Jihadis Debate Growing Rift Between al-Qaeda and the Taliban

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 38

Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s statement on the occasion of the end of Ramadan festivities, published in al-Somod Islamic e-magazine, was seen by many Salafi-Jihadi forum participants as a retreat from true Salafi-Jihadi practices and a sign of unacceptable moderation and concession to the United States and the Western world in general (alsomod.org, September 19).  Jihadi forum members discussed Mullah Omar’s Eid statement in anticipation of a major rift between al-Qaeda and the Taliban (muslm.net November 25).

The most contentious points in Mullah Omar’s statement from a Salafi-Jihadi perspective are as follows:

• The Mullah promises social reforms. “We would like to say, we are victims of the black propaganda of the enemy media. This has created doubts between us and a number of countries of the world. They have wrongly depicted us as a force being against education and women’s rights.” The Salafi-Jihadis of al-Qaeda, as the name suggests, represent an ideology that regards any reform as deviation from the true path of the Salaf, the pious first three generations of Muslims.

• Mullah Omar’s determination to hold Taliban members accountable for wrongful behavior and the liquidation of rogue elements within the movement also applies to al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, for the latter are obliged to abide by the Muslim Amir’s rulings. The directive would strain al-Qaeda’s freedom to conduct terrorist operations. The Islamic Emirate “obliges all mujahideen to strictly observe the rules and regulations so that all mujahideen will continue to wage jihad as sincere sons of the country for the prosperity of the masses under the framework of Islamic Shari’a …The Islamic Emirate considers the purge of its ranks and self-accountability an everlasting and necessary obligation.”

• Mullah Omar’s emphasis on international norms and his promises to establish friendly bilateral relations with other nations and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors are in stark contrast with al-Qaeda’s global war against “Jews and Crusaders.” According to the Mullah, “We consider the whole region as a common home against colonialism and want to play our role in the peace and stability of the region. We assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible force, will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others as it itself does not allow others to jeopardize us.”

• Islam rejects extremism. The Taliban is only concerned with expelling foreign troops from Afghanistan.

However, parts of the statement appear to contradict Mullah Omar’s remarks regarding Osama bin Laden. The Mullah argues that his decision to grant Bin Laden safe haven was based on principles. The opposing parties should have expressed their point in a logical manner without provocations. “Afghan ethics and religion forbid us from extraditing Bin Laden. The man participated with us in jihad against the Soviets and spent his money helping us and our Muslim jihadi guests. They are all welcome as long as they respect our traditions and law,” says the Mullah (al-Somod, November 5; muslm.net, November 13).

A debate in one of the jihadi forums was triggered by a posting entitled “Al-Qaeda’s agenda is different than that of the Taliban’s Mullah Omar” (muslm.net November 25). A forum member, nicknamed “Asif al-Zubay,” said the Taliban’s first and last mission is to rid Afghanistan of U.S. occupation and extend the Taliban’s control over all Afghanistan as well as win the support of Islamic countries. “This is a clear indication the Taliban agenda is shifting away from al-Qaeda’s global war strategy against Islamic and non-Islamic countries,” says al-Zubay.  Other chatters criticized Mullah Omar for declaring the Taliban’s intention to recognize Islamic countries after the liberation of Afghanistan, contradicting the Salafi-Jihadi/al-Qaeda principle of not recognizing the “infidel-ruled” Arab and Islamic states. “We must not look for excuses for what the Mullah said. The Mullah and the Taliban leaders must know that we are angry and denounce his stated shift in policy. We demand that the Mullah apologize or renounce the statement. We expect Shaykh Osama to denounce the statement as well,” said one jihadi forum member whose style of Arabic suggests Iraqi origins.

Other more realistic jihadi forum members do not believe that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, and doubt that Mullah Omar will ever rule Afghanistan again. Even if the Taliban forces the Coalition to withdraw, that would be a big setback for al-Qaeda, which has failed so far to bring the Taliban to Salafism. The Taliban eventually realized its entire misfortune stems from al-Qaeda and the safe haven extended to Osama bin Laden. Having learnt this lesson, Mullah Omar will no longer allow any actions that would harm the sovereignty of Afghanistan. If the Taliban prevails, al-Qaeda will have to either obey the Amir or, most probably, in some other members’ opinion, break ranks and fight Taliban rule. In case the Coalition leaves Afghanistan, al-Qaeda still has the religious justification to maintain an international terror campaign in the guise of “offensive jihad.” Forum members concluded that al-Qaeda and the Taliban differ in the following areas: political agenda; strategies; military techniques; and prospects for the future, as al-Qaeda does not appear to have any future plans. Moreover, the terrorist activities of al-Qaeda have not only led to the collapse of the nascent Islamic state in Afghanistan, but were a disservice to the Muslim cause all over the world.  

Optimistic Salafi-Jihadi chatters believe the Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy a cooperative relationship.  Al-Qaeda works globally, whereas the Taliban offer an incubator for the group and a refuge for Muslims in general. Taliban Afghanistan is a safe haven and a launch pad that will lead to an eventual bright future for Muslims. Afghanis’ love for Islam and Arabs is genuine, as is evident from their sacrifices for Arabs on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

The impact of Mullah Omar’s statement still echoes in jihadi circles and forums. If the Mullah’s policy revisions prove to be genuine, al-Qaeda’s operations would be disrupted significantly. If the attempts of al-Qaeda supporters to mitigate the repercussions of Mullah Omar’s statement fail, Mullah Omar might become, in al-Qaeda’s eyes, the “Shaykh Sharif” of Afghanistan. [1]

1. Somalia’s Islamist president, Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, was formerly a co-chairman of the Islamic Courts Union and commander of the Alliance to Re-liberate Somalia (ARS). Since joining the government, he has been roundly denounced by both al-Qaeda and the al-Qaeda influenced al-Shabaab movement, which has tried several times to kill him.