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The Future of Relations between Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Islamic State After Al-Zawahiri’s Death

Light was shed once again on the relations between the Taliban movement that controls Afghanistan and its historical ally Al-Qaeda organization following the announcement by President Joe Biden that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed on 1 August in the diplomatic district in the Afghani capital Kabul. 

The assassination of Al-Zawahiri that took place after almost a year of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that Taliban did not abide by its agreement with the US, and has harbored Al-Qaeda leader who is labeled by the US as the most dangerous head of terrorism, which is considered a breach of the Doha agreement as described by the US department of state. 

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been carried out according to the Doha agreement signed in February 2020. It states that Taliban should not allow any of its militants nor other organizations, including Al-Qaeda, to use the Afghani soil to constitute a threat to the US security or any of its allies’, neither should harbor, train, nor fund any militants from those organizations. 

These developments raise questions about the relations between Taliban and Al-Qaeda, especially with Taliban’s persistent denial of any ties with the group or harboring its assassinated leader. They also re-generate the debate about the global Jihadist movement and the role of its rival poles (Al-Qaeda and Islamic State). 

Taliban and Al-Qaeda: Confusing History of Relations

The relations between Al-Qaeda organization and Taliban movement are considered one of the most controversial issues for militant groups and terrorism research bureaus. Most of researchers believe there has been a long alliance and cooperation between them, and that Taliban –and all its components- have secured a safe haven for Al-Qaeda leaders when its founder and leader Osama Bin Laden left Sudan in 1996, the assumption that should be reconsidered.

A close study of historical facts shows that Taliban –in fact- is not a single stream. It is rather several ones: The religious schools students, war lords, etc. Also it has not hosted Bin Laden and his group in the first place, they rather have been hosted by Mullah Mohamed Younis Khalis, one the Afghani Jihad leaders, a tribal leader dissident of the Islamic Party (Muslim Brotherhood). Later, Taliban harbored Al-Qaeda personnel in the late 90’s according to a deal between Taliban and Mullah Younis Khalis, a deal based on Afghani tribal rules. This has been confirmed by the known Jihadist scholar Abu Mosab Al Suri in his vocal periodic testimony Afghanistan, Taliban and The Battle of Islam Today, released in 1998.

There has been a noticeable diversity in Taliban’s leaders’ reactions to Al-Qaeda. On one hand, a stream led by Mullah Ihsan Allah Ihsan, third man in Taliban and Governor of the Central Bank until 1997 (killed in Mazar Sharif battle in 1997), together with Hakani Network, supported the Jihad path by Al-Qaeda.

 While on the other hand, other streams inside Taliban, known as (Taliban Nationalist Streams) objected harboring Al-Qaeda militants under the pretext that they are Arabs, follow the Wahabi ideology (Jihadist/Salafi) that contradicts with the (Deoband) ideology of Taliban, as well as they had supported Taliban’s opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood Group, such as Qalbuldin Hekmetiar, Abd Rab Elrasul Sayaf and Burhanuldin Rabani. Of those streams that opposed Al-Qaeda was Mullah Mohamed Hassn Akhwand followers (The current Afghani Prime Minister) and the Taliban political office group. 

Over the following years, the Al-Qaeda opposing stream inside Taliban became stronger, especially after Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001.

First, Taliban leadership suggested to Washington keeping Osama Bin-Laden and his militants in Afghanistan under strict international surveillance, or bringing them to justice before a sovereign court that is composed of three countries; Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia together with a third country, refusing to surrender him directly to the US, as there was no extradition agreement between Taliban and the US. Then, after 9/11 attacks, which have been carried out without consent of Mulla Omar, Taliban decided to expel the entire Arab militants from Afghanistan as well as the Afghani-Pakistani borders as mentioned in an (Abut Abad) correspondence written by Anas Al Sebei, an Al-Qaeda commander to his leader Osama Bin-Laden.

During the era of re-building Taliban, following the American invasion of Afghanistan, its nationalist figures outshined (in the heart was the Quetta Shura council group members, such as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, former Amir of Taliban, and Mullah Hebatullah Akhwand Zadeh, current Taliban leader) within the movement top leadership structure, and became the actual leading stream. They carried out an internal relegation and termination process to their opponents who were supporters of Al-Qaeda. In one of his messages to Al-Zawahiri in 2008, Bin-Laden said that the assassination of Mullah Dadullah (Taliban Slaughterer) marks the start of erasing the (honest jihadist stream) in the movement and the termination of Al-Qaeda fighters. 

Taliban and Al-Qaeda after the Doha Agreement and US Withdrawal

That nationalist leading stream succeeded in keeping internal cohesion in the movement and quelling the separation attempts prior to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, differences began to surface gradually following Taliban’s taking control of the country since August 2021. These differences are main factors that shape the relations between Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

During that period, Al-Qaeda supporters such as (Hakani Network) that supports globalized Jihad, attempted to overtake the pivotal departments and institutions in the country including the Ministry of Interior, Intelligence Services, Department for issuing passports and IDs. They also attempted to control the Armed Forces through appointing Haj Mali Khan, Serageldin Hakani’s father in law as a Deputy Chief of Staff. 

They have also strengthened their ties with Al-Qaeda group aiming to benefit from it through harboring its militants in the Indian subcontinent, secured a safe haven for Central Al-Qaeda elements (Khorasan) in multiple Afghan locations, extended from Zabul province in the north to Kunar province in the east. Moreover, they hosted some Al-Qaeda prominent leaders such as Ayman Al-Zawahiri (who lived in a house owned by an aide of Seraj Hakani’s), as well as Abdel Hakim Almasry and Abu Ekhlas Almasry, two Al-Qaeda leaders in Kunar. 

Tens of Al-Qaeda militants moved to eastern and southern Afghanistan, especially Farah and Herat provinces, trying to construct an existence of the organization there, nevertheless, the available data about Al-Qaeda there show that its operational capabilities are still very limited and that its current activities –endorsed by Hakani Network– aim to rebuild the group and make it lead the globalized Jihad operations, and plan for terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the Nationalist Taliban Stream, currently led by the current Prime Minister Mullah Mohamed Hassan Akhwand, the Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdelghany Bradar as well as the Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Mullah Mohamed Fadel Mazlum, the stream worked on weakening Hakani Network’s leverage, they obstructed the promoting of Serag Hakani to the Deputy Prime Minister position, also, Moloi Alam Gole Hakani, Seraj Hakani’s uncle and brother of Jalal Hakani (Network founder) has been arrested for corruption accusations, according to a UN Security Council report in April 2022.  

Hence, it is obvious that each of the Taliban streams attempts to strengthen its leverage against the other, and that the movement’s solidarity that has been clearly seen during the American invasion has been shaken. Also this internal stampede in the Afghani movement affects the process of Al-Qaeda relocation in Afghanistan, which is very well realized by Al-Qaeda leaders who attempted to support Hakani Network and attacked its opponents, as Al-Zawahiri has done in November 2021 when he criticized the approach of Taliban to join the UN, and to abandon the Globalized Jihad Ideology.

Sources close to Taliban expect that Al-Zawahiri’s assassination was part of the scuffle inside the movement aiming to endorse the Taliban Nationalist Stream against the Global Jihadists, and introduce the movement as a trusted partner in the war against terrorism. The UN Security Council reports support this hypothesis. Reports hint that Taliban may reject –or at least postpone- its decision on any future asylum request by Saiful Adl Mohamed Salah Zidan, Al-Zawahiri’s nominee successor, to Afghanistan, in order not to irritate the international community.

Based on the above, three scenarios can be expected for the future of relations between Taliban and Al-Qaeda:

– Continuation of Alliance:

The Taliban-Al-Qaeda alliance is dependent on the existence of globalized Jihad support stream (as Hakani Network), and since this stream is still strongly influential inside Afghanistan, we can assume that Al-Qaeda will enjoy a noticeable existence in the country.

It will also continue to restore its components and rebuild its capabilities in order to come to the front again. In addition, in case Saiful Adl or anyone else is elected a leader (succeeding Al-Zawahiri), the new leadership may relocate in Afghanistan for a variety of reasons: The new leader (Amir) may lose legitimacy in case he resides in Iran, also being based in Afghanistan, the new Amir will enjoy larger degrees of freedom and dominance. Hence, we weight this scenario based on current circumstances.

– Partial Alliance:

Different streams inside Taliban may accept the existence of some Al-Qaeda components or their allies such as Tajik fighters or Al-Qaeda fighters of the Indian subcontinent, and refuse Arab members for ethnic and doctrine considerations. In this case, a part of Al-Qaeda will remain inside Afghanistan, while the rest will move to other countries or to the Pakistani borders where Pakistani Taliban (which adopts the globalized Jihad concept) exists.

– Eradication of Al-Qaeda:

The Taliban Nationalist Stream may insist on complete deportation of Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, get rid of its militants and not secure safe haven for them in the country. They may also collaborate with the international powers, especially the US to achieve this goal. In the meantime, they may avoid wide confrontation with pro-Al-Qaeda stream. Hence, the concealed war against Al-Qaeda may resume without turning to be open and inclusive. However, this scenario is least likely at the present time.

Islamic State and Al-Qaeda: Prolonged Struggle of Globalized Jihad

In the relevant context, the assassination of Ayman Al-Zawahiri has renewed the conflict over the leadership of globalized Jihad. Al-Qaeda struggles to get back to the scene relying on its historic legacy, while Islamic State argues within Jihadists that Al-Qaeda has diverted from the Jihad path (or Bin Laden’s course), and that Islamic State now represents that ideology, as per the former Islamic State spokesperson (Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani), in his vocal testimony This was never and will never be our path, April 2014.

The interaction between Islamic State and Al-Qaeda can be described as rivalry, competition and conflict. No sign of pacification or truce appears. That was obvious when assassinated Al-Qaeda leader (Al-Zawahiri) hardly criticized Islamic State in his 15 July speech, he explained that Jihad (or Caliphate) that Al-Qaeda seeks is different from that of Islamic State, which he has described as: Ignorance, Lies and bloodshed caliphate.

On the other hand, Islamic State considers Al-Qaeda and its allies as (Sahawat), meaning that they are apostates, and they want to thwart its project and end its alleged caliphate.

Sources close to Taliban alleged that Islamic State of Afghanistan and its leader (Shehab Almuhager) are involved in Al-Zawahiri’s assassination through sending him a parcel that includes a chemical substance that can expose his location, and that is what forced him to leave the Afghani-Pakistani borders and relocate in Kabul where he has been assassinated later. However, these allegations are not yet proved true.

An analytical look at the propaganda materials published by Islamic State since Al-Zawahiri’s assassination shows that they have obviously ignored the assassination and did not hint to it by any means. However, they continue their attempts to attract Al-Qaeda fighters, and show Islamic State as the only organization that abides by the conventional Jihad path.

Within that frame, the relation between Islamic State and Al-Qaeda can be assumed to fulfill one of the following scenarios:

– Continuation of Hostility:

The rivalry between the two organizations is expected to resume, as their differences have over passed organizational issues to ideological ones. Islamic State now considers Al-Qaeda as (Apostate), while Al-Qaeda considers Islamic State as (Kharijites). Hence, both organizations will continue on their parallel paths and each will continue its attempts to attract fighters from the other in order to survive and strengthen its capabilities.

– Implicit Alliance:

Exceptional circumstances and the state of weakness of both organizations, may push them to some sort of (Implicit Alliance) or (Alliance of Necessity), similar to what happened between Islamic State and Al-Qaeda groups in the African Sahel region. In this case, overt hostility will continue, while on the ground, there will exist integration and cooperation between them.

This scenario is the second in likelihood after the (Continuation of Hostility). It brings the two organizations to the state of (Neither peace nor war).

– Resolving Differences and Incorporation:

Some research institutions specialised in terrorism and militant groups affairs argue that the probability of alliance between Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still exists and they may return to the same method of cooperation that existed prior to the Jihad Discord in 2014. However, this scenario is least likely at present because of numerous reasons: aggravated disagreement between the two organizations, as well as the absence of charismatic leaders that are capable of reuniting the organizations.

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