ANALYSIS: A MESSAGE FROM THE UNRELENTING ‘SERVANT OF ISLAM’
By Michael S. Smith II
In a message dated 25 July 2014, Afghan Taliban founder and leader Mullah Mohamed Omar signaled his rejection of the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate. This, by way of his continued use of a title traditionally reserved for the caliph. But not without first portraying the “emirate” he presides over as a resilient enterprise — one that will not only soon reclaim control of Afghanistan, but one whose legitimacy has been acknowledged by world powers vis-à-vis the United States’ negotiations with the Taliban. And not without meting out an apparently condescending response to the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate by way of refusing to directly address its demands for support.
The Enduring Emirate and its Recent Achievements
Published by the Taliban’s Voice of Jihad, Omar’s latest message aims to convince audiences that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has endured the nearly 13-year-long, US-led effort to dismantle it. (Note: In October 1997, Omar changed the official name of his government from the Islamic State of Afghanistan to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in order to emphasize the Islamist nature of the Taliban’s agenda.)
After issuing a brief greeting to his “Muslim Brothers and Mujahid Nation” on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, Omar announced that his so-called “Mujahid Nation” has realized “consecutive victories and achievements on the ground of Jihad,” and proceeded to list a number of these “achievements.”
According to Omar, “the military situation around the country is in favor of the mujahidin,” for the “blanket of invasion has rolled back from vast areas, thanks to the help of Allah (SwT) and the unparalleled sacrifices of the Mujahidin and people.” He continued: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s rule and administration have become more powerful in captured areas than before. The mujahidin’s ranks are now more integrated, active and united than ever before.” He then added it is “a pity” that, as the “enemy” retreats in Afghanistan, it is using “non-aware and non-informed sons of the nation as an instrument for obtainment of their wicked objectives.”
Concerning the latter of these issues, Omar called on members of Afghanistan’s security and police forces to defect to the Taliban. “Come and wage jihad alongside with your own people and together with the Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate against the common enemy in order to gain the bliss of the two worlds,” he implored.
Omar also urged “religious scholars, tribal elders and the influential,” along with the “parents and relatives” of “these non-aware young men” to encourage them to join the Taliban.
He then advised defectors would be treated well by the Taliban. Moreover, encouraging Afghan security personnel to execute more green-on-blue attacks, Omar noted that the Taliban would reward them for striking the enemy before joining the Taliban:
According to the policy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the mujahidin should treat with sympathy those who leave the enemy’s ranks. Appreciate and reward heroism of the committed Afghans who launch attacks on the enemy and then join the ranks of Jihad.
Next, Omar drew attention to the diversity of his organization’s efforts: “activities of the Islamic Emirate are forging ahead with initiatives in other sectors as well. Great services have been rendered in sectors of education, economy, adjudication and justice, call and guidance, cultural activities, martyrs, the handicapped, coordination and management of NGOs, prisoner’s affairs and civilian casualties.”
Continuing, Omar highlighted achievements on the political front, calling attention to the fact that, as the emirate’s Political Office receives instructions from Taliban leaders like him, the US had essentially negotiated with Omar when it agreed to exchange five Taliban officials for an American soldier held by the Haqqani Network in May 2014. Further, Omar portrayed this “spectacular achievement” as an example of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan having secured the international community’s recognition as a legitimate institution:
As a result of efforts by the political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which performs its tasks under our instructions, the Islamic Emirate has achieved political recognition at the international and domestic levels. Many entities that used to oppose us now have come around to accept the Islamic Emirate as a reality. Exchange of the detainees with America as a result of the efforts of representatives of the political office of the Islamic Emirate is a spectacular achievement.
Here, it is likely that Omar intended to distinguish his organization, whose former opponents “have come around to accept the Islamic Emirate as a reality,” from the rogue Islamic State, which has not been acknowledged as anything other than a terrorist organization by world powers. (Note: The Afghan Taliban is not designated a terrorist organization by the US and many of its partners.) Indeed, while reading this section, many members of Omar’s target audience would surely be asking this question: What gains along these lines has the Islamic State achieved since announcing it has established a caliphate?
Transitioning to focus on domestic political affairs, Omar asserted that the “invaders-installed Administration has failed entirely, to the extent that it has lost trust of its domestic supporters and those who are funding it.” After claiming most Afghans are boycotting elections, Omar claimed that “Now all have come around to see that election and the ballots of the people were mere slogans to deceive people; sow racial, geographical and lingual and other hatred among the people.” He added: “We all now see that the American game under the name of elections proved, as in the past, to be selections.”
Omar proceeded to address the issue of “foreign” activities and influence operations inside Afghanistan with the following commentary:
We want to tell American and European governments who have troops in Afghanistan or are intending to maintain political influence or military bases in Afghanistan, let the Afghans establish an independent Islamic government on the basis of their religious and national aspirations. If you want to deprive them of their right to form a government, it will be not only a tyranny and violation of human norms but also will result in the self-same consequences that you have seen in the past thirteen years. You might have realized that the Afghan people, whose history is full of struggles for the cause of Islam and independence, are not willing to accept governments installed by foreign hands.
We believe the war in Afghanistan will come to an end when all foreign invaders pull out of Afghanistan and a holy Islamic and independent regime prevails here. Presence of limited number of troops under whatever title it may be will mean continuation of occupation and the war. This is because none can tolerate invading forces in one’s soil. … The presence of the invaders in our country is not in the interest of anyone. …
Omar also conceded that the prolonged war in Afghanistan has constituted the chief inhibitor to the Taliban’s capabilities to assert its will over Afghanistan. Accordingly, “The continuation of war aggravates security of the region and the country, particularly; it is a hurdle in the way of establishment of an Islamic regime and political independence …”
The ‘Glocal’ Agenda
Continuing, Omar reminded his audience of the Taliban’s goal: “our struggles are aimed only at forming an independent Islamic regime and obtaining independence of our country.”
As noted in its charter, al-Qa’ida shares this goal. Further, its leaders view the establishment of such a regime as a necessary step in the long process of restoring the caliphate, and asserting its dominance on a global scale. Thus, according to some analysts, it is almost certainly the case that, by pledging bayat to Emir al-Mu’minin Mullah Mohamed Omar, Usama bin Laden was signaling to jihadis his view that Omar should be regarded as the emir, or caliph of the caliphate, writ large. This, while at the same time positioning al-Qa’ida to serve as the vanguard of an Islamic army which, according to al-Qa’ida’s interpretations of several Hadith, will launch a jihad from the area known as the Khorasan in order to restore the caliphate on “historically Muslim lands.”
Indeed, Omar was almost certainly being disingenuous when he next claimed that “We are not intending to interfere in the (internal) affairs of the region and the countries of the world, nor do we want to harm them.” While the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan may not deploy Taliban members to wage jihad abroad in order to restore the caliphate, al-Qa’ida, whose leaders have subordinated their fighters to Omar, will be performing this task on behalf of Omar’s so-called “Mujahid Nation.” Further, it is important to consider that, as far as jihadis like Omar are concerned, they are helping — not harming — other countries by generating political disruptions that might serve to pave the way for Salafists to claim control of them, and impose sharia.
Unsurprisingly, following his claim that he is disinclined to meddle in other countries’ affairs, in a series of statements made to transition focus to developments in the Middle East, Omar acknowledged he is very much interested in degrading unIslamic influence in Muslim-majority states:
Concerning events and developments of the Middle East, I want to say that the global powers should leave people of the region to reach their legitimate aspirations. This is not justifiable to blame people’s uprising as terrorism and then rain down bombs on them or make prisons full with them. Such conduct will not break determination of a people.
Clearly, Omar wishes to see political changes occur in the Middle East that will accommodate the advancement of Islamist agendas at the expense of kufr (ie US and allied states) interests. And if he reclaims control of Afghanistan, he will almost certainly provide al-Qa’ida and affiliated elements bases from which to support revolutionary activities in the region, even if doing so is not made an unofficial policy of the Taliban.
Meanwhile, it is reasonable to infer that, by stating it is “not justifiable to blame people’s uprising as terrorism,” Omar is making a nod of support to Jabhat al-Nusrah and other al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements that have been designated foreign terrorist organizations by the US in recent years.
Silent Treatment, or Blatant Rejection?
Omar then concluded his brief discussion on developments in the Middle East by condemning “the Israeli brutal action of martyring, injuring and driving from homes of hundreds of Palestinians.”
No mention is made of either the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate, or its leader’s use of the title that jihadis have long reserved for Omar, Emir al-Mu’mimin, or Leader of the Faithful (alternatively Believers). Nor does he mention such developments in the remaining portions of his Eid address, which include a call for the mujahidin to tailor their actions in a manner that will serve to help the Taliban win the support of a majority of Afghans, along with what seem to be, at least in Omar’s mind, populist-oriented reassurances that the Taliban’s agenda entails promoting independence and freedom, which culminate in the following pronouncement: “The Islamic Emirate admits and totally believes in the rights given to men and women in the framework of sharia which the holy religion of Islam has granted them and is committed to implementation of those rights.”
Finally, however, in his closing, Omar delivers some clarification of how he perceives the most significant power play to date in the history of the Global Jihad movement:
To end, I extend you my felicitation on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and ask Allah, the Almighty to enable you to help the miserable and bereaved families in these holy days of felicity; to show compassion towards the orphans; to help the families of the martyrs, prisoners and refugees; to visit prisoners and the injured, serve them and admire them. Peace is on you all.
Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid
Emir al-Mu’minin, Servant of Islam
Implicit in Omar’s continued use a titled reserved for the caliph is his rejection of the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate, along with his rejection of the Islamic State’s demands that all jihadis pledge loyalty to its leader.
It is almost certainly the case that Omar, after going to such symbolic lengths as to don the Cloak of the Prophet while accepting this title before an audience in Kandahar in 1996, has never intended to share this sacred title with anyone. And it is almost certainly the case that — as Omar can easily infer from the Islamic State’s official statements — Caliph Ibrahim does not intend to share this title with Omar.
Hence, by using this title, Omar is effectively signaling to Caliph Ibrahim and his followers that he does not support their claims that Caliph Ibrahim is the leader of the faithful. Instead, Omar still regards himself to be this leader.
Drawing a Contrast?
Meanwhile, with his closing, Omar may be taking things a step further than simply rejecting the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate by utilizing a title that is traditionally reserved exclusively for the head of that entity.
By also declaring he is a “Servant of Islam,” Omar is portraying himself as a pious and selfless figure — a leader more concerned with spreading the faith than consolidating authority over Muslims. Indeed, it is likely the case that Omar intends to draw a distinction between himself and Caliph Ibrahim (formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), with Caliph Ibrahim, by way of contrast, cast in the light of a power-hungry aspirant to the authoritative role Omar has attained in the Global Jihad movement.
As noted in recent analysis of the strategic communications campaign launched by al-Qa’ida since the Islamic State announced it has established a caliphate, al-Qa’ida’s leaders seem to be trying to engender a similar set of contrasting perceptions of themselves and Caliph Ibrahim within jihadist spheres. This, by highlighting they do not aspire to attain the power which their former subordinate, Caliph Ibrahim, now claims to wield via reminders that they have subordinated themselves, thus al-Qa’ida, to Mullah Omar (first, in a video featuring footage of bin Laden pledging bayat to Omar, and, more recently, with the launch of a new bulletin, al-Nafir, in which al-Qa’ida renewed its pledge of bayat to Omar).
More than Meets the Eye?
It is important to consider how jihadis will interpret the contents of Omar’s first public address following the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate.
Obviously, most members of Omar’s target audience do not live in a vacuum. Most, if not all readers of his latest message are aware of the power play that has been made by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who, by pledging loyalty to al-Qa’ida emirs Usama bin Laden and, later, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had previously subordinated himself to Omar. In addition, most, if not all readers of Omar’s statement anticipated that Omar would address — favorably, or otherwise — the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate. This, plus the Islamic State’s insistence that all groups striving to restore the caliphate should disband, and their members pledge loyalty to Caliph Ibrahim. For, if widely heeded, such demands would effectuate al-Baghdadi’s usurpation of Omar’s authority.
Thus, taking into account Omar’s apparent position on the Islamic State’s efforts to wrest authority over certain jihadist spheres from him, as evinced by his continued use of the title Emir al-Mu’minin, it is likely the case that portions of Omar’s message are indeed intended to draw distinctions between Omar and his former subordinate who is now challenging his authority by claiming to serve as the world’s new caliph.
As such, Omar’s discussion of the Department of Prevention of Civilian Casualties may very well have been included in this message for dual purposes: On the one hand, to highlight the Taliban’s efforts to avoid causing harm to innocent Muslims; on the other, to elicit negative thoughts about al-Baghdadi. Not unlike al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s founding emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi has clearly approved the use of indiscriminate tactics that have resulted in the deaths of a large number of Muslim bystanders. Indeed, it is likely the case that Omar is trying to distinguish himself from al-Baghdadi by highlighting his disapproval of such tactics.
In this portion of the message, Omar also states the following:
The mujahidin should always remember our determination and success against the global invaders is the result of our holding the rope of Allah [ie Islam]. So the mujahidin must follow the injunctions of Allah, his prophet and obey their superiors … Avoid hypocrisy, disagreements and discrimination. Strengthen the thread of unity, brotherhood and internal trust. Keep the rank of Jihad against the enemy as unbreakable as a cemented wall.
These statements cover an issue that is central to the question of whether al-Baghdadi’s claim of the caliph title is legitimate: Loyalty to a leader, as encouraged by Islamic texts and traditions. For jihadis who anticipated a response from Omar to the Islamic State’s claims and demands, this portion of his message would almost certainly lead them to contemplate an important question: Was it only after breaching his pledge of loyalty — the religious oath of bayat — to al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, thus Mullah Omar, that al-Baghdadi felt empowered to declare he had established a caliphate?
The declaration of a caliphate by the Islamic State came many months after al-Baghdadi ignored al-Zawahiri’s demand that he cease his fighters’ operations in Syria. Al-Baghdadi’s insubordination eventually resulted in his group being ejected from the al-Qa’ida fold early in 2014.
Therefore, by placing his imprimatur on the caliphate that the Islamic State claims to have established, Omar would ostensibly be condoning, or, in the very least, pardoning what al-Qa’ida leaders certainly regard as unIslamic behavior (ie insubordination) on al-Baghdadi’s part. Conversely, by not placing his imprimatur on it — by reserving use of the title Emir al-Mu’minin for himself — Omar is effectively condemning al-Baghdadi’s behavior.
Assuming Omar intended to elicit questions about whether unIslamic errors have been committed by al-Baghdadi, it is important to consider that the aforecited section of Omar’s message calls on jihadis to avoid infighting and disharmony. Issues which the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate has clearly had the effect of stirring within the Global Jihad movement.
From this line of remarks it is evident Omar is reminding jihadis that inciting fitna is unIslamic behavior. In the context of jihadis’ concerns, fitna often refers to a condition of discord sown by members of a group who encourage fellow members to renege on their pledges of loyalty to a group’s leader, without the leader’s activities legitimizing their breaches of loyalty, in order to pursue an alternative (even if verisimilar) agenda than that of the emir to whom dissenters originally pledged bayat.
The converse of fitna is unity. And for elements operating in a position of relative weakness, as evinced by their resorts to violence in the form of terroristic activities undertaken in an effort to advance their agenda, maintaining unity — better still, esprit de corps — is crucial. For competition for authority within a group’s ranks can endanger its members by exposing vulnerabilities to enemies.
Indeed, by advising jihadis subordinated to him to “Keep the rank of Jihad against the enemy as unbreakable as a cement wall,” Omar is very likely discouraging them from following in the example set by al-Baghdadi, an aspirant to the title of caliph who has fomented unprecedented discord in the Global Jihad movement — thereby exposing an unprecedented array of potentially exploitable tensions within it for the United States and allied powers.
The Big Picture
Such evaluations certainly risk assigning unwarranted levels of sophistication to the propaganda of a terrorist like Mullah Omar. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to infer that, by calling on his followers to “Keep the rank of Jihad against the enemy as unbreakable as a cement wall,” Omar is advising Taliban members to abstain from breaking ranks by pledging their loyalty to Caliph Ibrahim.
Meanwhile, regardless of whether it was Omar’s intention to portray al-Baghdadi’s behavior as unIslamic in the manners described above, Omar’s unwillingness to support the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a caliphate may be tantamount to his firing a warning shot at Caliph Ibrahim. If deemed as an unIslamic attempt to usurp Omar’s authority, according to the very takfirist worldviews of both the Taliban and the Islamic State — not to mention al-Qa’ida — for his detractors, Caliph Ibrahim’s activities may warrant his execution.
Given this potential, it is unlikely Caliph Ibrahim will rescind his claim to the title of caliph, as doing so could be construed as an acknowledgement he has indeed committed certain fatal errors. Thus there is a better-than-even chance infighting will persist within the ranks of jihadist spheres, with al-Qa’ida and affiliated movements seeking to generate defections within the Islamic State by portraying its leaders as apostate, would-be usurpers of the authority that so many jihadi icons, including the “martyr” Usama bin Laden, have historically bestowed upon Omar.
Therefore, an important question is: To what lengths will Caliph Ibrahim go in order to address Mullah Omar’s apparent unwillingness to disband his jihadist enterprise, and pledge loyalty to a former subordinate who is claiming to have reestablished a caliphate in the Middle East? For it is almost certain that Omar’s reluctance to publicly throw his and his followers’ support behind Caliph Ibrahim serves to threaten the viability of his so-called “caliphate.” Unless, that is, Caliph Ibrahim and his followers do not intend to follow the examples set by the Salaf, who promptly began expanding the caliphate into one of the world’s largest empires following the death of the Prophet.
However, the chances the Islamic State’s leaders will not attempt to replicate the expansion of the caliphate as achieved by the Salaf are indeed remote. And this means the Islamic State must do something to address other jihadi leaders’ rejections of their leader’s claim to the title of caliph, as their objections will very likely serve to obstruct the Islamic State’s capabilities to cultivate significant levels of support beyond territories presently under its control.
It remains to be seen whether these countermeasures will be limited in scope to PR work that leverages social media and other cost-effective broadcasting platforms with international reach, or if they will grow to include assassinations of key leadership figures who have rejected Caliph Ibrahim’s demands for their support. But one thing appears certain: A competition for control of the Global Jihad movement is now underway.