On September 12, 2020, the Taliban and the Afghan government began negotiations in Qatar over the political future of Afghanistan. In accordance with the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” signed by the United States and the Taliban on February 29, the negotiations are expected to produce “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” between the warring Afghan parties, as well as an “agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.” In return for the Taliban’s participation in the negotiations and its guarantee that “Afghan soil will not be used against the security of the United States and its allies,” the United States agreed to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan within fourteen months of the original agreement.
In the world of Sunni jihadism, the U.S.-Taliban deal and the associated peace talks have elicited a range of reactions, from celebration to condemnation. This divergence of views reflects the fractured state of the jihadi movement—or its “tri-polar” character—split as it is between the three poles of the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria. The cautiously optimistic views of certain jihadi scholars add another layer of complexity to the picture.
The Islamic State
The Islamic State, it will be recalled, considers the Taliban to be a movement that has abandoned Islam and taken up the cause of Afghan nationalism. Its media routinely portray the Taliban as a nationalist and polytheist group, one that is theologically flawed, tolerant of the Shia, and in bed with Pakistani intelligence. The Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” has also fought with the Taliban on numerous occasions. It thus comes as no surprise that the Islamic State has represented the recent deal and negotiations as further evidence of the Taliban’s apostasy.
An early response came in the form of an editorial in the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ newsletter in mid-March in which the Taliban were condemned for taking the “Crusaders” (i.e., the Americans) as their “new allies.” Unlike the Taliban, the Islamic State, the editorial boasted, would not cease to attack the Americans in Afghanistan, citing a recent Islamic State attack on the Bagram Air Base. This was a message to the Crusaders, the editorial continued, that the Islamic State’s war on them would continue despite the peace agreement with the “apostate” Taliban, who would also continue to be targeted.
In a speech two months later, in May 2020, the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, commented further on the U.S.-Taliban agreement, alleging a conspiracy between the two sides to destroy the Islamic State in Afghanistan. “The agreement regarding the withdrawal of the American military from Afghanistan,” he said, “is a cover for the standing alliance between the apostate Taliban militia and the Crusaders for fighting the Islamic State, and a basis for establishing a national government that brings together the apostates of the Taliban with the polytheist Rejectionists [i.e., Shia] and other apostate and unbelieving sects.” In al-Qurashi’s view, the deal was to be understood in light of the purported preexisting alliance between the United States and the Taliban to root out the “caliphate” in Afghanistan. What the Taliban sought was a “national government” in which it could share. The Islamic State, however, would stand in the way of all this, intent on fighting “the Crusaders and the apostates” until true Islamic rule is established throughout the land.
Al-Qaida has portrayed the agreement in an entirely different light. On March 12, the “general leadership” of the group released a statement hailing the U.S.-Taliban deal as a “great historical victory” for the Taliban, focusing on the agreed-to withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban, the statement argued, by remaining steadfast and true to their faith, have defeated and brought low an enemy of far greater size and strength. Theirs is thus a lesson to be heeded by all jihadis fighting oppression and occupation.
Noticeably absent from this statement, however, was any mention of the Taliban’s pledge regarding al-Qaida or the coming negotiations with the Afghan government. Al-Qaida proceeded as if none of that mattered. As it had in the past, it described the Taliban in terms of the future caliphate, as “the nucleus of the Islamic state that will rule by God’s pure law.”
Since 2014, al-Qaida has repeatedly portrayed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—the Taliban’s official name—as the seat of the anticipated caliphate and the Taliban leader as the caliph-in-waiting. In July 2014, for instance, it released a newsletter renewing the bay‘a (i.e., pledge of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, affirming “that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army acting under his victorious banner.” A few months later, when al-Qaida in the Islamic Subcontinent was announced, its leader emphasized that he had given bay‘a to both al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar. The next year, when it was discovered that Mullah Omar had actually been dead since 2013, al-Zawahiri released an audio message giving bay‘a to his successor, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. The exercise was repeated for the next Taliban leader, Haybat Allah Akhundzadah, after Mullah Akhtar was killed in an airstrike in mid-2016. In both of these statements, al-Zawahiri indicated that everyone who gives bay‘a to the leader of al-Qaida has in effect given bay‘a to the leader of the Taliban, and that the latter bay‘a is to be understood as al-bay‘a al-‘uzma, or “the supreme bay‘a,” meaning the kind of bay‘a that one gives to a caliph. In 2017, when the subsidiary group of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam al-Muslimin, was proclaimed, its leader articulated three bay‘as—one to the leader of AQIM, one to al-Zawahiri, and one to Akhundzadah. In his speeches, al-Zawahiri has continued to emphasize the theme of al-Qaida’s bay‘a to Akhundzadah. The issue even played a role in the debate between al-Qaida and HTS, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, over the latter’s decision to leave al-Qaida. In a speech in November 2017, al-Zawahiri condemned HTS’s move, saying: “O brothers. By God’s grace and favor you belong to a greater union than the union you have. You are in the Qa‘idat al-Jihad group that is pledged in bay‘a to the Islamic Emirate in an expansive jihadi confederation.” The argument did not persuade, however. In a response, HTS’s representative rejected the idea that the Syrian group had ever owed loyalty to the Taliban.
As all of this shows, the relationship with the Taliban is of central importance to al-Qaida. In its self-presentation, al-Qaida is little more than a global military unit in service to Akhundzadah, whom it sees as its quasi-caliph. It would thus be a pretty big blow to al-Qaida, in material and propaganda terms, if the Taliban were to cut all ties with the group. That is not what the text of the U.S.-Taliban agreement requires, though it comes fairly close. The agreement states that the Taliban “will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.” Threatening the United States and its allies is the raison d’être of al-Qaida, and the Taliban is supposed to be its supreme “host.” If the Taliban were to honor this pledge—and it has repeatedly said that it will—it would be embarrassing for al-Qaida.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham
On September 13, the head of HTS’s Sharia committee, Abu ‘Abdallah al-Shami (aka ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Atun), issued a statement congratulating the Taliban on the start of negotiations with the Afghan government. “This great victory that the Muslims in Afghanistan have achieved,” the statement read, “brings us joy as it brings joy to every free and passionate Muslim.” The key to the Taliban’s success, according to al-Shami, in addition to its extraordinary perseverance in resisting the American occupiers, was its ability to translate military success into political gains, and to do so by maintaining a united front. The implication of al-Shami’s words was that the Taliban’s approach was a model for HTS. Recently, the more hardline jihadi factions in Syria have criticized HTS for seeking a monopoly on violence in the territory it controls. Such an approach, al-Shami seems to be saying, is vindicated by the experience of the Taliban.
Other voices within HTS made similar comments, some of them more explicit in presenting the Taliban as a model for HTS to follow. On September 14, another HTS Sharia official, Muzhir al-Ways, commented that “the Taliban’s example” was “inspiring for all,” the Taliban being “a model in jihad and a model in political activity, a model in methodology and approach and respect for religious knowledge and jurisprudence.” While “every theater has its particularities,” he added, and no one example ought to be emulated in its entirety, the case of the Taliban offered lessons worthy of consideration.
Supporters of al-Qaida were quick to respond that HTS and the Taliban were in fact nothing alike. “The matter of likening the Taliban to [HTS] is entirely invalid,” wrote Jallad al-Murji’a on Telegram. In another post he supported his claim by citing the example of HTS’s cooperation with “the secular Turkish army … which was a participant in the war on the Muslims in Afghanistan under the banner of America and the Crusader NATO alliance.” Another al-Qaida supporter would point out that HTS, in its cooperation with Turkey and Russia, has fallen victim to “the game of international politics.” This was quite contrary to the successful experience of the Taliban. “Do not be deceived,” he wrote, “by what you have done, and don’t take pride in your victories, from which we have seen only destruction and devastation.” “How great is the difference,” wrote another, “between humbling oneself before the unbelievers and humbling the unbelievers.”
In response to these sorts of comments, HTS supporter al-Ifriqi al-Muhajir took issue with this characterization of the Taliban’s policy as one of uncompromising jihadism. There were elements of the Taliban’s policy, he said, that these voices failed to appreciate. The Taliban were not even forthright about their relationship with al-Qaida. He quoted an excerpt from a letter by the al-Qaida ideologue ‘Atiyyat Allah al-Libi (d. 2011), who wrote as follows about the nature of the Taliban’s dealings with al-Qaida: “Of course, the Taliban’s policy is to avoid being seen with us or revealing any cooperation or agreement between us and them. That is for the purpose of averting international and regional pressure and out of consideration for regional dynamics. We defer to them in this regard.”
The senior scholars of the jihadi movement, including the Palestinian-Jordanians Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, have expressed both praise and concern for the Taliban’s recent doings. While deeply divided over the issue of HTS—Abu Qatada is generally supportive, al-Maqdisi fiercely opposed—the two men’s views on this subject are not so far apart.
Back in February, Abu Qatada heaped praise on the Taliban for signing the agreement with the United States. In a statement on Telegram, he wrote that “the Afghan situation” is “an important example” and one that “deserves to be studied.” While rejecting the idea that every jihadi group should follow the Taliban’s path “step by step,” he highlighted several admirable aspects of the Taliban’s approach. These included the Taliban’s commitment to “staying the course” on the battlefield, its strong connection to the society in which it operates, and its status as a scholarly movement, that is, as a “movement of scholars.” On September 13, Abu Qatada continued in this vein in another statement, praising the Taliban’s success in securing the release of thousands of prisoners. “This is a jihadi victory the like of which has not been seen in our modern history,” he wrote.
Yet with regard to the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, he was much less enthusiastic. “The Taliban’s agreeing to sit down with the [Afghan] government is an American victory,” he wrote in the September 13 commentary. “This has to be acknowledged.” For Abu Qatada, this was a potentially troubling development, for any concession to the Afghan government from this point forward would strip the Taliban of its status as “a legitimate emirate for Afghanistan.” The worst possible outcome, in his view, would be for the Taliban to enter into a power-sharing arrangement. He held this possibility to be remote, however, hoping that the negotiations would continue only as a “tactic” for achieving the American withdrawal.
Al-Maqdisi was similarly boastful about the Taliban’s initial agreement with the United States. In late February, he wrote that it was only the Taliban’s unrelenting “will to fight” that had forced the United States to negotiate with them, and that this was a “clear lesson” for jihadis. It showed that “the solution is not in democracy and ballot boxes! Rather it is in jihad and ammunition boxes.”
The next day, on March 1, al-Maqdisi published an “open letter to the Taliban,” sounding a more critical and cautionary note. In the letter he objected to the open-ended nature of the Taliban’s agreement with the United States, including the clause regarding al-Qaida, arguing that a non-aggression pact with unbelievers should be for no more than ten years in keeping with prophetic practice. This was, in his view, no more than “a jurisprudential transgression.” It was certainly the Taliban’s right to restrict al-Qaida, he said, particularly as Mullah Omar had never given his blessing to the 9/11 attacks. But should the “peace agreement” with the United States lead to the abrogation of jihad, this would speak to a deeper, more theological problem with the Taliban. Al-Maqdisi further faulted the Taliban for giving thanks to Qatar, Pakistan, and China, among other countries, in a statement issued by its leader upon the signing of the agreement. Such expressions of gratitude to states whose rulers are at war with Islam, he wrote, leave one to wonder about possible changes in the Taliban’s methodology.
Particularly troubling, in his view, was the clause in the agreement stating that the United States and the Taliban “seek positive relations with each other and expect that the relations between the United States and the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government … will be positive.” Perhaps all of this, he speculated, is nothing more than “maneuvers and political steps to achieve important interests.” But like Abu Qatada, he was concerned about what would come once the Taliban and “the client Afghan government” actually sat down to negotiate. More recently, after the negotiations got under way in September, al-Maqdisi reiterated his concerns. “What worries me,” he wrote on Telegram on September 12, “is not the sitting down [at the negotiating table] in itself, but rather the results of the sitting down!” He would wait to pass judgment, however, until the results were clear and documented.
Another jihadi scholar, the London-based Egyptian Hani al-Siba‘i, who is close ideologically to al-Maqdisi, has been somewhat more upbeat in responding to the Taliban’s recent moves. He also has contributed a somewhat different take on the Taliban’s pledge regarding al-Qaida. In a sermon delivered in March, al-Siba‘i pointed out that the Taliban, to its credit, “did not dissociate from [al-Qaida] and did not hand them over [to the Americans].” The Taliban’s commitment in the agreement was in reality nothing new, since the Taliban were already forbidding al-Qaida from launching attacks on the United States from Afghan soil.
In a more recent sermon in mid-September, al-Siba‘i added a few comments on the matter of al-Qaida’s bay‘a to the Taliban leader. The bay‘a, he explained, is conditional. When al-Zawahiri gave bay‘a to Akhundzadah, he stipulated certain conditions, including that the Taliban adhere to the Sharia. Therefore, if the Taliban were to deviate from its current path, al-Qaida would be within its rights to withdraw the bay‘a. For al-Siba‘i, however, this was a worst-case scenario, and a remote one. Let us wait, he suggested, and see what happens. For as of now, the Taliban have conceded nothing.
No consensus, uncertain future
If one thing is clear from this motley of views concerning the Taliban’s deal with the United States and its negotiations with the Afghan government, it is that there is little consensus in the jihadi world on what the nature of the Taliban truly is. For the Islamic State, the Taliban is an ungodly movement ready and willing to renounce jihad and share power with the Afghan government. For al-Qaida, it is the future Islamic caliphate. And for HTS, it is a model of jihadi realpolitik. The scholars, for their part, wary as they are of where the negotiations will lead, reflect a deep uncertainty about the future of the Taliban. Their worst fear is that the Taliban will make peace with the Afghan government and shed its character as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Their greatest hope is that the negotiations will turn out to be a time-saving ruse. They are not so hopeful, however, as to assume this outcome as a given.