Will Taliban Abandon Al-Qaeda?

The September 11 attacks of 2001 in New York – dubbed the “Manhattan Invasion” and carried out by Al-Qaeda without taking the permission of the Emirate it pledged allegiance to, as some observers noted –were the primary reason that gave rise to the fall of the Taliban’s Emirate in October of the same year. The question now is: will the upcoming period see Taliban’s disengagement from Al-Qaeda and a declared war against the multinational organization, its network, and central command?  

Since its inception on 2 September 1998, Al-Qaeda has established the principle of ‘awlamat al-jihad [globalization of Martyrdom]. After the establishment of Taliban’s emirate in 1996, Afghanistan has been Al-Qaeda’s safe haven and launching ground for its operations under Osama bin Laden (killed in May 2011) who used to have very close relationship to Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani (died on 3 September 2018), leader of the Haqqani Network – a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban – whose son Sirajuddin Haqqani, is taking over the Ministry of Interior portfolio in Taliban’s interim government, along with three other members of the Haqqani Network. Moreover, Jalaluddin was the mentor of Taliban’s founding leaders including Mullah Omar who was announced dead in 2013. 

However, the Taliban-Haqqani Network relationship may be all different now: the charismatic Afghan jihad preacher Osama bin Laden died and so did Jalaluddin Haqqani. Now, Taliban and Haqqani Network are managed by a new generation that differs significantly but seems to be lingering in the past as has been evidenced by a video in which Sirajuddin sent assurances to the fugitive Afghan Vice President Ashraf Ghani following the latter’s pledging allegiance to the Taliban.     

Re-Questioning the Taliban-Qaeda Relationship

The question of Taliban’s possible disengagement from Al-Qaeda is unfolding again, particularly given Taliban’s pledges to the United States not to use Afghanistan as a launching point for terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, as was the case two decades ago when the Al-Qaeda took Afghanistan as its safe haven and carried out the September 11 Attacks. This is inconsistent with Al-Qaeda’s doctrine – as well as the doctrine of its successor the Islamic State (IS), or Daesh – and will mean keeping Al-Qaeda and its central core on life support, losing the essence of its ideology, i.e. targeting the United States, its allies, and Israel through its global fronts.

Various Grounds for the Taliban-Qaeda Disengagement

Taliban’s disengagement from Al-Qaeda and its controversial and disappeared leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, has become more likely particularly with the increasing danger of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-Khorasan) in Afghanistan, among other reasons which we detail below.

I- Taliban’s Local and Regional Nature

The Taliban is a local and regional group. After 20 years of war, the organization seems to have lived – and learned from – the experience of playing at the international level and will not take the risk of siding with Al-Qaeda’s fugitive in the shadow leaders – as IS describes Ayman Al-Zawahiri – who seek its sanctuary or carry out any operations that would gave rise to foreign interference in Afghanistan and cause the Taliban’s rule to fall again.      

The Taliban – which is a Pashtun group that relies on China for funding and has Deobandi and Indian Sufism origins – may not accept Al-Qaeda’s and IS’ principle of ‘awlamat al-jihad. While The Taliban has explicitly expressed its hostility to IS only, it will not approve of Al-Qaeda’s activity.  Indeed, both IS and Al-Qaeda are ideologically closer to one another than to the Taliban and its doctrine. The alliance between Al-Qaeda and Taliban was established on an equal basis rather than being an “ideological agreement” on identifying the enemy and objective even in Afghanistan at least. After all, Taliban remains a regional group while Al-Qaeda is an international organization. I made reference to the “ideological” disagreement because there are some fundamental differences and doctrinal and intellectual discrepancies in the conception of Islam itself between the two groups which might account for the conflicting outcome of this alliance. Al-Qaeda has always remained a jihadist Salafi group with some Qutbist ideas whereas the Taliban remained a Sufi Deobandi group believing in Sufism and the Maturidi faith. [1]

II- IS’ Danger and US Support to Confront It

News of a potential alliance between Taliban’s Emirate and the United States in the face of IS is increasing. For Taliban, IS remains its biggest challenge after it had taken control of the Panjshir Valley and defeated the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan led by Ahmad Massoud in early September.

The United States’ and Taliban’s mutual rapprochement started even before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on 30 August as has been reflected in their meeting in Doha in February 2020 that gave rise to the Doha Agreement. Under this agreement, the US Air Force provided air cover to the Taliban in its battles with the IS-K that didn’t congratulate the Taliban on its taking over of Kabul, insists on describing the Taliban as apostate and infidel, and targets its members everywhere.

A further justification for the ideological disengagement is that Al-Qaeda ideas and the discourse of its leaders may fuel and be an incubator of terrorism which would embarrass the Taliban which is already in an agreement with the United States and has made pledges –to the united States and super powers– not to threaten them or host groups or individuals that would attack them. Further, IS remains Taliban’s rival as it seeks to restore its international caliphate in the face of the Taliban’s Emirate of believers which it sees as “restricted”.

The US support for the Taliban against IS-K is expected to increase in the coming period, a fact the Biden’s administration is aware of as has been manifested in Biden’s speech following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on 30 August and in statements of Mark Miley, the United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which he confirmed a possible US coordination with the Taliban in any counter-terrorism operations against the terrorist IS-k in Afghanistan. Further, on 11 March 2020, General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of US Central Commands, stated that the US has given “limited” support to the Taliban in its fight against IS in Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan. 

McKenzie’s statements came as part of his speech before the US Senate Committee on Armed Services in which he touched on the agreement that Washington concluded with the Taliban in Qatar on 29 February 2020, pointing out that the Taliban have not launched any attacks on the United States since signing the Agreement. 

Relatedly, Bloomberg has published a report explaining the Taliban’s dilemma in coordinating with Washington in its war against IS, namely its concerns over its members joining IS amid the lack of claims of their sacrifices to “expel the US invaders” over the past two decades.

III- Generational Differences and Taliban’s Conservative Factions’ View of the Relationship with Al-Qaeda

From the very beginning, some factions of the Taliban have been reserved in their stance on the Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda. However, the then-dominant faction was enthusiastic about this relationship. In addition, Al-Qaeda was financially supporting the Taliban at the time.

Al-Qaeda’s key ideologues and strategic leaders have been aware of discrepancies between Al-Qaeda and Taliban given the numerous factions within the Taliban. Abu Musab Al-Suri revealed this very early in his statements about Al-Qaeda-Taliban relationship when he noted that, “the Taliban members fall mainly into two groups: 1) a righteous strong ruling group that we believe to be good in terms of being keen on religion, Sharia, and the interests of Muslims, hosting us and showing good-neighborhood, collaborating with us and with Muslims in raising the banner of jihad against the unjust global system. Among those leaders are Commander of the Faithful and many of Taliban’s current sheikhs and officials; and 2) a weak group consisting mainly of some impotent individuals who choose to be loyal to some regional or international forces for the sake of gaining personal interests. The risk lies in their willingness to give up on the Arabs, Muslim immigrants, and the jihad project for personal interests. This is a weak corrupted group, though. 

So, wisdom, religion, and reason require that we support the righteous group represented in Mullah Muhammad Omar and his people, helping them in the good they do, never giving the second group the opportunity through our wrong practices or failure to take action where we should be proactive because. If we did the opposite and the righteous group was overthrown –Allah forbid– and the second group took over, the ignorant among us and those who were opposing our views would say: “Look, we told you they were corrupt.” And they are not. This indeed would be a result of not supporting the righteous which made the corrupt stronger and we would find what we feared a reality. The truth of the matter would be that we let ourselves down and so let people down and we denied the blessings of Allah and so we were deprived of it.” [2]

This conservative faction, which was led by Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani, had changed significantly under the rule of his sons. Within 20 years, the Taliban was transformed and Al-Qaeda differed after Osama bin Laden’s death as it lost much of its impetus and brilliance and became weaker and more controversial over the last decade under leadership of Ayman Al-Zawahiri who we think has no option but either to continue disappearing with his organization and ideology kept on life support or abandon Al-Qaeda, which is unlikely to happen, or confront Taliban that is likely give up on him.

Given this, we would disagree with the report recently published by the Economist on 28 August on the potential increase of violent extremism in general given the close link between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban [3] building solely on the impact of the Haqqani Network and its previous pledge of allegiance to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden particularly  after four of Jalaluddin’s sons had been offered portfolios in Taliban’s interim government that was announced on 7 September, thus overlooking the generation gap, the 20-year war the followed Taliban’s fall (which Al-Qaeda was the cause of), and Taliban’s attempts to return to power which claimed the lives of 45,000 Afghans.

In sum, disengagement between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will weaken the global jihad stage which the IS may be at its forefront, in which case further IS-Qaeda feuds will ensue.

[1] For more information about Deobandi, please refer to the following reference: Abdul-Baqi, M. (2009). Religious Schools in Pakistan, 1st edition, Matbouli Publishing

[2] Quoting Youssef al-Ayiri, Ibid, available at: http://majmo3pages.atspace.com/Taleban-039.htm  [3] Good News for Global Jihad: America’s Flight from Afghanistan will Embolden Jihadists around the World, the Economist, 28 August 2021 , Available at: https://bit.ly/3yvGMGG

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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