How is the Taliban different from ISIS or Al Qaeda?

Updated August 19, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

The Question:

So this morning on the radio the hosts were discussing the U.S. leaving Afghanistan. They started arguing about whether the Taliban were terrorists like ISIS or Al Qaeda. I thought it was obvious, but maybe I'm wrong? What's the difference?

The Answer:

The Taliban is mixed up with ISIS and Al Qaeda due to some shared history and some shared ideals. They are all militant Islamic groups which are interconnected by the history of Soviet and U.S. involvement in the Middle East. But, there are a number of ways in which they differ.

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist government. In response, the CIA, along with intelligence agencies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, funneled money into local resistance groups. The most important of these were the mujahideen. In general this refers to Muslim resistance fighters from across the world who fight in a jihad (a struggle in defense of Islam), but it usually refers to the fighters in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden, at the time a wealthy Saudi Arabian citizen, funded mujahideen activities. This eventually lead to the creation of Al Qaeda.

After the Soviet Union was driven out in the early 90s, some of the mujahideen formed a provisional government. But, the mujahideen came from many different ideologies and ethnic backgrounds. There was immediate dissent and conflict. The intelligence communities of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan all backed different groups.

The Taliban were a faction of Afghani religious students who formed during the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s (Taliban comes from talib, or student). They drove out the warring mujahideen and established a strict code of law based on their understanding of sharia. They eventually won out with support from Pakistan (and Al Qaeda) and assumed control of the country in 1996. They founded the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and maintained their friendly relationship with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

The Taliban, much like their allies, are categorized as a terrorist group in many countries. They have funded many of their activities through the drug trade, and have engaged in the types of political violence commonly associated with terrorists. But, the clear difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is that the Taliban were the de facto government of a country (recognized de jure by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE). The Taliban were/are not primarily an international terrorist group, but rather a local political entity that supports terrorism.

There is much less of a connection between ISIS/ISIL and the Taliban. Their relationship was openly hostile, and they actively fought one another. And, although both were fighting to establish countries under fundamentalist religious principles, ISIL was attempting to create a new country from whole cloth rather than fighting for control of a defined and recognized country. However, they are reasonably similar in their treatment of women, religious minorities, journalists, and allegedly idolatrous artifacts.

-The Editors

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