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.