The Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan, followed by the ISIS-K bombing that killed 13 U.S. military personnel and scores of civilians, underscores the far-reaching implications of the U.S. withdrawal from the country. The mujahideen’s takeover of Kabul, following a 20-year U.S. counter-terror campaign against Al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Afghanistan, has reenergized the global jihad’s slow and determined war against the West.
In the Middle East, where symbolism and imagery define reality, the American evacuation represents one of the most significant defeats of what Osama bin Laden referred to as “the Zionist-Crusader alliance” since Al-Qaeda’s mass terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed 2,996 people (including 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists).
The implementation of the American withdrawal reflects an ongoing Western cultural misunderstanding of its fundamentalist foes. In the eyes of Islamists, the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan mirrors the collapse of the world’s leading superpower to the forces of the Koran’s “true believers”—the jihadis. In this way, the pullout has emboldened extremists across Asia, the Middle East and beyond.
The Taliban moment has deep historical roots: The fall of the shah of Iran—the shahanshah, the “king of kings”—in 1979 to Iran’s Islamic revolution inspired Islamist revolutions and militancy elsewhere, including the emergence of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively. In turn, the Taliban’s past and current successes have inspired other regional Islamist and extremist movements, including those of the Palestinians.
The Biden administration has stated that it wishes to bring “peace, security and prosperity” to Israelis and Palestinians. To do so in the post-Afghanistan context, it is critical to understand the implications of recent PLO and Hamas statements of sympathy for the Taliban, as well as the historical context of Palestinian partnership with Islamist movements.
Hamas as the Palestinian Taliban
Hamas has taken credit for inspiring the Taliban, just as it did for Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In early 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, running on a ticket of “change and reform.”
While the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan was good news for extremists, it was bad news for moderate Arabs amenable to the West. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and their supporters have been vindicated in their longstanding ideological claims that negotiations with Israel are futile. Their conclusion is that patience pays off and that only mukawama, or “resistance,” can defeat the American-led Western alliance and dismantle the State of Israel.
It therefore comes as little surprise that Hamas was the first Islamist group to congratulate the Taliban publicly on its takeover of Afghanistan, saying:
“We congratulate the Muslim Afghan people for the defeat of the American occupation … and … the Taliban movement and its brave leadership in this victory, which culminated its long struggle over the past 20 years. … [T]he demise of the American occupation and its allies prove that the resistance of the peoples, foremost of which is our struggling Palestinian people, will achieve victory.”
On Aug. 17, 2021, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, that “the demise of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is a prelude to the demise of the Israeli occupation of the land of Palestine.”
Musa Abu Marzouk, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, tweeted: “Today, Taliban has … faced America and its agents, refusing half-solutions with them. The Taliban was not deceived by the slogans of democracy and elections and fake promises. This is a lesson for all oppressed people.”
Abu Marzouk and Haniyeh emphasize the contradiction between democracy and the vision of an Islamic state shared by both Hamas and the Taliban. Palestinian support for the Islamist rejection of the West in general and Israel in particular extends beyond Hamas. Palestinian public support for bin Laden and Al-Qaeda was on display in the Palestinian street celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks. Professor Martin Kramer has noted that by the 1990s, Islamism came to play a leading role in the Iranian regime-led influence on the Palestinian “resistance.”
Following the August 2021 Taliban takeover, the Palestinian Authority also issued a statement that compared the U.S. withdrawal to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: “Israel must absorb the lesson—external protection does not bring security and peace to any country. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian land will not last and will end.”
Arafat’s ‘Taliban’ strategy
The P.A. statement rests on historical precedent. PLO founder Yasser Arafat launched the “al-Aqsa intifada” in summer 2000, following Israel’s overnight withdrawal from southern Lebanon two months earlier under pressure from Iran-backed Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s reaction, voiced by its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, that “Israel … is feebler than a spider’s web,” inspired the “secular” Sunni Arafat to ignite a jihad using the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem as a pretext, making it indistinguishable from other Islamist campaigns.
Similarly, PLO and P.A. leader Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) took note of the Hezbollah response in 2000: “Every Palestinian viewed the withdrawal as a strategic defeat of Israel,” which would be interpreted, in his words, as “kill Israelis, get territory.” Qurei emphasized that “if that is how Hezbollah got Israel to quit Lebanon, sooner or later it would result in Palestinian violence against Israel.”
The recent statements by Hamas and the P.A. in support of the Taliban should be understood in the context of the fundamentalist groups’ ideological rejection of America and Israel as infidels seeking to control the lands of Islam. Just as the Taliban routed America from Afghanistan, the PLO, the P.A. and Hamas aspire to expel Israel from all of “Arab Muslim Palestine.” In short, Palestinian-Taliban affinity is anchored in ideological rejection, not territorial conflict.
The Taliban, after a 20-year absence of control, has reemerged as the government of the pre-9/11 Islamic Emirate. Hamas, as the ruling government and military power in “Hamastan,” sees itself similarly. In 2007, after Hamas’s violent overthrow of the Western-backed P.A., Khaled Mashaal, head of the Hamas politburo, declared:
“We shall never give up an inch of the fatherland, nor any of our rights, nor any part of our land…. We shall go the way of resistance, which is not a straight line, but means blows, clashes, one round after another, attacks and withdrawals. The course is to Palestine, to cleanse Jerusalem and al-Aqsa. This is our way against the occupation. Hamas was and always will be strong in jihad [holy war] and istish-had [suicide bombings].”
Bin Laden’s Palestinian professor
The Palestinian–Taliban–Al-Qaeda connection extends back decades. Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian scholar and cleric from a village near Jenin, is widely considered the “father of the global jihad,” having served as a mentor to Osama bin Laden. Azzam laid the groundwork for the establishment of Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the deadly attack in Mumbai, India, in 2008, killing 175 people. Azzam influenced some of the world’s most prominent terrorist leaders, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born operations commander of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Azzam had traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan and even the United States in the 1980s to recruit and train Arabs and other Muslims from around the world, including many Palestinians, to fight the “global jihad”—first against the Soviet Union and subsequently, the United States. These global jihad fighters would come to be known as the “Afghan alumni.”
Sheikh Azzam is also considered to be an ideological father to Hamas. CIA and Middle East analyst Bruce Reidel has noted that Azzam helped draft Hamas’s 1987 founding charter.
However, over the years, Hamas and Al-Qaeda have maintained an uneasy relationship, reflecting various ideological, strategic and operational differences.
In the years following the Sept. 11 attacks and parallel to the PLO-Hamas Al-Aqsa terror war, bin Laden continued to identify Israel as part of what he called the “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” While Palestinian leaders expressed a certain dissatisfaction that Azzam had dedicated himself to global jihad at the expense of the Palestinian armed struggle, Israel remained the third objective of Al-Qaeda’s global jihad, the other two being the American presence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden said, “We will continue, God permitting, the fight against the Israelis and their allies … and will not give up a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on Earth.”
Palestinian support for bin Laden continued until his death in 2011. Hamas president Ismail Haniyeh condemned his killing by U.S. forces, declaring the operation “the continuation of the American oppression and shedding of blood of Muslims and Arabs,” referring to bin Laden as “an Arab holy warrior.”
The Palestinian legal assault on U.S. operations in Afghanistan
While Hamas’s ideological affinity with the Taliban reflects Islamic teachings, international, PLO-affiliated “human rights” organizations have used other means over the years to undermine the American mission in Afghanistan.
For example, Palestinian operatives, disguising their affiliations via various non-governmental organizations, appealed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a strategic effort to undermine the U.S. military’s fight against the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda affiliates.
Beginning in April 2017, Palestinian activists—executive members of two international NGOs: the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)—submitted complaints to the ICC charging U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and the CIA with “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
This was part of a strategic, political and legal warfare initiative by FIDH and CCR. These “human rights activists” were also found to be members of several PLO terror-affiliated NGOs—al-Haq, al-Dameer, al-Mazan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights—that launched simultaneous legal assaults against the United States and Israel. By November 2017, the ICC prosecutor had requested the opening of an investigation against U.S. military forces.
The Palestinian submissions were made by several front organizations, whose executives included Shawan Jabarin, director of the PFLP terror group affiliate al-Haq. Jabarin was referred to as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Israel’s Supreme Court, in line with his past terror and political warfare activities. Jabarin also serves as secretary-general of the anti-American FIDH, which submitted the complaint against the United States to the ICC.
Implications for the Middle East peace process
Palestinian sympathy and support for the Taliban have far-reaching implications for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The Islamists, according to their own understanding, have humiliated the Americans, making it impossible for the P.A. to agree to any U.S. peace proposal that would require any Palestinian concessions.
If the PLO’s ruling Fatah faction were to align with moderate Arab regimes that oppose Hamas- and Taliban-style Islamism and that have signed peace agreements with Israel, they would be perceived by the Palestinian public as weak, pro-Zionist and pro-American. In contrast, Hamas takes credit and garners Palestinian public support for emulating the Taliban in fighting to shake off its Western occupier.
Hamas’s support for the Taliban also renders the P.A.’s relative silence on the issue noteworthy. The P.A. cannot publicly oppose the Taliban Islamists, since Hamas has become a more popular competitor for Palestinian public support in Gaza and the West Bank and has proven to be a more successful alternative as a “liberation movement.” The PLO-P.A. has also branded itself as an organization that supports mukawama—“resistance,” which precludes it from negotiating with Israel.
Inadvertently, the U.S. administration has tied the hands of the P.A., since the Taliban’s takeover and the U.S. withdrawal have legitimized and empowered Hamas as the new standard for “resistance” against Israel’s existence as a democratic, Jewish-majority state in any borders.
Lessons from the American experience
There are important lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan that can be applied to the Palestinian issue. As analyst Lee Smith notes, in 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a secret visit to Afghanistan to show him that the “model the United States employed for Afghanistan would work for the Palestinians, too.” Smith writes that “Netanyahu declined the invitation and correctly surmised that as soon as the United States withdrew forces, Afghanistan would come under the control of the Taliban. And the West Bank would also fall to an Islamist regime if Washington imposed the Afghanistan model there, too.”
Netanyahu’s prognosis notwithstanding, Kerry’s assessment provides a teachable moment. But it is one that proves the opposite of what he had intended. Afghanistan under the Taliban serves as an excellent model for the Palestinian cause. Hamas’s model of armed “resistance,” now reenergized by the Taliban’s reemergence and success, has placed a concrete barrier across the path of local legitimacy and international negotiations of the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority.
Dan Diker is a foreign-policy fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya.
Khaled Abu Toameh is a veteran award-winning journalist who has been covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades. He studied at Hebrew University and began his career as a reporter by working for a PLO-affiliated newspaper in Jerusalem. He currently works for the international media, assisting foreign journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.