By: Mohammad Moheq
It is widely known that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Ma’sab Zarqawi—three of the most prominent figures in international terrorism—spent a considerable amount of time with the Taliban. The Taliban have also been linked to a number of terrorist organizations around the world and in the region. However, the nature of this relationship—whether the Taliban is part of the global Jihadism movement and, despite its local priorities, is under the leadership of that movement as a whole or the opposite is true—remains unclear in this context and has yet to be definitively stated. Given that the Taliban lack a sovereign territory, are they part of the Jihadism movement? Or is it more likely that these two currents are fundamentally separate and independent of one another, with their cooperation based solely on a tactically executed temporary necessity and lacking any organic or strategic correlation? Clarifying this matter can help in both better understanding this group and determining the appropriate stance against it, particularly for those responsible for setting policy.
For over three decades, the Taliban have remained largely silent on the matter, adopting an ambiguous stance. This was a wise decision, as it allowed them to be rescued from total destruction after the fall of their first government, and to win their 20-year conflict with NATO, eventually leading to negotiations with the United States in Doha. This group has a great deal of flexibility, as it maintains a stable connection to international jihadism while keeping the details of that connection hidden. This enhances the possibilities of bargaining and facilitates navigating difficult obstacles. Although there are no explicit documents released by the Taliban that describe the relationship between them and international jihadism, particularly Al-Qaeda and its various branches, the history of their relations has been widely reported, allowing us to gain an understanding of the nature of this relationship and where it may lead in the future.
In order to gain a better understanding of the connection between the Taliban and global jihadists, it is necessary to look back to the 1980s, when Arab fundamentalist militants first began to recognize the importance of Afghanistan for their future plans. Ten years prior to this, a number of Kabul University students and young professors had traveled to Egypt to pursue their studies, and during this time they became acquainted with the ideologies of Seyyed Qutb and Abul Ali Maududi, which were espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. Upon returning to Afghanistan, some of these individuals began to spread this philosophy, and in the context of the Cold War, they took a stand against the communist parties and the Soviet presence in the country. This prompted western allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others to view this movement as potential partners in Afghanistan. At the same time, fundamentalist organizations in Pakistan, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, also established ties with this tendency, and some of them did so with the support of the Saudi government. The relationship between the Afghan Islamic Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, the most prominent Islamic movement in the Arab world, was strengthened after Anwar Sadat released them from prison and made their operations more favorable. Kamal Sananiri, Seyed Qutb’s brother in law, played a key role in this development, acting as a mediator between Afghan and Arab Islamists by travelling to Pakistan. Despite disagreements between the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme groups such as Al-Jihad al-Islami and Jama’a al-Islamiya on various issues, they all agreed that it was important to support the Afghan jihad. This was further encouraged by the backing of the United States of America, Pakistan, and the majority of Arab nations, leading to prominent Arab radicals such as Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as thousands of other combatants, entering the region and becoming the primary players in the conflict. They believed that the conditions were in place for the establishment of an Islamic government in Afghanistan, but that the same conditions were not present in Palestine or any other country. Afghanistan had become a strategically important area for Arab Islamist radicals, even though the Taliban had not yet been formed.
The popular religion of the Afghan people was viewed by Salafi-Jihad groups, the majority of whom make up Al-Qaeda and ISIS, as being contaminated by defects and deviations and falling below their standards. This issue was raised in Arab circles in the 1980s, but theorists of these groups argued that, despite the many benefits Afghanistan offers jihadists, it had no effect on their strategic plans and did not diminish the significance of Afghanistan for them. They maintained that Afghanistan had unique characteristics which enabled jihadists to achieve their strategic goals. Its common border with Pakistan’s tribal regions made it easier for their fighters to hide in hazardous conditions, and its geographic location allowed for the establishment of fortified training camps and military bases for their fighters, as well as providing the ground for excursions into Central Asia. The Afghan people’s strong religious convictions, cultural integration into the difficult environment and challenging circumstances, low standard of living, and lack of facilities made it easy for jihadists to enlist fighters and obtain services at a low cost. This is why Arab and Pakistani fighters continued to participate in the Mujahideen groups’ civil wars in the early 1990s, as well as when the Taliban first emerged as a regional movement in southern Afghanistan. As a result, they gained a comprehensive knowledge of Afghanistan’s geography, population, and ways of life, and were able to progress from enticing and absorbing to forming, networking, training, and executing operations with skill and proficiency.
Despite the numerous changes that have occurred in the region and globally, Afghanistan has remained a strategic asset for extremist forces from the Arab world and Pakistan. The competition between local and global powers in this region, such as Pakistan and India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and the United States, has further increased the importance of Afghanistan for international jihadist groups. Consequently, this country has become a safe haven for terrorist activities.
Despite what was previously stated, jihadi organizations have been integral to Afghan fundamentalists. This is in stark contrast to what was said about the relevance of Afghanistan to jihadi groups. In the 1980s, these organizations were successful in transforming Afghanistan’s local dilemma into a global and regional one. As a result, the Afghan Mujahideen became renowned throughout the Islamic Arab worlds, as well as in North Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the entire Middle East. The fame and importance of the Afghan Jihad transcended political boundaries. It is clear that the positive attitude of Western countries and their media companies had an influence in this regard. When the Mujahideen civil conflicts broke out in the 1990s, this popularity temporarily decreased, and some supporters of these groups were displeased with these wars. However, this was quickly remedied by the Taliban’s swift emergence, and the extremist groups regained their trust in it. Within a short span of time, hundreds of new fighters, particularly those associated with and supportive of Al-Qaeda, flooded into Afghanistan. Since then, the Taliban has drawn on these groups for a portion of its financial resources, weapons, training and new operational experiences, thus enabling it to act on a global and regional scale. Without its affiliation with Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups, the Taliban would not have gained the attention of the United States of America, Europe, Russia, China, Iran and the Arab world simultaneously. Looking back to the early years of Mujahideen rule, when Dr. Najibullah’s government fell, it is clear how the United States and its allies neglected Afghanistan. The Taliban has always been able to present itself as significant, both to different authorities and to jihadist groups around the world, by maintaining ties with Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
The international network of jihadism, with its resources, and capabilities, is seen by the Taliban as a strategic reserve that can be called upon in times of difficulty. They do not view this connection as merely a tactical maneuver. Most Jihadi groups around the world are committed to making every effort to establish and strengthen the only Islamic government that is now acceptable according to their principles, and they understand that no other place can offer them the ideal conditions for growth and progress as Afghanistan can, due to factors related to ideology, mutual interests, and interconnectedness. The problem is that severing the Taliban’s ties to these groups will, in the short term, displease many of its devoted fighters and cause them to join other jihadist groups, and in the long term, it will turn the groups’ support into hostility and animosity. The Taliban will take the place of the previous Afghan administration. The Taliban leadership is aware of this and does not believe it is appropriate to use its strategic reserve as a source of terror in exchange for money from the United States and its coalition partners.
Assuming that the Taliban’s rule is comparable to other traditional secular regimes that only consider issues from a national interest perspective is a grave mistake for anyone hoping to pressure the group to change its methods. The Taliban is primarily an ideological movement with an intelligence-terrorist group, and its attitude towards both local and international affairs is largely based on ideology and religious beliefs. This group firmly believes that its success in Afghanistan was a result of a divine victory, granted to them by God as a reward for their perseverance against the nonbelievers, and they are not concerned with what political and diplomatic analysts have to say. From this point of view, the Taliban has a unique status that no other jihadist group on earth has due to its victory over the United States of America and its NATO allies. If the Taliban utilise this opportunity skilfully, they could gain control of jihadist groups across the globe and become a world power with influence stretching from Pakistan and South Asia to Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and North Africa. In the past, Ayatollah Khomeini, General Zia-ul-Haq, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and many others have all expressed a desire to rule the Islamic world in their dreams. The Taliban leader currently believes that he is only a few steps away from achieving this position, and despite how tempting it is to ignore this issue, it cannot be accomplished. Although the Taliban leader rarely speaks in public, when he has, he has raised this issue and emphasised the importance of Jihad’s global proliferation. At an assembly in Kabul on July 1, 2022, he stated that the conflict between them and the non-believers of the world was not for the sake of land and soil, but rather a fight of faith. The intention was to suppress their voice and opinion, and this conflict has been ongoing since the beginning and will not end until the Day of Judgment. He declared that he would not allow the non-believers to enforce their laws, as they would not be able to implement their Sharia on the entire world. This speech may be interpreted by some observers as a form of propaganda by politicians to energize their followers, as they often do in public places. At a private meeting held on January 10, 2023, only the leaders of the government agencies in Kandahar were invited. The Taliban’s Ministry of Finance’s human resources directors, Mawlawi Ahmad Shah Shakir, also recorded the report, which provides a fuller understanding of this strategic plan. He stated that, just as Allah Almighty has granted them and their followers a full and comprehensive religion, they must construct administrative laws for the Islamic system. Instead of relying on other people’s regulations, they should collect them in a thorough and comprehensive manner such that they are needed by all global systems.
You practiced Imamat and Jihad in the deserts, and were supported by the people there until your power was so great that you were able to overcome all uncertainty and govern the Islamic system through your knowledge, teaching, and guidance, which attracted the people of the deserts to the religion to the point that they were devoted to it and willing to make any sacrifice for it. Now that you have arrived in the cities, call upon the inhabitants of the cities to embrace the religion of Almighty God and introduce them to it so that not a single person in the entire country of Afghanistan remains unconverted, and all of them should appreciate you highly. You must be willing to make sacrifices in order to establish the Islamic system as the global authority. Wherever I have directed you, you should go there when all of the Afghans are prepared to make a sacrifice for faith. This is an opportunity to make a better history. If you wish to follow in the footsteps of those before you, you must have the determination to do so. The honorable Companions who conquered and spread Islam to the East and West were always willing to make sacrifices and actually did so.
The Taliban judge shares this viewpoint, and in his book, which Mullah Hibatullah has given his approval for, he writes: “Thus, it is not lawful for the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate to stop Jihad as soon as the U.S. and its allies leave.”
In Islamic history, the title of Amir al-Momineen was not used for kings or religious leaders, but rather for someone who was regarded as the greatest authority in the Islamic world, to whom both kings and religious authorities were obligated to obey. The adoption of this title by the Taliban is indicative of their ambition and conviction in their global agenda, and is forbidden in Islamic tradition, as two people cannot share the title. The Saudi kings, who have the title of Protector of the Two Holy Mosques, and the Iranian leaders, who see themselves as the protectors of Muslims, have not dared to establish such a title in the modern period. Only two organizations—the Taliban and ISIS—have selected this title for their leader, with ISIS openly declaring its intention to topple the governments of Muslim nations. The Taliban’s adoption of this title is not accidental, as it communicates to jihadi groups that the Islamic caliphate is about to emerge and that the role of the undisputed leader, formerly known as Amir al-Momineen, is being restored. This is a continuation of the framework established by previous groups for the return of the Caliphate.
In his final letter to Osama bin Laden in 2010, prior to his death, Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged the strategic alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He also noted that, despite the presence of some questionable individuals in the Taliban hierarchy, Mullah Omar believed that the majority of Taliban members were trustworthy and faithful in their alliance with Al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri’s assessment of the Taliban proved to be accurate, and he remained loyal to them until his death on July 25, 2022 in Kabul. The trust between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is so strong that even after al-Zawahiri’s murder, which was reportedly carried out with the help of Taliban team members, their relationship remained intact and Al-Qaeda retained its confidence in the Taliban.