By Michael S. Smith II

How can anyone accusing us of claiming to be the caliphs of Muslims forget that we have pledged allegiance to the Emir of the Believers Mullah Mohamed Omar Mujahid, may God protect him, and that he is the emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

—Ayman al-Zawahiri (September 2013)

The relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida has long been murky. But today, deference al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders offer to the so-called “Emir al-Mu’minin” is perhaps more important than at any point since bin Laden subordinated al-Qa’ida to Mullah Omar. For Omar’s reaction to the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate will certainly be a determining factor with respect to how al-Qa’ida responds to this claim. Indeed, when it comes to such lofty concerns as this, Omar’s input ostensibly supersedes even that of al-Qa’ida’s shura.

Has the US been overlooking something?

Titled “Afghanistan: The Enigmatic Mullah Omar and Taliban Decision-Making” (Courtesy Wikileaks), a March 1997 US diplomatic embassy cable signed by US Ambassador to Pakistan Tom Simons noted little information was available about the reclusive leader of the Islamist movement that, soon after being launched in the fall of 1994 in Sangasar Village, had taken control of Afghanistan, and was by this time protecting Usama bin Laden.

According to the cable, 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 which a group of religious leaders conferred upon him the title of Emir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful). 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:

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 [E]mir 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 “[E]mir 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. According to Baheer, “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 his agenda was at odds with the interests of the US. Namely, a Taliban official quoted in the cable had 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).”

Bin Laden had famously declared war with the US in August 1996, soon after he relocated to Afghanistan from Sudan. Given such, 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 their having issued numerous requests for a meeting with him by March 1997, according to the cable.

Interestingly, however, the cable’s authors advised, “there is little evidence to suggest that Mullah Omar is an Islamic radical with an anti-Western agenda.” Its authors added: “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 bit about bin Laden — who had been described in an August 1996 State Department report 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 in as their “However” caveat, with reference to coverage of a 25 March 1997 meeting between Omar and bin Laden.)

Host, or Caliph?

According to some analysts, Omar’s acceptance of the title Emir al-Mu’minin did not constitute an act of benign symbolism. Instead, it 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 area of Khorasan (an area spanning parts of Afghanistan). 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.

Indeed, according to the end of times-like theology promoted by jihadis comprising the Global Jihad movement, the effort to assert the supremacy of the caliphate on a global scale shall begin in Khorasan. Thus, according to some analysts, when Omar accepted the title Emir al-Mu’minin, he was claiming to be the emir of the universal caliphate, which is what bin Laden believed, too, when he pledged bayat to Omar. Hence, when al-Qa’ida leaders refer to Omar as the emir of the faithful and the leader of an emirate, they are referring to the caliphate (writ large) because it will emerge in Afghanistan.

The superior rank over al-Qa’ida’s emir held by Omar was highlighted earlier this year in testimony provided by Sahim Alwan during the trial of Suleiman Abu Ghaith. Describing the oath of bayat, 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)

Issued in May 2014, in his last public statement al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri addressed the matter of one’s pledge of loyalty to an emir while highlighting that Islamic State leader Caliph Ibrahim (previously known to his followers as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) had pledged loyalty to al-Zawahiri immediately following bin Laden’s death. According to al-Zawahiri’s comments, words matter: “After I succeeded Sheikh Usama, may God have mercy on his soul, to the leadership of the emirate, Sheikh Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husayni used to address me as his emir. That continued to be the case until the last message I received from him [April 2013].”

Based upon al-Zawahiri’s assertion that one’s loyalty to a leader is reflected in the titles one uses to refer to that leader, it is important to examine how Ayman al-Zawahiri refers to Mullah Omar.

While there is no shortage of references to Omar in the archive of statements issued and books published by al-Zawahiri’s, it would seem the following examples would be worth taking into consideration when assessing just whose perceptions of the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate shall be most impactful with respect to influencing al-Qa’ida’s position on the matter — al-Qa’ida’s shura and its emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Mullah Omar?

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. 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,” and implored Muslims to “step forward and support him.” Al-Zawahiri continued:

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 those who have discouraged participation in the jihad in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri stated:

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 leader 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 11 September 2012. In a message released to eulogize Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Zawahiri advised, “I bring the glad tidings to the Islamic ummah, the mujahidin, the Emir of the Believers, 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 again referred to Omar using the term emir:

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 word, 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 refers to Omar as the emir of the faithful, asserting the Islamic State of Afghanistan has survived the US-led efforts to dismantle it:

How strong was the Islamic Emirate, led by the Emir of the Believers 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.”

Later in the message, al-Zawahiri addresses accusations that al-Qa’ida’s leaders are claiming to be caliphs:

How can anyone accusing us of claiming to be the caliphs of Muslims forget that we have pledged allegiance to the Emir of the Believers Mullah Mohamed Omar Mujahid, may God protect him, and that he is the emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Silence

On numerous occasions, al-Zawahiri has stated the emirate helmed by Omar remains intact. He has also repeatedly acknowledged Omar’s superior rank in the grand scheme of al-Qa’ida’s spiritual universe. Therefore, it will be difficult for al-Zawahiri to do anything but subordinate himself to his own former subordinate, now known as Caliph Ibrahim, should Omar acknowledge Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the world’s new caliph.

Presently, al-Zawahiri’s silence suggests he is not inclined to accept al-Baghdadi’s claim of the title caliph. Assuming he is not under pressure due to renewed drone operations, if al-Zawahiri were inclined to subordinate himself to the newly proclaimed caliph, he could have by now issued a favorable remark while advising his followers that al-Qa’ida’s shura is assessing the validity of the Islamic State’s claim. This, or he might have simply advised the leaders of al-Qa’ida’s “affiliates” to await further instructions before commenting on the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate.

Still, if al-Qa’ida’s shura rules against the Islamic State’s claims, but Omar proclaims they are valid, there may be a number of “workarounds” available to al-Zawahiri. For instance, al-Baghdadi described al-Zawahiri’s acceptance of the pledge of bayat he received from Jabhat al-Nusrah’s emir as unIslamic — thus grounds for al-Baghdadi to break his pledge of loyalty to al-Zawahiri — because, according to al-Baghdadi, it constituted an act of condoning al-Nusrah emir al-Jawlani’s unIslamic behavior (ie his insubordinate reply to al-Baghdadi’s claim that he was merging al-Nusrah with his group, in which al-Nusrah’s emir was previously a member). Leveraging this logic, al-Zawahiri might declare Omar’s support for al-Baghdadi unIslamic, for it would serve to condone al-Baghdadi’s insubordinate behavior that led to the great question at hand (ie al-Baghdadi’s (1) declaration he was merging al-Nusrah with his group to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham without first securing permission to do so from al-Zawahiri, followed by (2) his refusal to cease his fighters’ operations in Syria, as demanded by al-Zawahiri).

Whether Omar will concede to the Islamic State’s demands that all Muslims pledge loyalty to Caliph Ibrahim remains to be seen. Meanwhile, for those al-Qa’ida elements whose leaders have recently reaffirmed their loyalty to al-Zawahiri, the Emir al-Mu’minin’s silence is almost certainly deafening.

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