Al-Qa’ida and the Afghan Taliban: “Diametrically Opposed”?

Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders have been issuing some very mixed messages of late, and the online jihadi community is in an uproar, with some calling these developments “the beginning of the end of relations” between the two movements.  Beginning with a statement from Mullah Omar in September, the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership has been emphasizing the “nationalist” character of their movement, and has sent several communications to Afghanistan’s neighbors expressing an intent to establish positive international relations.  In what are increasingly being viewed by the forums as direct rejoinders to these sentiments, recent messages from al-Qa’ida have pointedly rejected the “national” model of revolutionary Islamism and reiterated calls for jihad against Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and China.  However interpreted, these conflicting signals raise serious questions about the notion of an al-Qa’ida-Taliban merger.

The trouble began with Mullah Omar’s message for ‘Eid al-Fitr, issued on September 19, in which he calls the Taliban a “robust Islamic and nationalist movement,” which “wants to maintain good and positive relations with all neighbors based on mutual respect.”  Mullah Omar further stated that he wishes to “assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan … will not extend its hand to jeopardize others, as it itself does not allow others to jeopardize us.”  A week later, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most influential living Salafi jihadi ideologues, released an angry rebuke to these “dangerous utterances” of the Taliban amir, pointing out that they were of the same order as Hamas leader Khaled Mashal’s statement that the Chechen struggle is a Russian “internal matter.” For a person of Maqdisi’s stature to equate the Taliban with Hamas, especially in light of the recent jihadi media onslaught  against Hamas for its “crimes” against the Jund Ansar Allah, is an extremely serious charge.  Maqdisi ends his statement with the hope that he has misunderstood Mullah Omar’s message and that some clarification from the Taliban leadership will be forthcoming; more on this below.

A week after the Maqdisi message was posted, al-Sahab issued Ayman al-Zawahiri’s eulogy for Baitullah Mehsud (on which, see my earlier post). Midway through that speech, Zawahiri turns to the Palestinian issue, arguing that the mujahidin in Palestine should destroy the “laws of Satan” being imposed upon them, among which he singles out the notion that there should be “national unity with the traitors and those who sold out the religion and the homeland.” He goes on to lambast Hizbullah as representing a model of “turning jihad into a national cause,” a model which “must be rejected by the umma, because it is a model which makes jihad subject to the market of political compromises and distracts the umma from the liberation of Islamic lands and the establishment of the Caliphate.”

On October 6, Abu Yahya al-Libi’s al-Sahab video, “East Turkestan: The Forgotten Wound,” was released, which calls for support for the defensive jihad in northwestern China, one of those neighbors with whom Mullah Omar expressed a hope for “good and positive relations.” As in Zawahiri’s Baitullah eulogy, al-Libi emphasizes the dangers of dividing the umma into nations and ethnicities. He says that “East Turkestan [Xinjiang, China] is part of the Islamic lands that cannot be divided”; that it is the duty of all Muslims to support the Uighurs in their fight against the Chinese state; and that all who would appease China are “apostates.”  In these messages, then, both al-Libi and Zawahiri are denouncing, in the strongest possible terms, a political strategy being enunciated by the Taliban’s supreme leaders.

A week later, on October 12, Jordanian jihadi writer Ahmad Bawadi posted an exchange of correspondence that he’d recently had with the editors of the Taliban’s al-Sumud magazine. Bawadi, without naming names, points out that Mullah Omar’s ‘Eid message had engendered significant controversy, leading some to say that the Taliban supported making the same sort of compromises as Hamas.  The “clarification” sent in response by al-Sumud and posted by Bawadi pretty much dodged the question. Amid some tortuous sophistry about words being like a double-edged sword, the al-Sumud editors defended Mullah Omar’s position by comparing it to the Prophet Muhammad’s divide-and-conquer strategy of distinguishing between different groups of enemies: What’s wrong, as-Sumud asks, with saying we don’t want to fight the Buddhists (read: China) now, since the aim is to divide them from the Christians (read: ISAF/NATO forces) in order to weaken the latter?  Regardless of how one reads the al-Sumud  “clarification,” any doubts that the controversies were causing the Quetta Shura to rethink its public relations strategy were laid to rest the following day, when the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan issued an open letter to the Shanghai Cooperation Conference, reiterating verbatim the “neighborly” sentiments from Mullah Omar’s ‘Eid message.  The SCO, it should be pointed out, includes China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all countries that are directly targeted by al-Qa’ida-allied groups based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

All of this has sparked a great deal of heated argument and anxious hand-wringing on several jihadi forums, but for reasons of space I’ll just single out one thread from the al-Hisbah forum. On October 14, “al-Najjar,” in a post entitled “Mullah Omar and Zawahiri Diametrically Opposed: A plan, a problem, or…?!,” contrasts the neighborly outreach of Mullah Omar’s ‘Eid message with the aforementioned statements about the “laws of Satan” in Zawahiri’s Baitullah eulogy, and ends by asking Zawihiri, “Oh our Shaykh, how is it that these are ‘Satanic laws’ when they are essentially the same as what has been mentioned by Mullah Omar, the Commander of the Faithful, to whom the mujahidin in Afghanistan and Pakistan have pledged their allegiance?”  A later poster, “Abu Azzam 1,” adds that Mullah Omar’s messages imply some level of recognition of the United Nations, an organization which al-Qa’ida has unequivocally labelled as “infidel,” and that these opposing moves seem to him to signal “the beginning of the end of relations between al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.”  Another forum participant, “Abu Salam,” agrees, writing yesterday that “this is a clear indication that al-Qa’ida and the Taliban movement are not of one mind, and that al-Qa’ida may turn on the Taliban in the near future.”  We shall see.  But one thing is clear: the recent shift in the Quetta Shura’s strategic communications is not to al-Qa’ida’s liking, and it is raising serious concerns among the broader Salafi jihadi movement about the religio-political legitimacy of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership.

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8 Responses

  1. The Taliban’s statements of late have to be understood in the context of the US debate on what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar is trying to influence the debate by signaling to the Obama Administration that they aren’t a threat – but should we take Mullah Omar’s word for it? Of course not. If you look at the discourse of the Taliban, from spokesmen and commanders to the footsoldiers quoted in David Rhodes’ excellent 5-part NYT series (http://www.icsr.info/blog/Account-of-NYT-journalist-held-by-Talibanand-another-story-too), you see that the Taliban as a semi-coherent movement has drifted into the global jihadist perspective over the last several years. They are still primarily focused on the region, but less so now than ever.

    Only now do we see this shift from Omar in the heat of Washington deliberations on Afghanistan.

    Maqdisi is a hothead and, like any good Salafi, regards any departure from dogma – even a strategic one – as deleterious. That explains his reaction. You also shouldn’t conflate Maqdisi with the AQ-Central leadership. He is the most influential scholar in the Salafi-Jihadist movement, perhaps (or he was a few years ago), but he is not an AQ commander or spokesperson. And remember, Maqdisi is aggresively near-enemy focused in his writings, not far-enemy focused like Al Zawahiri. I think it is a stretch to say Al-Zawahiri’s speech that you cited was aimed at the Taliban. And Al-Libi’s was a direct response to Han-Uighur tensions and violence – nothing new in AQ trying to tap into local grievances and causes to promote its global vision.

    The statements you report on here by Mullah Omar are a recent shift in the discourse designed to influence the judgment of Washington.

  2. Vahid,
    thanks for posting. Once again, analysis is better if you know the language and culture. Jihadica brings this into context because all of you have the appropriate skills as opposed to the many other terrorism pundits out there that provide their opinions based on english news media, the use of Google translator, and their lack of overseas travel. Thanks to jihadica for maintaining a high standard.

  3. Amm Sam,
    Thanks for the comments. I agree that the shift in strategic communications by the Taliban-Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban-IEA, the Kandahari-Quetta bloc) is primarily targeting Western publics and politics. This is a full-court PR press to undermine a central pillar of the “war of necessity” argument, which is that a successful Taliban would threaten regional and international security (partly, so the argument goes, b/c of its links to AQ). As Peter Bergen noted in the TNR piece that I linked to, the Taliban (and here I think he means the Taliban-IEA) does not need AQ, and the IEA appears willing to accept the risk of alienating AQ and its supporters with this campaign. But there is more going on here than clashing PR; AQ and the IEA do have serious disagreements about a lot of things, and this is not the first time that their post-9/11 conflicts have emerged into the open. What I think Rohde and Bergen are shedding light on is the increasingly intertwined nature of AQ and the Taliban-Islamic Emirate of North Waziristan (Taliban-IENW, the Karlanri tribal bloc and its allies), which has indeed “drifted into the global jihadist perspective.” In a sense, though, this is not new; for who, virtually alone among Afghan field commanders, welcomed the Afghan Arabs on the battlefield in large numbers in the ’80s? Haqqani.
    I don’t conflate Maqdisi w/ AQ, and never have. Maqdisi is a Salafi jihadi thought leader with a lot of influence over AQ’s primary constituency. You can be sure that Zawahiri and Libi were well aware of Maqdisi’s rebuke when they were preparing their scripts for the videos I mention, and I don’t think the online jihadis are necessarily over-reacing when they see dots to connect b/w Maqdisi’s slam of the Taliban via Hamas and Zawahiris (indirect) slam of a Taliban strategy via Hamas and Hizbullah. Clearly, within that universe of discourse folks are seeing trouble, and this is important (see Marc Lynch’s comments on parallels with Iraq over at FP). This is how the jihadis are seeing it; I’m not trying to stretch anything here.

  4. Amm Sam,
    Just one follow-up point regarding Maqdisi’s influence on AQ. You will recall that in June Abu’l-Yazid created a furor by saying apparently nice things about Hamas in an al-Jazeera interview, which predictably led to Maqdisi writing one of his “corrective” diatribes. On July 26, 2009, Abu’l-Yazid, writing on behalf of AQ’s “General Command,” issued a clarification, saying his nice words were a slip of the tongue and the Hamas leaders are misguided sinners. AY closes by writing that he’d like to particularly thank Maqdisi, “as I have read his letter and its helpful explanations.” (http://alflojaweb.com/vb/showthread.php?t=82730). AQ is keenly aware of Maqdisi’s power over their audience.

  5. Talib,
    Yep, it’s the same one that was sent to ARY last week. I put a link in the update to my post on those videos.

  6. Vahid, I do remember the Yazid interview that Maqdisi slammed, but wasn’t aware of the response from Yazid. Interesting stuff. Deference to the scholar. Strategy vs. doctrine, I suppose?

    Thanks for the response.

  7. Good piece – keep up the great work!

    Re: the comment on fora postings to the effect that “Mullah Omar’s messages imply some level of recognition of the United Nations, an organization which al-Qa’ida has unequivocally labelled as “infidel,” and that these opposing moves seem to him to signal “the beginning of the end of relations between al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.” ”

    would the Taliban be swayed by this sort of debate that it would be a reason behind the 12 Oct 09 statement condemning the UN as harshly as it did for the passing of the latest resolution mandating the ISAF mission (since old Voice of Jihad URLs no longer work, PDF of official English version here http://xrl.us/bfx6y6 )? Or is the timing out of whack with the other material?

    I can’t remember seeing other specific statements along these lines immediately after such UN Security Council resolutions, and thought of that one when I read your piece.

  8. Dear All,

    Its about time that Talibans realize the importance of securing and looking after their own people. Millions are starving, dieing and misplaced for the sake couple of foreign Lunatics using the Afghan-Land to do their Dirty Wars.

    Its time for us Afghans to come under one umbrella of unity and peace and start extending our hands to our Dear Neighbors (Iran, Pakistan, Uzbakistan, Tajikistan, etc.). Why shouldn’t we? WHO WANTS A BAD Neighbor, DO YOU?

    I think its still time for all Afghans to come together and rid ourselves from the disease of dis-unity and wars, and foreign lunatics!! For the foreign lunatics, go start a war in your country leave Afghans alone, before they turn on you!

    Zinda-Bad Afghanistan!

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