Al-Qaeda’s Quasi-Caliph: The Recasting of Mullah ‘Umar

The Islamic State’s June 29 declaration of a caliphate has yet to win mass support among the global jihadi community but it has succeeded in provoking an embattled al-Qaeda leadership to respond—in unforeseen fashion. Rather than immediately denouncing the Islamic State’s new “caliphate” as one would have expected, al-Qaeda has responded in kind: that is, with the proposition of a counter-caliph of sorts. The mooted quasi-caliph is none other than Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan since 1996. Like the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mullah ‘Umar holds the title amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers), the traditional title of caliphs in Islamic history. The Afghan amir’s title has rarely seemed more than rhetorical but over the last week al-Qaeda has played up the ambiguity of the title. It has reaffirmed its loyalty to Mullah ‘Umar and distributed a video of Osama bin Laden

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Usama bin Laden Called Yunus Khalis “the Father Sheikh:” Weird But Possibly True

Many authors have tried to fill in the gaps in the historical account of how al-Qa’ida’s central leadership came to reside in Jalalabad for part of 1996, with mixed results. Yunus Khalis has become a fixture in these narratives largely because he was the best known person that Bin Laden interacted with in the summer after al-Qa’ida’s leadership fled Sudan for Nangarhar. For many authors, Khalis’s fame and prominence in the region combined with his known interactions with Bin Laden provide an adequate explanation: al-Qa’ida must have come to Nangarhar in 1996 because of the importance of the Khalis-Bin Laden relationship. This is, of course, a vast oversimplification, and I hope that the report I recently published for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center will go some way towards exposing the most obviously untenable parts of this narrative. But as part of the research for this monograph, I have also found

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NYU Report on AQ and Taliban

NYU’s Center on International Cooperation has just published a new report by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn on Taliban-al-Qaida relations and implications for US policy. Few people are better informed than Alex and Felix about this topic. How many Western civilians do you know who has spent the past few years living in Qandahar?

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New Report Profiling the Taliban

Anne Stenersen has written a new FFI report on the organizational structure and ideology of the Taliban. The report is based on field research, analysis of online Taliban propaganda and a thorough review of the secondary literature. This is essential reading for anyone working Afghanistan. One of her conclusions caught my eye: “For the time being, it looks like any attempt to negotiate with the Taliban leadership directly would serve to strengthen the insurgent movement, rather than weakening it. A more realistic approach is probably to try to weaken the Taliban’s coherence through negotiating with, and offering incentives to, low-level commanders and tribal leaders inside Afghanistan.”

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Did the Quetta Shura Break With al-Qaida?

Mustafa Hamid, aka Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, published a blog piece a little while ago which discussed the arrest of Mullah Baradir. It’s fascinating reading, especially the first part which deals with the historical role of Mullah Baradir in the Taliban insurgency. It’s already been covered in part by Leah Farrall. I thought I’d add some comment about the opening lines of the article, in which Mustafa Hamid says that the Taliban’s high council made three important decisions after 2001, one of which was to “break the ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida.” Mustafa Hamid has previously said that al-Qaida and the Taliban have moved further apart after 2001, although I don’t think he’s ever been this specific. We have heard similar things in the media, but the reports are hard to confirm. Was there actually a decision in the Quetta shura, led by Mullah Baradir at the time, to break ties

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The Taliban, the UN and al-Qaida

(Editor’s note: Anne tried to post a comment on Vahid Brown’s landmark post on Al-Qaida-Taliban relations. Given that she is one of the world’s foremost experts on this issue, there was no way I was going to let her remarks “disappear” into the comments section. So here they are. Her text begins with a response to an earlier comment about Taliban’s view of the UN). “Mullah Omar’s statement should not be interpreted to mean that he or other Taliban leaders are ready to recognize the United Nations. In fact, the Taliban’s leaders have criticized the UN on a number of occasions, in addition to the one you mention. In 2006 Mullah Omar accused the UN of being nothing but a “tool for America” and Mullah Baradir echoed this in 2008, saying that “we regard all the decisions of the United Nations towards Afghanistan, as American orders.” I do not think

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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

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Abu’l-Walid is Back… with the Taliban (and not al-Qaida)

(Editor’s note: I am delighted to introduce our next guest blogger, Vahid Brown from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Vahid is a linguist and historian with deep knowledge of the history of al-Qaida and the jihadi movement. He is the author of Cracks in the Foundation and the co-author of several well-known CTC reports. Vahid and I share many research interests, so I am thrilled that he will be with us for the next month or so.) Mustafa Hamid Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, once a senior member of al-Qa’ida, has re-emerged lately after several years of relative silence and is once again chronicling, critiquing and offering strategic guidance to the jihadi movement.  He began posting new “editions” of his voluminous early writings to a blog in 2007 and ‘08, and this July he began to add newly-written articles on the Afghan insurgency, one of which has already been covered by

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