THE AFGHAN TALIBAN: A TERRORIST GROUP THAT ISN’T
By Michael S. Smith II
Note: Claims concerning the death of the Afghan Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Omar, were not verified at the time of this commentary’s publication. Since this commentary’s publication, al-Qa’ida leaders have pledged allegiance to Omar’s successor.
The Obama administration has adopted what amounts to a guilt-by-association doctrine to legitimize killing individuals who are not al-Qa’ida members, but who happened to be the fellow travelers of al-Qa’ida members when they are targeted in drone strikes. Although prudence demands consistency in our counterterrorism posture, that logic has not been consistently applied by the president. Hence, despite having maintained close working relations with al-Qa’ida for nearly two decades, the Afghan Taliban has not been branded a foreign terrorist organization by President Obama. While this anomaly is not unique to the policies of the Obama administration, it is one which begs for the attention of policymakers. Not just because the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan will make it possible for the Taliban to reclaim control of vast swathes of territory, and resume its terroristic rule over large numbers of Afghans. Rather, more pressing for US national security interests is this: Its leaders’ past and current behaviors indicate the Afghan Taliban will be inclined to once more allow al-Qa’ida to use Afghan territory to train terrorist operatives to conduct attacks abroad, including attacks in the US. Unless the US Department of State designates the Afghan Taliban a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), the US will be stopping short of applying all elements of national power to thwart this outcome.
Since the 1990s, there has been no shortage of evidence of close collaboration between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida, with some evidence suggesting these enterprises may actually be one in the same. Stunningly, however, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have neglected to pressure the US State Department to designate the Afghan Taliban an FTO.
Absence of such action is, in part, due to the complex legalistic contemplations that factor into the process of adding a group to State’s FTO list. Such formalities have frustrated many policymakers by eschewing the applicability of perfunctory — even if astute — “I know it when I see it” arguments concerning a group’s candidacy for placement on that list. And in Washington, where bureaucratic and political concerns alike can make low-hanging fruit more appetizing than a challenge, the cumbersome process of adding a group to State’s FTO list can be perceived as a minefield of opportunities for one’s judgment to be called into question.
Another important factor is the elusiveness of a universally acceptable definition of the term “terrorism.” This has not only presented challenges for international bodies like the UN. In the US, this has resulted in a given militant group that resorts to terrorism to advance its agenda being treated as a terrorist group by some federal entities, but not by others. Such is the case with the Afghan Taliban.
Despite having spent previously unimaginable sums to wage a “Global War on Terror” following al-Qa’ida’s 9/11 attacks of 2001, there are several different definitions for the term “terrorism” currently used by US governmental organizations tasked with managing various counterterrorism activities. For example, the US military’s definition is available here, and the FBI’s definition is available here. Yet it is the State Department’s designation that is most impactful on a group.
For the State Department, the cumbersome legalese contained in Title 22 of the United States Code of laws, Section 2656f(d), is used to define the term this way:
(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country; (2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents; and (3) the term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism.
For the State Department, that a group resorts to “terrorism” to advance its agenda is not sufficient cause for it to be called a “terrorist group.” Instead, to be eligible for the FTO designation from State, said group must either practice, or have “significant subgroups which practice” that which the aforecited language contained in the US Code of laws defines as “international terrorism” — “terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.” (While one could interpret “involving citizens … of more than one country” to mean donors and/or financiers from countries other than the one where a given group engages in “terrorism,” the following does not cover that important dimension of relevant concerns.)
The punctiliousness that underscores the State Department’s contemplations concerning a group’s fitness for placement on the FTO list is ever apparent in the White House’s calculations as well. Early in 2015, while advising President Obama does not consider the Afghan Taliban a terrorist group, a spokesman for the White House acknowledged the Afghan Taliban does “carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism,” and that the group does “pursue terror attacks in an effort to advance their agenda.”
Insipid as that assessment of the group’s actions may be, the Afghan Taliban’s activities along the following lines support those depictions:
-Terrorizing Afghans during the 1990s vis-à-vis such activities as public executions and amputations hosted in a soccer stadium to showcase the Taliban’s notions of justice;
-Since 2001, repeatedly executing off-battlefield assaults on US governmental installations and civilian personnel, such as the massive attack against the US Embassy Kabul in September 2011;
-Since 2001, repeatedly executing off-battlefield assaults on Afghan governmental installations and personnel while employing tactics such as suicide bombings;
-Engaging in a concerted effort to inspire Afghans who are not members of the Taliban to advance the group’s agenda by engaging in so-called “green-on-blue attacks,” such as the one that claimed the life of a US Army general in 2014; and
-Executing attacks like the one that killed three American contractors in January 2015.
However, there is considerably more to the picture: In furnishing the interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has enabled the US Department of Defense and other agencies to treat Afghan Taliban members in the same manner as al-Qa’ida members, the courts affirmed evidence that the Afghan Taliban played an important role in making it possible for al-Qa’ida to kill thousands of Americans inside the US in September 2001.
For this, the US government continues to offer a $10 Million reward for information used to locate Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar, whom al-Qa’ida’s founding and current leaders have all pledged allegiance to — consistently referring to him since the 1990s using a title historically reserved for the leader of a caliphate.
Setting aside the Afghan Taliban’s collusive role in one of the most remarkable examples of “international terrorism” in world history, as al-Qa’ida’s leaders have effectively subordinated themselves and their international network of fighters to Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban may reasonably be seen as having a “subgroup” that practices “international terrorism.” Moreover, given the State Department’s preference for disaggregating the al-Qa’ida network into individual “affiliates” that are also designated FTOs, as these “affiliates” like AQAP are indeed subordinated to al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has subordinated them to Omar, the Afghan Taliban thereby has subgroups operating as far away from Afghanistan as Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Mali.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban’s dealings with other elements designated FTOs by the State Department demonstrate al-Qa’ida is not the only “terrorist group” that has actively colluded with the Taliban. Nor is al-Qa’ida the only State Department-designated FTO whose leaders show deference to Omar in a manner that one may interpret to mean their organizations are effectively subgroups of the Taliban, especially when executing terrorist attacks in Afghanistan in support of the Taliban-led jihad against the US and its allies in the country.
Dynamics similar to those which define Afghan Taliban-al-Qa’ida relations are evident in the relationship between the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which, like al-Qa’ida, is designated an FTO by State. It is well known that leaders of the Haqqani Network have demonstrated they defer to Mullah Omar. This, while at the same time collaborating with the fighters subordinated to Omar in support of their so-called “insurgency” in Afghanistan.
Further, the Afghan Taliban’s longstanding relations with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was placed on State’s FTO list in 2000, reveal a similar pattern of active collaboration.
As highlighted in an ISAF press release concerning the capture in 2011 of an important IMU leader, the group has coordinated terrorist activities in Afghanistan in support of the Afghan Taliban-led “insurgency.” According to ISAF’s notice concerning his capture, that leader — later identified as Qari Bilal — functioned as “a key conduit between the senior IMU leadership in Pakistan and senior Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. He assisted both groups by directing insurgent movement for training and operations between the two countries, coordinating suicide, explosive device, and mortar attacks against Afghan and coalition forces throughout northern Afghanistan.” Bilal was released from prison by the government of Hamid Karzai in 2011. A September 2014 report on the hunt for Bilal following his resumption of a leadership role in the “insurgency” in Afghanistan highlighted his close collaboration with one of the Afghan Taliban’s shadow governors, Mullah Abdul Salam. A provincial governor quoted in the report explained that Bilal and Salam had “hundreds of Afghan and foreign insurgents under their command.”
In addition, the Afghan Taliban’s activities are not confined to territories inside Afghanistan.
For example, as reported by The Sunday Times (UK) in March 2010, the Afghan Taliban has utilized territories beyond Afghanistan to support its so-called “insurgency,” such as training camps in Iran.
More importantly, the Afghan Taliban’s leadership comprising the Quetta Shura has long utilized Pakistani territory as a veritable rear operating base. Mullah Omar moved to Quetta, Pakistan in 2002. Ostensibly with the blessings of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), from Quetta, Taliban leaders have since provided oversight of the group’s activities in Afghanistan.
It is likely Omar is among the leaders living in and around Quetta today. Plus, it is known the Afghan Taliban’s leadership is utilizing other territory inside Pakistan, from which oversight is provided for “terror attacks,” to borrow a term from the White House’s spokesperson, executed in Afghanistan.
Given that the Afghan Taliban’s “insurgency” comprises activities on and exploitation of the “territory of more than one country,” and as this “insurgency” is augmented at the tactical level by allied actors designated FTOs by State which defer to Omar and his subordinates when participating in the jihad they are said to be leading against the US and its partners, including the US-supported Afghan government, the Afghan Taliban’s “insurgency” features many of the trappings of that which State recognizes as “international terrorism.”
Clearly, as defined by the State Department, the term “terrorist group” could be used to describe the Afghan Taliban for a variety reasons. And it is not until State designates the Afghan Taliban an FTO that national security managers tasked with thwarting activities of global jihadist elements will be allowed to apply all available resources in order to prevent the Taliban from empowering al-Qa’ida to launch more attacks on the US. Were State to designate the Afghan Taliban an FTO today, such a decision would be most timely. Because the current administration is intent upon removing from Afghanistan the bulk of America’s resources that have been utilized to contain threats posed by the Taliban and allied terrorist groups pursuant to the current interpretation of the 2001 AUMF.
Contemporary Data the White House is Either Ignoring or Misinterpreting
For jihadis, the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida was brought into focus by al-Qa’ida’s leader in 2013. Since then, al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership and their mouthpieces like Mohamed al-Maqdisi have highlighted a key feature of this relationship: As was the case when Usama bin Laden was in charge, al-Qa’ida is today subordinated to the Afghan Taliban’s leader vis-à-vis the pledge of bayat (allegiance) sworn to Mullah Omar by al-Qa’ida’s current emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This has been highlighted to bolster al-Qa’ida’s efforts to undermine Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s use of the title caliph. According to al-Qa’ida and aligned groups, al-Baghdadi’s use of this title highlights that al-Baghdadi, who was at one time the leader of an al-Qa’ida “affiliate,” has broken his pledge of bayat to Mullah Omar, which, according to al-Qa’ida’s leaders and their proxies like al-Maqdisi, was provided when al-Baghdadi pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri.
During 2013, al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri expended a great deal of energy attempting to resolve a competition for control of al-Qa’ida’s Syria portfolio that was underway between the leaders of the terrorist group formerly known as ISIS/L and Jabhat al-Nusrah, which now manages that portfolio with senior al-Qa’ida operatives deployed to Syria like Sanafi al-Nasr, a leader in the so-called “Khorasan Group.” In the process, al-Zawahiri sought to allay concerns that he was attempting to thwart the expansion of ISIS/L in Syria in order to reserve for himself the opportunity to eventually declare the “restoration” of the caliphate on territories spanning South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa controlled by al-Qa’ida members and their allies. And from al-Zawahiri’s remarks, one can discern a most inconvenient truth for the formulators of US foreign policy concerning the Afghan Taliban: Since the 1990s, al-Qa’ida’s leaders have subordinated themselves, thus al-Qa’ida’s international network of jihadis who are subordinated to them, to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohamed Omar — the so-called Emir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful).
Countering ISIS/L’s efforts to cast aspersions on al-Zawahiri’s intentions when he called on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to disband his fighters’ operations in Syria, in September 2013, al-Zawahiri delivered the following retort: “How can anyone accusing us of claiming to be the caliphs of Muslims forget that we have pledged allegiance to Emir al-Mu’minin Mullah Mohamed Omar Mujahid, may God protect him, and that he is the emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan?”
In the following months, the fact al-Qa’ida’s leaders have pledged bayat to Omar was highlighted ad nauseam in al-Qa’ida’s responses to the so-called Islamic State’s declaration that it had established a caliphate, along with IS’s concomitantly-issued demand that all jihadist groups disband, and their members pledge allegiance to the terrorist formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now referred to by his followers as “Caliph Ibrahim”).
For analysts who are sensitive to the nuances of “jihadiese,” such statements are indeed noteworthy — even though they reaffirm sentiments which have been expressed by al-Qa’ida leaders many times before.
When jihadis pledge bayat to a group’s emir, or leader, they are conveying a religious oath that obligates them to obediently follow that leader. Unless the emir to whom bayat has been pledged acts in a manner deemed unIslamic by relevant religious authorities, the breaking of this oath is punishable by death.
Organizationally, when an al-Qa’ida “affiliate” leader, such as AQAP’s emir, pledges bayat to al-Qa’ida’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that affiliate leader is also subordinating the men who have pledged bayat to him to al-Qa’ida’s emir. Further, the upward transferability of this pledge of allegiance made by members of an al-Qa’ida “affiliate” extends not just beyond the emir of the “affiliate” they are members of, and to al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri; this pledge extends above al-Zawahiri, to the terrorist whom al-Zawahiri has pledged bayat, Mullah Omar.
That al-Qa’ida’s leader would refer to Mullah Omar utilizing the titled Emir al-Mu’minin — a title traditionally reserved for the caliph — highlights a profound and persistent snafu evident in US policy: Although the US did eventually get around to branding Omar a terrorist, and has offered a $10 Million reward for information used to identify his location, it has not designated the organization he helms a foreign terrorist organization. At least not in a manner that would be most damaging to the group (ie by placing it on the US State Department’s official list of organizations designated FTOs). This, and Omar could not have aided bin Laden as he prepared to unleash the 9/11 attacks of 2001 were it not for the power vested in him by that organization.
Omar is not only regarded as a supreme authority in the Global Jihad movement by al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders, or the group’s de facto spokespeople like the Jordanian jihadist ideologue Mohamed al-Maqdisi, who has used the title Emir al-Mu’minin in reference to Omar. Omar is the man who formulates the policies and guides decision making within the Afghan Taliban. An enterprise he created and continues to lead.
Volumes of evidence, such as the Afghan Taliban’s formally documented protocols concerning operations-specific decision making, highlights Omar is more than just some symbolic figure for members of the Taliban. Indeed, Mullah Omar is the man with whom the buck stops when it comes to all important decisions.
Notable among these decisions guided by Omar are those concerning high-profile matters like negotiations for the releases of Afghan Taliban officials previously held by the US. Given such, even if through Qatari interlocutors, the Obama administration did negotiate with at least one individual it considers a terrorist — Mullah Omar — when the administration agreed to release five Afghan Taliban officials who almost certainly helped manage bin Laden’s security in Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
Shortly after those Talibs were released, Omar cast the development in the light of a “spectacular achievement” for the Afghan Taliban. He explained the effort was managed by the group’s political office, which, according to Omar, reports to him.
Further, in the same message, Omar called for Afghan security personnel to execute more green-on-blue attacks, and noted the Taliban would reward them for striking the enemy before joining the Taliban. Thus it is unlikely to have been a coincidence that, days later, MajGen Harold J. Greene, USA was killed in such an attack. The Taliban celebrated the assassination of Gen Greene — “a heroic act,” as they put it — in a public statement released by the group soon thereafter.
The Post-9/11 Afghan Taliban-al-Qa’ida Nexus
The Afghan Taliban’s activities inside Afghanistan, coupled with its leaders’ calls for what some may view as “lone wolf” attacks targeting Afghan and US governmental interests do measure up to the varying definitions of the term “terrorism” employed by US diplomatic, military and law enforcement communities. And, as Afghan Taliban fighters have been trained at camps in Iran in recent years, the term “international terrorism” can be used to describe the Taliban’s so-call “insurgency,” for their activities span “territory of more than one country.” Meanwhile, equally interesting for terrorism analysts to consider when exploring whether the Afghan Taliban should be called a “terrorist group” by the State Department is the following:
-Given that al-Qa’ida leaders have subordinated themselves to Omar, one could reasonably conclude that al-Qa’ida functions as a subgroup of the Afghan Taliban that engages in “international terrorism.”
-Given that, since 2001, foreign fighters like highly-skilled Uzbek fighters and a long list of Arabs heeded al-Qa’ida leaders’ calls to travel to Afghanistan to support the jihad which those al-Qa’ida leaders described as being led by Omar, and given that their activities have almost certainly been coordinated with elements of the Afghan Taliban, the term “international terrorism” can be used to describe the Taliban’s so-called “insurgency.”
In a message produced in September 2005, al-Zawahiri called on Muslims the world over to show their loyalty to Emir al-Mu’minin Mullah Mohamed Omar by joining him in the jihad against US/allied forces in Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri explained that “the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Mohamed Omar, may God watch over him, has been leading the jihad for more than three years against the Crusaders and apostates in Afghanistan.” Further, al-Zawahiri implored Muslims to “step forward and support” Omar.
Concerning the situation in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri advised, “The structure of the Islamic Emirate is still in place, praise be to God. It is in control of large parts east and south of Afghanistan and it is launching guerrilla warfare against the Crusaders and apostates. So instead of crying over it, come and support it.”
Addressing influential Muslim religious figures who had discouraged participation in the jihad in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri proclaimed:
Now, have you known — you who dissuade and discourage people — the huge difference between you and the Taliban? Have you known the difference between the emir of jihad and your leaders, who throw themselves at the feet of America and Israel? Have you known now why we pledged allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Mohamed Omar, may God watch over him? We have pledged allegiance to him and we take pride in our pledge to him. We urge all Muslims to pledge allegiance to this mujahid and honest emir. This is our opinion of him, and God knows better. When I mention the Commander of the Faithful, the Taliban, and Afghanistan, I cannot suppress my feelings to speak about the worth of those valiant and honorable people, the mujahidin, and how much we and other Muslims are beholden to them. The Afghan, the Taliban, and the Commander of the Faithful have proven that the values of Islam are still alive and fresh in this material world, which has drowned in atheism, infidelity, immorality, hypocrisy, humiliation, and submission. …
Continuing, al-Zawahiri explained:
… when the Arab mujahidin and emigrants pledged allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Mohamed Omar, may God preserve him, they did not pledge allegiance to him out of adventure, recklessness, or risk, but they pledged allegiance to a man with whom they lived, tested him, examined him, and associated with him, and it became clear that he was as they thought him to be. He adopted a stand in the history of Islam, which can only be adopted by the unique heroes of the mujahidin, the pious ones, those who rely on Almighty God, and those who are confident that His promises will certainly be fulfilled. …
Jump ahead to 2007: Days before he was killed in a strike on his camp, in an interview arranged by one of my former colleagues Afghan Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah explained, “We and al-Qa’ida are as one. If we are preparing attacks, then it is likewise the work of al-Qa’ida, and if al-Qa’ida is doing so, then this is also our project.”*
Expounding on the dynamics of this nexus, in a “martyrdom” video released in 2008, a senior al-Qa’ida commander advised:
There are those who claim that al-Qa’ida works separately from the Taliban. This is a lie and a false accusation. On the contrary, we and the Taliban are inseparable and are a single entity … our commander Sheikh Usama has pledged allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful Mullah Mohamed Omar and the Muslims are as one against those other than them.*
Also in 2008, in an interview with one of my former colleagues the senior spokesman for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) provided the following explanation of the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida:
The formation of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida was based on an ideology. Today, the Taliban and al-Qa’ida have become an ideology. Whoever works in these organizations, they fight against infidel cruelty. Both are fighting for the supremacy of Allah and his Kalma. However, those fighting in foreign countries are called al-Qa’ida, while those fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan are called Taliban. In fact, both are the name of one ideology. The aim and objectives of both the organizations are the same.*
Jump ahead to 11 September 2012, the date upon which al-Qa’ida-linked jihadis attacked the US special diplomatic mission in Benghazi and a nearby facility manned by CIA employees and contractors: In a message released to eulogize deceased Libyan al-Qa’ida official Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Zawahiri advised, “I bring the glad tidings to the Islamic ummah, the mujahidin, the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Mohamed Omar, the Muslims and mujahidin in Libya.”
Next, in a video concerning the 9/11 attacks posted to jihadi web forums on 13 September 2012, al-Zawahiri declared the Taliban’s emirate was still alive, and characterized Omar as an example for jihadis striving to “defeat the Crusader-Zionist” agenda beyond Afghanistan, “especially in the occupied Palestine”:
In Afghanistan, the US project to control southern Asia and to obliterate the emerging Islamic state in Afghanistan was ruined at the hands of the mujahidin, led by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the leadership of jihadist Emir Mullah Mohamed Omar Mujahid, who puts his trust in God. May God preserve him! This ummah — with its mujahidin, freeborn men, honored ones, and pious people — is able, with God’s help, to defeat the Crusader-Zionist project in the heart of the Islamic world, especially in the occupied Palestine. In so doing, the ummah will be repeating the scenario of Iraq and Afghanistan when it defeated the United States with God’s help and support. It will defeat it as it did when it dealt the United States the heaviest strike in its history on its own grounds, thus changing its history and wrecking its economy.
Jump ahead to September 2013: In a statement posted online on 12 September 2013, al-Zawahiri again referred to Omar as the Commander of the Faithful, and asserted the Islamic State of Afghanistan has survived the US-led efforts to dismantle it:
How strong was the Islamic Emirate, led by the Commander of the Faithful Mullah Mohamed Omar, may God protect him? How strong was the United Sates, which came with its troops? Mullah Omar was telling the truth when he said: “God promised us victory and Bush promised us defeat. We will see who is more truthful.”
As highlighted above, later in this message, al-Zawahiri dealt with accusations that al-Qa’ida’s leaders are claiming to be caliphs by reminding jihadis behind this misinformation campaign that al-Zawahiri — like bin Laden before him — is a subordinate of Mullah Omar, whom al-Zawahiri again referred to using a title historically reserved for the caliph.
Misreading Omar’s Significance to the Global Jihad Movement from the Start
According to an intelligence analyst who was covering developments in Afghanistan during the 1990s for the US intelligence community, a number of intelligence analysts expressed concerns regarding Mullah Omar’s overtly radical agenda that was beaming with anti-American, anti-Western features. However, while the official assessments and various reports did make note of Omar’s decision to protect Usama bin Laden in the mid-1990s, the final edits of relevant reporting ultimately did not reflect the depth of concerns over Omar’s agenda and role in the emerging Global Jihad movement expressed by terrorism analysts with rich knowledge of jihadist groups. Rather, official assessments and reports concerning Omar, much of which has been brought to light by Wikileaks, reveal that decision makers in intelligence and diplomatic spheres fundamentally misread and underestimated the potential impacts of Omar’s radical Islamist agenda.
Titled “Afghanistan: The Enigmatic Mullah Omar and Taliban Decision-Making,” a March 1997 cable signed by then US Ambassador to Pakistan Tom Simons covered a key development in the Global Jihad movement: Holding a relic referred to as the Cloak of the Prophet, Afghan Taliban founder and leader Mullah Mohamed Omar made a rare public appearance in Kandahar in April 1996. During this event, a group of religious leaders conferred upon him the title of Emir al-Mu’minin. And roughly five months later, the Taliban announced Omar would serve as the leader of their “Islamic State of Afghanistan.”
Discussing the significance of the title bestowed upon Omar in April 1996, authors of the March 1997 cable explained (transliterations of Arabic and hyphenations modified for consistency):
Created early in Islamic history and first used by the second of the Orthodox Caliphs, Omar, the title has been adopted by a series of Muslim polities up to the present day. In the Sunni Islamic world, the adoption of the title implied the claim either to the caliphate or to autonomous political authority over a region of the Islamic world. Not even the most ideological Taliban claim that Omar with his title is a successor to the caliphate, most recently held in Ottoman Turkey. But, in the second sense, the Taliban are most certainly claiming authority over the Afghan region of the Islamic world. Omar buttressed this claim by displaying “The Cloak of the Prophet” when he assumed the Title of Emir al-Mu’minin. Also, in more recent history, the title has had a strong ideological resonance among some reformist, messianic, and militant Islamic movements, responding to what they perceive as the corrupt and irreligious ways of the existing rulers. Besides the Taliban, some other Islamic movements on Afghan soil have used this title. For example, a Wahhabi sect with strong Arab backing, most active in Kunar Province, until quite recently called its leader “Emir al-Mu’minin.”
The cable’s authors advised there were scant details available regarding Omar’s “political beliefs,” which were summarized with the word “obscure.” The cable quoted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s son-in-law Ghairat Baheer as having stated that it was unlikely Omar was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Accordingly, “Omar is too poorly educated in Islamic principles to be an Ikhwahni; he is basically a fervent Muslim with obscurantist tendencies whose views are strongly affected by his tribal background.”
Yet, as highlighted in the cable, there were ample indicators that, in relation to US interests, Omar’s agenda was fundamentally toxic. Namely, a Taliban official quoted in the cable related that, on 1 March 1997, “Omar told us that we have to help bin Laden because he is a good, Islamic person, who is fighting the kaffirs (unbelievers).”
Soon after he moved from Sudan to Afghanistan, bin Laden had famously declared war with the US in August 1996. Given such, the term kaffirs, as used by Omar in this context, was clearly a reference to Americans, whose diplomatic representatives in the region Omar had declined to meet with, despite US officials having issued numerous requests for a meeting with him by March 1997.
In hindsight, it is mystifying to find that the cable’s authors advised the following: “there is little evidence to suggest that Mullah Omar is an Islamic radical with an anti-Western agenda.” Accordingly, “He has not been known to make anti-Western statements, although he is known to be anti-Russian because of the Afghan-Soviet War.”
Following this line, the aforecited details concerning a 25 March 1997 meeting between Omar and bin Laden, whom an August 1996 State Department report described as “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world,” and a financier of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was sprinkled into the cable as a “However” caveat. Presciently, roughly eight months before that cable was transmitted, on 18 July 1996, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research had reported that bin Laden’s “prolonged stay in Afghanistan — where hundreds of ‘Arab Mujahidin’ receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate — could prove more dangerous to US interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum.”
The Big Picture
According to some analysts, Omar’s acceptance of the title Emir al-Mu’minin did not constitute an act of benign symbolism. Clearly, this was an event that galvanized the global jihadist trend.
By taking up the Cloak of the Prophet, which had been stored in Kandahar, Omar oriented the attention of jihadis like bin Laden to hadith concerning the Khorasan region (an area spanning parts of Afghanistan and surrounding states). Jihadis frequently reference these hadith to suggest the Mahdi will be discovered by Muslims in Khorasan, with black flags raised to call on Muslims to pledge bayat to him and join an Islamic army that will conquer the world, paving the way for the caliphate’s universal primacy.
At the center of the end of times-oriented theology promoted by jihadis comprising the Global Jihad movement is the prediction that any successful efforts to both “restore” the caliphal model of governance and assert the supremacy of the caliphate on a global scale shall begin in Khorasan. Therefore, according to some analysts, when Omar accepted the title Emir al-Mu’minin, he was claiming to be the emir of the universal caliphate. And that is almost certainly what bin Laden believed when he pledged bayat to Omar, thereby subordinating his subordinates in al-Qa’ida to Omar. Hence, when al-Qa’ida leaders refer to Omar using the title Emir al-Mu’minin with corresponding assertions that Omar continues to serve as the leader of an emirate, they are referring to the caliphate, writ large, which they believe will reemerge in Afghanistan.
The superior rank over al-Qa’ida’s emir held by Omar was highlighted in various ways in 2014. Notable among them are the testimony provided by Sahim Alwan during the trial of bin Laden’s son-in-law Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and the footage of bin Laden pledging bayat to Omar that was distributed by al-Qa’ida to rebuff Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after he demanded all jihadist elements striving to restore the caliphate should recognize him as their “caliph” and pledge bayat to him. Also notable is that a senior religious figure in AQAP affirmed the validity of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s pledge of bayat to Omar in November 2014.
Describing the oath of bayat and its significance with respect to Afghan Taliban-al-Qa’ida relations, during the trial of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Sahim Alwan explained: “… it was basically if you gave bayat, understanding that if you gave bayat to bin Laden — pledge, I will use the English term — if you gave pledge to Bin Laden, it also fell under the pledge of Mullah Omar, because Bin Laden gave the pledge to Mullah Omar. By giving the pledge basically to Bin Laden you are also giving it to Mullah Omar.” (Testimony transcript accessible here)
Several months later, in mid-July 2014, al-Qa’ida’s chief propaganda wing, as-Sahab, began promoting via Twitter a video of bin Laden pledging bayat to Mullah Omar. This footage was distributed to undermine claims that a caliphate had been established on territories in Syria and Iraq controlled by the former al-Qa’ida branch helmed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose supporters bestowed upon al-Baghdadi the title of caliph.
In it, bin Laden asserts that one does not need to be a member of the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh — which al-Baghdadi claims to be descended from, but which Omar is not — in order to serve as caliph. After invoking guidance concerning whom shall be recognized as a legitimate leader proffered by 18th Century Islamist leader Mohamed bin Adb al-Wahhab, founder of the Islamist Wahhabi movement whose torchbearers today control Saudi Arabia and proximate Gulf states, bin Laden claims that 1,500 scholars had affirmed that Omar has met the requirements necessary to be regarded as a legitimate Islamic ruler. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the footage it becomes clear that bin Laden was not just asserting Omar was merely the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan.
In the video, bin Laden affirms his pledge of bayat to Omar. Asked to explain this pledge, bin Laden advised that his pledge of bayat to Omar was the very pledge of loyalty to the leader of Islam covered in the Quran and in the Sunnah. Continuing, bin Laden asserted that all Muslims should pledge allegiance to the Emir al-Mu’minin, Mullah Mohamed Omar, “for this is the great pledge” that, according to Islamic traditions, all members of the faith are obligated to make.
Clearly, bin Laden regarded Omar as more than just a political leader. Hence some terrorism analysts covering these developments during the 1990s encouraged their bosses in the US intelligence community to consider that bin Laden was not only subordinating himself and al-Qa’ida to Omar. Rather, most importantly, bin Laden was very likely also promoting the notion that members of the Global Jihad movement should consider Omar the leader of a caliphate — the borders of which jihadis should strive to expand beyond the borders of Afghanistan.
A week after this old footage of bin Laden affirming his pledge of bayat to Mullah Omar was distributed by as-Sahab in July 2014, al-Qa’ida leaders renewed their pledge of bayat to Mullah Omar in a new English-language bulletin titled al-Nafir. Indeed, also distributed by as-Sahab, the first edition of al-Nafir notes: “We begin with the first issue to renew the pledge of bayat to the emir of the faithful Mullah Mohamed Omar Mujahid …”
Months later, in late-November 2014, helmed by al-Qa’ida’s second-highest official, al-Qa’ida’s Yemen branch rebuked al-Baghdadi for assuming the title of caliph. In the message, a senior AQAP religious official both reaffirmed the pledge of bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri given by leaders of this component of al-Qa’ida, and reaffirmed the validity of al-Zawahiri’s pledge of bayat to Mullah Omar — thus reaffirming that al-Zawahiri has subordinated AQAP and all other components of al-Qa’ida to Omar.
A Group Employing Terrorist Tactics to Advance its Agenda is Not a Terrorist Organization
Two months after AQAP reaffirmed al-Qa’ida’s pledge of bayat to Omar, despite an abundance of evidence that the Afghan Taliban should be viewed by officials as more than an insurgent enterprise striving for control of Afghanistan, on 28 January 2015, a deputy press secretary for the White House revealed that the president continues to insist the Afghan Taliban is not a terrorist organization. Instead, the White House views the Taliban as “an armed insurgency.”
As noted above, in a somewhat conflicting series of remarks, a day later, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that the Taliban does “carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism.” He added: “They do pursue terror attacks in an effort to advance their agenda.”
As discussed in that second press briefing, due to the group’s activities, the US Treasury Department has treated the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist organization, imposing sanctions intended to limit the group’s access to financial aid from abroad. Further, CIA’s National Counterterrorism Center also includes the Afghan Taliban on its list of terrorist organizations.
However, according to Mr. Earnest, the White House continues to insist the Taliban should not be handled by the US as a terrorist organization in the same manner as al-Qa’ida.
According to Mr. Earnest, the Taliban “is different than an organization like al-Qa’ida that has much broader, global aspiration to carry out acts of violence and acts of terror against Americans and American interests all around the globe.”
Obviously, President Obama and his advisors should carefully review the remarks of al-Qa’ida’s leaders before continuing to claim that the Afghan Taliban’s agenda reflects parochial concerns alone.
As bin Laden states in footage distributed by al-Qa’ida in mid-July 2014, under Omar’s leadership, the Afghan Taliban was aiding al-Qa’ida despite the group’s awareness that al-Qa’ida was preparing attacks on the United States.
How could it not have been aware of al-Qa’ida’s aspirations to attack the US? Bin Laden declared war on the US from inside Afghanistan in 1996.
Indeed, not only was the State Department aware in the 1990s that the group’s leader, Mullah Omar, considered bin Laden a good Muslim because he had declared war on America, analyst understood this served as the basis for Omar’s decision to protect bin Laden.
Put simply, Omar is an advocate of al-Qa’ida’s global aspirations. Were he and his subordinates in the Afghan Taliban not supportive of these aspirations, they would not have assisted bin Laden with his security needs in Afghanistan after he declared war on the US.
Later, even after bin Laden provoked a response to his activities from the US that resulted in the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghan, Omar reaffirmed his commitment to supporting al-Qa’ida as it waged a global jihad. For example, as noted in Peter Bergen’s book The Osama bin Laden I Know, during an interview conducted by the Voice of America radio network on 21 September 2001, Omar advised he would not hand bin Laden over to the US. “No. We cannot do that,” Omar stated. He went on to explain this position in these terms: “If we did, it means we are not Muslims; that Islam is finished. If we were afraid of attack, we could have surrendered him the last time we were threatened and attacked [a reference to cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan in 1998 in response to al-Qa’ida’s dual attacks executed at US embassies in Kenya in Tanzania]. So America can hit us again.”
Today, it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to furnish an evidence-based assessment that draws the conclusion Omar and his subordinates in the Afghan Taliban will not once more allow al-Qa’ida to utilize territory under their control when the group reasserts power over much of Afghanistan. So too would it be a fool’s errand to try to argue that the leaders of al-Qa’ida would pledge allegiance to a jihadi who does not share their global aspirations of shaping an environment in which to assert the primacy of a radical Islamist governing body (ie the caliphate which leaders of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida seek to “restore”).
Therefore, describing the Obama administration’s aversion to taking more aggressive actions against the Afghan Taliban by pressuring the US State Department to officially designate the group an FTO as shortsighted is to wager exaggeration by way of understatement.
The Authorization for Use of Military Force signed into law following al-Qa’ida’s 9/11 attacks of 2001 has been interpreted to provide authorization for the treatment of belligerents affiliated with the Taliban in the same manner as members of al-Qa’ida. In turn, individuals such as those comprising the so-called “Taliban Five” have been held at detention facilities like Guantanamo. Others have been killed in the field.
However, it is unclear if developments such as the “winding down” of the war in Afghanistan could give way to a push for a new interpretation of the 2001 AUMF. Particularly as President Obama has for several years endeavored to convince the public that threats to US interests no longer emanate from Afghanistan. Or, in addition to the proposed AUMF focused on combatting the Islamic State, might another new “right-sized, modernized AUMF,” as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it in mid-January 2015 — on which recalibrates how US forces may engage the Afghan Taliban — also be in the works?
Of course, at present, neither would not actually be required for the Obama administration to overhaul how the US military and intelligence community handle the Taliban.
Indeed, it would not matter if some advocacy group were to file a lawsuit that results in a reinterpretation of the 2001 AUMF in a manner that reforms how the US military and other agencies engaged in counterterrorism activities treat members of the Afghan Taliban. Nor would it matter if language contained in a forthcoming additional AUMF is interpreted in a manner that results in similar changes.
Because the Taliban is not designated an FTO by the State Department, the Obama administration can easily experiment with attempts to pursue the very half-baked concept proposed by a team of CIA analysts a few months before al-Qa’ida attacked the US homeland in 2001: Normalizing relations with the Afghan Taliban in an effort to dissuade its leaders from aiding groups like al-Qa’ida by leveraging our mutual values and aspirations, as those analysts put it, to help transition the Taliban into a responsible member of the international community.
One can reasonably deduce that the formulators of such proposals have ignored the aspirations of the Afghan Taliban’s leaders. Such aspirations are perhaps best reflected in the fact that the designations of numerous jihadist groups subordinated to him — notably al-Qa’ida — as FTOs by the State Department has not diminished the Afghan Taliban’s willingness to collaborate with these groups. Nor has the designation of Omar as a terrorist diminished his subordinates’ wills to help him achieve his goals. Nor has it diminished their wills to support his policy of protecting al-Qa’ida’s leadership.
Ultimately, so as to ensure all options are available to national security managers concerned with thwarting the Taliban’s provision of bases to al-Qa’ida and other terrorist elements which seek to attack the US homeland, the US Department of State should add the Afghan Taliban to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
This will deter other governments from providing financial, military and other forms of aid to the Taliban, such as that which the government of Iran has provided to foremost lethal components of this organization which are responsible for killing American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan. Albeit there is very little evidence which indicates State designating the group an FTO would serve to deter Iran from aiding it.
Meanwhile, no less important for policymakers to consider is that the group’s placement on State’s FTO list would incent the government of Afghanistan to work harder to thwart the Taliban’s exploitation of Afghan territory. If the Afghan Taliban were designated an FTO by State, were the Afghan government to accommodate the Taliban’s continued exploitation of territory in Afghanistan, this would amount to state sponsorship of terrorism, which — at least in theory — would serve to disrupt vital support the government of Afghanistan receives from Washington.
Furthermore, policymakers should carefully examine evidence concerning the deep ties between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida in order to determine if al-Qa’ida has assumed responsibility for advancing Mullah Omar’s interests beyond the borders of Afghanistan. If al-Qa’ida is functioning as an external operations wing of the Taliban, it may be prudent to reexamine the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. Indeed, the Obama administration may be leaving so much unfinished business behind that a future president will be forced to do the same thing President Bush did in 2001 — topple a Taliban regime in order to protect Americans from threats posed by its allies in al-Qa’ida.