates and should be killed for not following strict Islamic law.  Extremist Islam is a dangerous ideology and places concern upon any attempt for the U.S. to create a treaty with the Taliban. 

            The Taliban entered as a force, stemming from madrasas (Islamic schools), and sought to gain control of Afghanistan.  The Taliban’s first attack occurred in 1994 where they seized Kandahar in the southern region.  Gaining control allowed them to establish a set agenda, strategy, formulate their tactical points, and determine which groups to target.  By 1997, they controlled approximately 95% of Afghanistan.  (Afsar et al, 2008).  The Taliban reign would be short-lived as, after the attacks on 9/11, they refused to hand over Bin Laden and would not reject Al Qaeda.  This led to U.S. forces engagement through OEF where the Taliban was removed with the U.S. working towards establishing a government not founded upon extremism.   

OEF forced the Taliban to go into hiding as they reformulated their strategy to emerge again as a sustaining force.  This regrouping strategy was reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s tactical disposition “the general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth”.  (Tzu, 2014).  Regrouping allowed the Taliban to focus on their objectives and desires as well as their methods of recruitment.  They reemerged as a massive force with a clear objective, to rid Afghanistan of the United States and take back what they had pre-9/11.  The Taliban has maintained a military approach within their organization evidenced by figure 3., which shows they are more organized than many have perceived or given them credit for.

Fig.3. Organizational Diagram of the Taliban by Afsar et al from /English/ MilitaryReview20080630art011.pdf

As the U.S. helped Afghanistan prepare the newly founded Afghani government, the Taliban started to rise again in 2006 and with their strategy to take back Afghanistan, they utilized guerilla warfare.  The Taliban utilized suicide bombings as well as the kidnappings of westernized citizens. (CFR, 2019).  These types of terrorist attacks were meant to instill fear in the population and in those working for the U.S.  The Taliban targeted U.S. soldiers, soldiers in the Afghan Army, the Afghani police, and members of the government.  This was highly effective as this has led to stalled elections and people being afraid to step up into these visible roles.

            The Taliban was able to maintain these types of attacks due to the financial backing from different areas. They have received significant financing from the heroin industry.  Afghanistan has been known for cultivating poppy to sustain the lucrative heroin trade. (SIGAR, 2018).  Figure 4 shows a steady increase in cultivation with a significant jump in 2006.  The U.S. has attempted to battle the Taliban by burning crops, trying to offer other methods for planting different crops, and have attempted to criminalize the drug industry.  This worked for several years, but recent years have seen a sharp increase in cultivation, which helps fund the Taliban.

Fig.4. Afghanistan total poppy cultivation by SIGAR from quarterlyreports/2018-10-30qr.pdf

The poppy industry has been a significant resource to the Taliban and has provided great amounts of finance.  CRS estimates that 65% of the Taliban’s revenue is directly related to the poppy fields.  Without addressing this issue, this will continue to fund their targeting of westernized government presence in Afghanistan. (CRS, 2018).  This is a necessary discussion that must take place with the Taliban in order to have a viable peace treaty solution.  The Taliban is wanting legitimacy while they attempt to engage in criminal acts to finance their organization.  This must be addressed within the peace talks as the U.S. simply cannot turn a blind eye to this method and so far, has yet to be discussed from open-source information.

            The Taliban has also received financial backing from Iran, a rogue nation-state that has struggled to comply with the UN and U.S. attempts to engage in foreign diplomacy with Iran. The Taliban backed by Iran seeks to utilize this financial means to cause disruption to the Afghani government. (USDOT, 2018).  Nation-states are treated in a different capacity when comparing policy and actions versus the non-state actor.  There is a greater difficulty when attempting to address a nation-state and hold them accountable in certain actions.


            Hezbollah is another extremist group funded and backed by Iran.  Delving into this organization is important as the Taliban shares similar characteristics and are attempting to take on the same transition towards a nation-state.  Hezbollah made a successful transition from a non-state actor to a pseudo-nation-state.  Hezbollah’s origins stem from 1983 when they took responsibility for the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut. (Stanford University, 2019).  While Hezbollah is a different sect of Islam than the Taliban, there is a movement towards unifying Islam to have a greater impact against westernization.  Hezbollah helped fund social programs, hospitals, schools, and other programs to allow the people to unify.  Having this further allowed Hezbollah to be viewed with a greater legitimacy by the people while establishing trust and support.

            Hezbollah’s shift has been a conundrum for the U.S. when dealing with foreign policy surrounding terrorist acts.  In the early years, Hezbollah committed multiple terrorist acts when they perpetuated multiple incidents of kidnappings, hijackings, and bombing locations with Israelis, American soldiers, and innocent civilians. (Robinson, 2020).  Hezbollah currently is in a position to run in the primary elections as they are a politically based organization.  Should they win, this will place them as leaders in Lebanon and in control as an actual nation-state.  This is a concern because they have recently threatened to attack the U.S. due to the death of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.  The European Union has labeled Hezbollah’s military unit as an extremist terrorist group. 

U.S. Response

            President Trump has recently attempted to seek intervention from the United Nations to have Hezbollah labeled as a terrorist organization.  The UN struggles to do so as Hezbollah provides the necessary support for its people and does much good on a social level.  This struggle is due to their support and legitimacy as a pseudo-nation-state.  Once a non-state actor establishes legitimacy as a political entity, removing them from power becomes quite difficult.

Peace Treaty  

            The U.S. currently signed a peace treaty agreement on February 29, 2020, with the Taliban.  The Taliban has followed in the footsteps of Hezbollah and is attempting to seek legitimacy by renaming themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEOA).  While the U.S does not recognize this title, the Taliban is attempting to legitimize itself as a political state. (Al Jazeera, 2020).  The Taliban is known for its ideology towards fundamental Islam.  They have very recently committed terrorist acts against the Afghan government and U.S. soldiers.  There are multiple layers to consider prior to the removal of troops or a permanent treaty.

Concerns and Shift

            The ideology of the Taliban has remained consistent throughout the years and is stronger than ever.  The Taliban’s website is full of propaganda depicting westernized culture and America as evil, stubborn, and full of failures.  Their leaders have stated:

“The Americans should know that the aim of the Islamic Emirate is to use all of its military force and political struggle to free Afghanistan from the clutches of the invaders and the only way for the Americans to bring an end to their miseries in Afghanistan is to withdraw from our homeland” (IEOA, 01/2020).

This statement is of clear concern and shows they seek to remove American troops to gain their nation and bring Afghanistan back to a place under extremist Islamic control.  This seeks to undermine everything the U.S. has done to gain a more stable and sovereign nation.  The Taliban has no clear desire to work towards peace.  There is overwhelming evidence from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s website to show their view of the U.S., their perspective of the treaty, and their objectives in obtaining a unified nation under Islamic Law by force. 

The IEOA believes America and the peace talks are full of “baseless propaganda”.  They further state they shifted to take on their nation with a political front in attempts to gain control and that the citizens are under their control and obey the IEOA. (IEOA, 02/2020).  This should be of grave concern to those creating the peace treaty agreements with the Taliban.  They are already implying they will not comply.  Their military force is determined to take over and control Afghanistan upon the vacating of U.S. forces from their land. 

Should this occur, this leaves the U.S. scrambling should they need to reenter Afghanistan, which would be costly on many levels.  Financially, the U.S. has poured significant amounts of money and time into stabilizing Afghanistan.  The IEOA has plans to demolish everything the U.S. has set in place and all resources provided will end up in their hands.  Should the U.S. need to go back in, there are further costs to consider as the U.S. will not have an established base in the region.  Logistically, there would be a greater cost as resources would not be readily available and would need to be transported from other locations.  Medical resources would not be accessible, and troops would initially be in harm’s way, costing lives and valuable time.  This is not a sustainable plan and the treaty must be reevaluated or lives could be at risk.

Soldiers from the U.S. military have been stationed in Afghanistan for over 18 years.  The length of engagement has caused chaos in American politics as well as foreign relations.  Leaving Afghanistan could cause a crisis like that experienced in Iraq when former President Obama pulled U.S. troops out.  This decision caused an uprising of the extremist group ISIS and allowed them to take over the region. This takeover required the U.S. to send troops back to Iraq and further created instability.  U.S. political and military leaders must learn from previous mistakes to ensure Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not gain greater access to power.  They would benefit greatly as the U.S. has given significant monetary and military support through weapons and training.  This would allow Al Qaeda and the Taliban a greater ability to attack nations such as Israel and the U.S. and leaves many in danger. 

            This creates a need to properly strategize and address the necessary concerns with creating a peace treaty with the Taliban.  Agreeing to a peace treaty is difficult when the Taliban struggles to publicly admit Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11.  This must be included in the agreement as well as an immediate shift in their ideology of extremist Islamic values.  Without addressing this shift, the region of Afghanistan remains at risk of being taken over by extremist terrorist groups and leaves many in danger of being attacked with greater ability than seen in 9/11.

The goal of this paper was to determine if a shift is occurring within certain non-state actors to become pseudo-nation-states.  Significant research has been completed on Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, but there was a struggle to find research that incorporated each group’s strategy, ideology, background, and those they target.  By utilizing other methods and the Taliban’s new website, the ideology shows there is a clear shift where they are moving from the role of a non-state actor.  While they have held significant authority as such, there is a different capacity and legitimacy if they become more of a nation-state.  Should they become a nation-state such as seen with Hezbollah, this makes it more difficult for other nation-states to remove them from power. 

            The Taliban has shifted to align themselves as a political entity much in the same way as Hezbollah.  The Taliban has changed their name to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which allows them to be more of a nation-state and less as a non-state actor.  This will provide more stability and represents a desire for legitimacy.  The concern is the lack of shift in their ideology and desire to commit terrorist attacks against those that fail to agree.  While they have typically attacked within the confines of Afghanistan, there is great concern this could establish more credibility and allow them to fall in line with Hezbollah.  There is a further shift suggesting Islamic sects need to form a unifying front.  Should this occur, a greater Islamic nation will rise to a great magnitude while embodying all the abilities of a nation-state much like the European Union (EU). 

            The strategy of this paper was to determine if there has been a shift through research as well as utilizing current resources.  There is a shift, and this should be of grave concern to those within the intelligence community.  As this shift is fully implemented and the U.S. removes its troops and assistance from Afghanistan, the Taliban will gain control of Afghanistan.  Upon this control, they will implement Shari’a Law as well as Islamic extremism.  The concern is, once this is complete, they will not stop with the citizens of Afghanistan.  The ideology of Islamic extremism is met with several layers.  The first is to establish rule over the local citizens.  The next is to branch out until eventually there is global domination.  The Taliban could essentially end up having the same strategy as Al Qaeda had back in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Al Qaeda has made quite a comeback in recent history and should the Taliban remain sympathetic to their cause, this can cause an alliance between different groups that have never been seen before.  Hezbollah has recently discussed forming an alliance with different sects of Islam in order to accomplish a greater goal of nations founded upon Islam.  Regardless of which sect should rule, if this is successful, Shi’a and Sunni sects could unit under a greater front, that of Islamic extremism, which could be very damaging going forward in the future.

Future Research

            The U.S. intelligence community needs to perform further studies with current intelligence data.  The U.S. IC further needs to determine how to renegotiate the peace treaty and what needs to be added in.  Currently, the U.S. should not be looking to vacate out of Afghanistan and should look to keep a base in the region for peacekeeping abilities as well as mobilization.  The U.S. is not currently at war with Afghanistan, there is a greater movement coming where Islamic nations are seeking to unite against westernization.  The U.S. needs to pay attention to the IEOA’s strategy, ideology, tactics, financial capacity, and where they intend on taking the nation in future endeavors.


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