Why the Break up of Al-Qaeda and Taliban is So Messy
In 1996, Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda fled Sudan after years of enjoying safe haven in North Africa and returned to Afghanistan. At the time that the Taliban was rising in power and bin Laden was welcomed.
Now after 20 years, a new Sudan government that even did not exist in the 1990s is paying the price for harboring the al-Qaeda leader. The Sudanese government currently pays compensation to the families of 17 U.S. sailors who were killed in an al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole at a port in Yemen in 2000.
In response to harboring the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan where al-Qaeda plotted 9/11 attack, the U.S. toppled the Taliban in December 2001 and then signed a deal in February, 2020. After nearly 20 years of fighting that cost billions of dollars and hundred thousand lives, the US is aiming for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. This hinges on a deal with a Taliban, a group which refused to hand over Bin Laden in 2001 and refused to name al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization in 2020.
Under the deal, the Taliban will not allow groups like al-Qaeda to use Afghan soil. The deal is only several months old and there does not seem to be a significant chance of cutting ties between al-Qaeda and Taliban considering they have been companions for 40 years. The U.S. Department of Defense said in a report that the al-Qaeda “maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan,
likely for protection and training.” Earlier, a UN report read that al-Qaeda and Taliban enjoy a close relationship and that the Taliban “offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties.”
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban share a long history of partnership that took shape in the 1980s during the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The relationship deepened over the years of the rising of the Taliban as a conqueror in the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. When the international community was against the Taliban in the 2000s and the 2010s, al-Qaeda was in the blackline of the Taliban’s insurgency.
The extremist ideology of the Taliban and al-Qaeda makes cutting ties between the two Islamist groups more difficult. For 20 years of the insurgency, the Taliban’s hardline Islamist ideology drove young fighters to die in the front line and conduct suicide bombing in a bid to take over Afghanistan, while al-Qaeda’s ideology of hurting the West and driving them out from the Islamic world continues to inspire global jihad.
“The al Qaeda and Taliban relationship runs too deep and is too interwoven in Afghanistan for the Taliban to excise al Qaeda from its network,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Both groups believe in transforming the Muslim world into… restoration of the Caliphate. The Taliban seeks this [Emirate] governance in Afghanistan and al Qaeda seeks to support it in Afghanistan and bring it about throughout the Muslim world.”
Trump’s Desire to Cut al-Qaeda and Taliban Ties
In contrast to the expectation of President Trump administration that hoped-for cutting ties between al-Qaeda and Taliban and withdraw troops from Afghanistan, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, told a virtual meeting hosted by Middle East Institute that “those conditions have not been fully met.” McKenzie said that leader of al-Qaeda is still in eastern Afghanistan, though the Taliban rejected it.
The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations said in an earlier report that the senior leadership of al-Qaeda, armed operatives around 400 to 600, and other foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban remain in the country. During negotiating with the United States, the Taliban “regularly consulted” with al-Qaeda, according to the UN report. The Taliban dismissed the UN report in a statement.
“We cannot expect that the relations including structural, organic and emotional [the Taliban and al-Qaeda] cut within 24 hours or more,” said Jafar Mahdawi, secretary-general of Afghanistan Milat Party, a political party in Kabul. “Are these communications really for plotting attacks against the Afghan government? Or Just emotional and intermarriage relations that cannot threats the interests of the Afghan government and the U.S.?”
Roots in the Soviet Conflict
According to the UN report, the Haqqani Network — a notorious military branch of the Taliban — and al-Qaeda maintain close ties based on “friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy, and intermarriage.” The relation between the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda formed in 1988 during the fight against the Soviets in eastern Afghanistan, home to the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of Haqqani Network who was once praised by US President Ronald Reagan as “freedom fighter,” gave al-Qaeda training space in eastern Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden used the space to train fighters who led their Jihad against the U.S. elsewhere when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Bin Laden stayed five years in Sudan before returning back to Afghanistan in 1996.
Rise of the Taliban
The Taliban were rising and capturing Afghan cities one by one. As the Taliban were facing resistance from Afghan Mujahidin groups, in particular, the northern alliance in the north, al-Qaeda came in to help. In return for harboring bin Laden, al-Qaeda provided the Taliban with enormous financial and military assistance to take over the country.
Hafiz Mansoor, a member of Northern Alliance who fought the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the 1990s, said the novice Taliban madrassa could never win over the Northern Alliance, if al-Qaeda did not step in. Mr. Mansoor said that the al-Qaeda organization included supporters, fighters, financial resources and propaganda machine supported the Taliban, and that orchestrated complex military operations to take over Mazar Sharif and Herat provinces, where the Taliban faced catastrophic failures.
“The Taliban was under pressure for harboring al-Qaeda, but Osama promised financial and military support,” Mr. Mansoor said. “At the very top level, al-Qaeda had plotted to assassinate Ahmad Shah Massod [Anti-Taliban icon]. In the last stance, I was there, and we had detected 30 radio channels that Arabs were using.”
The Price of Harboring al-Qaeda: Invasion
For the Taliban, the result of harboring al-Qaeda was a full crisis: the US toppled their regime in 2001 and supported a new Western-backed government. But the Taliban and al-Qaeda deepened their new struggle against the US during the two long decades of insurgency. When the world was against the Taliban, al-Qaeda was supporting the Taliban in the backline.
Despite al-Qaeda losing its senior leader bin Laden in 2011, the global terror group continued supporting the Taliban and enjoyed safe haven in the mountains of Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri, the new leader of al-Qaeda, pledged alliance to the Taliban and argued that Taliban’s leaders “have been the only Muslims worthy of holding the title of ‘leader of the Faithful.’”
With such a long history of companionship with al-Qaeda, the Taliban refused to call al-Qaeda as a terrorist group in the agreement signed with the United States on February 29. In the four-page and three-part agreement, the Taliban just commit to keeping groups including al-Qaeda out of the Afghan soil and prevent such groups from launching attacks against the US.
Mahdawi, who wrote a book on society of the Taliban, said that the Taliban paid a huge price for harboring al-Qaeda once, and that this agreement with the US was a historical opportunity for the Taliban to take part in power-sharing of Afghanistan. “As the Taliban seeks political power, they have must put on their agenda to cut structural and organic ties with al-Qaeda. They cannot hide their relations from the world.”
As once alliance with al-Qaeda cost Taliban their regime, cutting ties with al-Qaeda can pave the way for the Taliban to return to the power. Unlike in the 1990s when ties with al-Qaeda carried political and military weight for the Taliban, experts said that ties with al-Qaeda may no longer carry military weight for the Taliban.
“Some suggest al-Qaeda fighters have embedded with Taliban units, while other reports suggest al-Qaeda fighters train new Talib recruits or provide specialized skills (though little evidence exists),” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst at Crisis Group. “In an insurgent group the size of the Taliban, which may count anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 fighters, even if all al-Qaeda suspects in Afghanistan provide military benefits, they are less than 1%.”
The Taliban’s Attempted Shift
Through negotiations with the United States, the Taliban sought to portray itself as a legitimate group that have political ambitions that weigh heavier than ideological issues. On the paper, the Taliban accepted that they will break up with their friends, fight them back and is no longer an Islamic movement that helps other Islamist foreign fighters, said Mansoor who was a junior reporter in Kabul when the Taliban emerged in the early 1990s. Mansoor added that the real challenge is implementing the paperwork.
“Taliban ideological support to foreign resistance or insurgent movements, including groups that carry out terror attacks, is a concern, especially when it comes to the potential to host such groups,” said Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group. “But it is also not clear that Taliban leaders currently (or plan to) devote great resources to supporting such groups.”
Has the Taliban Really Changed?
The ideology of the Taliban fueled 20 years of insurgency. A record number of Taliban fighters were killed in the frontline for their ideology. Many Taliban suicide bombers died in the name of their ideology. Extremism experts said that the Taliban have given up little of their extremist ideology which was reflected by their action of harboring and helping other extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
Mullah Omar, the first leader of the Taliban, defended the Taliban’s ideology by refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden in 2001. “So you won’t give Osama bin Laden up”? Mullah Omar was asked by a reporter of Voice of America in September 2001. “No. We cannot do that. If we did, it means we are not Muslims … that Islam is finished.”
In public, the Taliban continues defending the decision. As recent as in April 2020, the Taliban praised Mullah Omar’s “historical statement.” In a statement, the Taliban said that “It is because of his historical stand in front the global coalition of invaders under the leadership of the Americans that Afghans resisted and brought down another idol of this age.”
Hussain Ehsani, an extremism expert in Kabul said that ideology of the Taliban did not remain confined to Afghanistan, but rather than the community of believers in Islam. “Being confides to Afghanistan contrast the core ideology of the Taliban,” said Mr. Ehsani. “Religious ideas are not limited by borders. The idea of Jihad is against the infidel” and lasts until doomsday.
Afghanistan as a Launchpad for Global Jihad
Ehsani said that the Taliban use the agreement with the United States to establish their emirate in Afghanistan, from where many other Islamists can be inspired to pursue their armed Jihad elsewhere in the world, from Kashmir to Palestine. “Islamic movements are like the pandemic,” said Mr. Ehsani. “Like the corona” that spread everywhere in the world.
The Taliban have not shown evidence that they have given up on their extremist beliefs. In Voice of Jihad, the official website of the Taliban, the group continues denouncing liberalism and democracy. “The Deviants are those who are trained in the poisonous deviant beliefs of atheism, communism, secularism, democracy, and other satanic western and disbelieving ideologies in order to mislead the Muslims with their deviant ideologies,” said one episode of a Taliban propaganda video series.
Human Rights Watch said in a report that the Taliban imposes severe restrictions on rights such as education, equality, and freedom of speech in their areas of Afghanistan. “The Taliban’s widespread rights abuses in areas it controls raise concerns about their willingness and ability to keep commitments on rights in any future peace agreement,” read the report by Human Rights Watch.
Internal Taliban Tensions
Even if the Taliban want to make compromises over their ideology in peace talks with the Afghan government, many fear a split of the Taliban. The UN report concludes that the political office of the Taliban in Doha, “understood the need for the Taliban to interact with the international community and show moderation, while rank-and-file fighters were reported not to share that view.”
As much as the United States fear al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Taliban also faces trouble in handling their old friends from bad times. According to the UN report, the Taliban leadership did not tell their fighters of commitment to cut ties with al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters due to fear of a backlash and possible split of “pro and anti-al-Qaeda camps.”
For al-Qaeda, the US-Taliban deal was a cause for celebration. Soon following the US Special Peace Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad signed and hand over the text agreement to his counterpart, Mullah Ghani Bardar of Taliban in Doha, al-Qaeda praised the Taliban for their victory and called it a “Great Victory” against the United States that aim to pull back all troops within 14 months.
“Al Qaeda is already rising again ahead of the US withdrawal — and the absence of American troops will accelerate al Qaeda’s re-ascendance,” said Katherine Zimmerman of American Enterprise Institute. “The threat al Qaeda poses is the same that it posed on 9/11, though now the US has better defenses primed. But al Qaeda also has two decades more of experience, access to new technologies, more fighters, and more fronts on which to attack.”
Al Qaeda is Still the Enemy
The latest al-Qaeda attack happened in December 2019, inside the US soil. Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, 21, was radicalized in 2015 and opened fire on his host US naval base, killing three people in Florida. Alshamrani was a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Although the al-Qaeda branch of Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, it is believed that the senior leadership of al-Qaeda who remains in Afghanistan leads the global network of al-Qaeda.
McKenzie has warned that al-Qaeda “want to inspire—they want to direct if they can. Today, they’re limited to inspiring action. That is radicalization, typically via cyber or other means of people in Western countries that are then motivated to go out and conduct lone-wolf attacks of something like that.”
In one episode of radicalization efforts, al-Qaeda attempted to exploit civil unrest in the United States over racism. Following the death of George Floyd and widespread street protests in the states, al-Qaeda issued an English-Language version of their magazine, saying that “not even the Democrats can help you but we can.”
Assessing the Situation Realistically
At the time of President Trump whose “America First” campaign has become “Trump First”, bringing back home troops from Afghanistan is an election promise that Trump wished to fulfill before the November election. Many fear such a withdrawal within such a short period of time will lead to a full crisis for the United States and the rest of the world.
The US withdrawal “will make the Taliban and al-Qaeda arrogant,” said Mansoor, who witnessed the results of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. “Within a short time, al-Qaeda will recruit and threatens Arabic and western countries. The US and NATO will be forced to fight back terrorists in their own cities.”