Dr Farhan Zahid
Ph D, Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).
It is at times argued that there were little or no connections between Afghan Taliban regime (1996-2001) and their guests : Al-Qaeda. The issue remains confusing as in recent past the US and Afghan governments attempted to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban in Abu Dhabi and Doha. The talks remained inconclusive and subject to harsh criticism. The confusions further grew when February 2015 the White House spokesperson called Taliban ‘armed insurgents' rather terrorists.
On the other hand the connections and rapport between Al-Qaeda and its former host Afghan Taliban regime appeared to be as clear as sun in the sky.
After moving in to Afghanistan in 1994, two years earlier than the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda Amir Osama bin Laden was in a miserable state of affair. He had no place to take refuge, and his own country Saudi Arabia had revoked his nationality. He was a stateless person, yet he found in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan a hospitable environment and a freedom that he neither had in his own country or in Sudan, the country where he was earlier living.
The Taliban were nothing but just another armed militia in Afghanistan during post-Soviet withdrawal war, among scores of Afghan Mujahedeen groups. They came into prominence after they started receiving support emanating from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and then they did wonders in a short span of time.
Same was the case of Al-Qaeda, which was, without having a safe haven, just another terrorist group with some sympathizers in the Arab world. It would be better to say that it was during the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that not only Al-Qaeda but a plethora of South Asian and Central Asian terrorist organizations nurtured in Afghanistan and found a safe and aloof base in that country.
Pakistani Islamist terrorist organizations Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), Harkat ul Mujahedeen (HuM), Laskhkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) disturbed the canvas of Pakistani society with their sectarian violence during the same period. Same happened in Central Asia where Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan created havoc. In the Philippines, Abu Sayaf Group ran a wave of terror and hundreds were killed by the hands of that radical Islamist militia. Indonesia and Malaysia also got into trouble because of the activities of Jammah Islamiyah and Chinese Muslim majority province Xinxiang had the same effects.
Pakistan became the favorite transit route of all the Islamist terror networks across the world. It was easier to first move to Pakistan after committing an act of terrorism and later fleeing into Afghanistan. Even Islamist networks of countries like Bangladesh and Maldives found in Afghanistan a safe corridor. By late 1990s it had become clear to intelligence communities fighting Islamist terrorism that the only place left for violent Islamists was none other but Afghanistan.
Despite being a neighbor and supporter of Afghan Taliban regime, Pakistan had also become the worst victim of their policies of harboring worldwide Islamist networks. The country's own Talibinization process had taken its roots. Taliban-inspired local Islamist groups started to threaten the secular environment of university campuses and infiltrated into other governmental organizations.
The ethnic-Pashtun dominated areas of Pakistan were the first to feel the heat from Afghanistan; then the big cities of Karachi and Lahore where Taliban-inspired jihadi groups quickly penetrated and started to terrorize the populace.
At the same time Pakistan was losing the most because of the proximity and relations with Taliban regime. Already a poor and indebted country the government was not at all in a position to provide even basic necessities of life to its citizens. A rapidly swelling youth bulge with nothing much to offer, but to see Taliban as the only means to provide justice and good governance.
The Taliban way of providing quick justice and relief to populace was becoming popular amongst poverty-ridden areas of cities and villages. Because of Saudi money and assistance, the Taliban were also able to launch a propaganda campaign in Pakistan for inflating their ranks. Al-Qaeda was also getting its due share in shape of Pakistani recruits. The organization had taken the role what Bin Laden always desire: the Godfather of all jihadi organizations and he himself as the linchpin of global jihad what he termed as against "Crusaders, Jews and their agents".
The Al-Qaeda-Taliban connection could be analyzed on their following modes of cooperation :
- Training camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan were established by Bin Laden and his network for providing foot soldiers against Taliban enemies in times of need especially whenever they opened a front against the Northern Alliance in their military endeavors in the north. The Al-Qaeda-run training camps supplied Arabs, Pakistani, Uzbeks and other nationalities' militants to Taliban especially during their second offensive at Mazar-e-Shariff (as the first offensives turned out to be a fiasco for Taliban and had lost thousands of their best soldiers).
- In times of financial crunch, Bin Laden also provided financial assistance to Taliban which was quite valuable for them.
- Gathering support for Taliban regime amongst Arab sympathizers of Al-Qaeda was another milestone achieved by Al-Qaeda and that strengthened their alliance. Arab sympathizers started to send millions of dollars of alms money to Taliban regime also in the form of weapons and equipment ranging from four by four vehicles to small arms. Zakat money (charity) poured into Afghanistan from Arab states, only because of the personal contacts of Bin Laden in Arab and Middle Eastern states.
- It is believed that the impetus behind destruction of Buddha statues in Bamiyan province (in July 2001) was also initiated by the Taliban on the advice of Bin Laden. Taliban refused to listen to Pakistani authorities when they showed them their concerns. They preferred Bin Laden, the Saudi exile over, their primary and most important ally Pakistan. The very event showed the Taliban reliance on Bin Laden network rather than the state which had continued to support them from the beginning. According to Gretchen Peters, "When the Taliban blew up the ancient Buddhas of Bamian, even after Islamabad had dispatched its foreign minister to beg them not to, the Americans concluded Islamabad had created a monster it could no longer control."
- The Afghan Taliban regime also provided sanctuaries to the sectarian militant outfits of Pakistan, presumably at the behest of Al-Qaeda. Sectarian terrorist outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) were proscribed by the state of Pakistan and most of the leadership of banned sectarian groups found safe havens in Afghanistan only when they colluded with Al-Qaeda and received training at Al-Qaeda-run training camps. The anti-Shia sectarian organizations had created havoc in Pakistan during mid-1990s and, after founding an enclave in Afghanistan, their numbers swelled and endured. Pakistani authorities repeatedly asked Taliban regime to hand them over but only to be turned down by the Taliban. After the fall of Taliban regime, when the Al-Qaeda leadership was on the run, these Al-Qaeda-trained Pakistani groups helped escort Bin Laden and Zawahiri out of Afghanistan along with their hundreds of Arab rank and files and provided them shelter in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Many of high ranking Al-Qaeda leaders were later arrested by Pakistani security forces from major Pakistani cities and tribal areas.
- Because of their anti-Shia rhetoric and actions, the Taliban found an equally vocal Al-Qaeda and a natural alliance was formed against Shia-Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian influence in Afghanistan was another issue and both had a common stance in declaring Shia community of Afghanistan as non-Muslims and stern action was taken against the Shia community living in Afghanistan. The murder of Iranian diplomats at second Mazar-e-Shariff offensive in 1998, added with massacre of Shia-Hazara community, was a blatant proof of it. According to sources, during the Mazar-e-Shariff battle most brutalities were committed by the Arab legion of Taliban troops and Pakistani sectarian outfits part of the invading Taliban force.
- Most importantly, the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Maosud, by two Arabs in a suicide attack, was another example of Al-Qaeda-Taliban cooperation. The two Arabs posing as Belgian-Moroccan journalists were indeed sent by the Al-Qaeda leadership to eliminate the most potent threat to Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Later investigations led to the exposure of prominent role played by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud. It was an action to showcase the Taliban leadership their loyalties and proving Al-Qaeda as an asset of Taliban regime rather than a liability.
- For their Central Asian endeavors the Taliban also allowed Al-Qaeda to run bases for terrorist organizations like Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and IMU successfully used it Afghanistan as base to launch attacks against the state forces of Uzbekistan. IMU leaders Tahir Yalshidiv and Juma Namangani also found refuge under Taliban rule. The two with their Islamist organization were more than just simple Islamist radicals. They had links to billion dollar cartel of narco-trading in Central Asia.
"The rebel group with the deepest reach in the drug trade is unquestionably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). With a network of fighters extending from South Waziristan up through former Soviet Republics, the IMU was cultivated by Bin Laden in the 1990s to develop roots in Central Asia. He may have recognized the group's earning potential: Interpol and the DEA report that the IMU controls as much as 70 percent of the multibillion dollar heroin and opium trade through Central Asia. The group was founded in the late 1990s by the radical mullah Tahir Yuldeshev and Juma Namangani, a former Soviet paratrooper who defected to the mujahedin."
- Chechen Islamists fighting against the Russian forces also joined hands with Al-Qaeda under the tutelage of Taliban regime. After facing defeat in Second Chechen War (1999-2000) most of the Chechen leaders had no other place but Afghanistan to seek refuge. Al-Qaeda's then second in command al-Zawahiri was already instrumental in forging ties with Chechen leaders of Arab descent namely, Omar Khatab, Shamiyal Baseyov and others. The Chechen Islamists later turned out to be asset for Taliban forces during their military offensives against the Northern Alliance forces and against the US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks.
- The Saudi state's reflection started coming out of Taliban rule only after the policy guidelines provided by Bin Laden to Mullah Omar when he became one of Omar's close confidants. Initially the two had not much in common but with his money and support he took a firm lead and came closer to the illiterate supreme leader of Taliban. According to Peters, "The Saudi exile wasted no time in ingratiating himself with Afghanistan's new masters, helping to bankroll their takeover of Kabul. Bin Laden reportedly put up $3 million from his personal funds to pay off the remaining warlords who stood between the Taliban and the Afghan capital. The cash injection came at a crucial time, and Mullah Omar would never forget it."
- The Taliban also cooperated with Al-Qaeda as far as the issue of poppy growing was concerned. There had been ample evidence of Taliban-Al-Qaeda cooperation in this sphere. The cash starved Taliban needed money to run the government and had no backing except from the Saudi Arabia and rich Arab sympathizers. Al-Qaeda needed funds to run its camps and recruit more Islamist radical youth across the world, and of course to conduct terrorist operations. According to Peters, "Although US counter-narcotics officials say they never received direct confirmation of Osama Bin Laden's personal role in the drug trade, there was overwhelming circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Al-Qaeda leader was deeply involved-not least since his terror camps were located in the same districts as heroin labs."
A spokesman for former British Prime minister Tony Blair said MI6 believed Mullah Omar and Bin Laden each maintained personal opium stockpiles greater than three thousand tons. Blair told a 2001 gathering of Labour Party officials that Bin Laden "used drug money to finance Chechen and Uzbek rebels."
- ‘The Holy War Foundation', a term coined by Jason Burke, quite brilliantly reflected the coalition between Al-Qaeda and its host the Taliban. The Taliban movement and reign over Afghanistan was gradually sucked up into the Foundation. The Taliban were from the beginning quite ignorant about the outside world and did not have any idea about the Al-Qaeda designs and they got consumed into the Holy Foundation of Bin Laden and his organization. According to Jason Burke's assessments, "Something that can be labeled Al-Qaeda did exist between 1996 and 2001. It was composed of a small number of experienced militants who were able to access resources of a scale and with an ease that was hitherto known in Islamic militancy, largely by virtue of their position in Afghanistan......This Al-Qaeda acted as the name suggests like a wealthy university disbursing research grants and assisting with facilities such as libraries or with teaching that can allow the ambitions of its pupils, particularly those star students who have attracted the of the chancellor or the senior lecturers, to be fulfilled. It is the Holy War Foundation."
In the backdrop of US-led invasion the some members of Taliban leadership tried to part ways with Al-Qaeda, though unsuccessfully. Amidst this a new Pakistani tribal area-based group ‘Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)' forged ties with Al-Qaeda and provided them safe havens in Pakistani tribal areas. The TTP has, to this day, continued to shelter the Arabs and foreign militants on Pakistani soil and whereas the Afghan Taliban are fighting against Allied forces the TTP in collusion with Al-Qaeda has turned the tide of war against the state of Pakistan.
It is certain from the very fact that all factions of Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban consider Mullah Omar as their patron and Amir ul Momineen (leader of the faithful). As far as Al-Qaeda is concerned, it became part of Afghan Taliban when Osama bin Laden pledged oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar in 2000. Bin Laden later confirmed his pledge of allegiance, "My pledge of allegiance to the Emir of the Believers [Mullah Omar] is the great pledge of allegiance, which is mentioned in the chapters of the Koran and the stories of the Sunnah....Every Muslim should set his mind and heart and pledge allegiance to the Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar for this is the great pledge."
The relationship is mutual, as Bill Roggio editor of The Long War Journal explains, "Evidence of this relationship is seen in the small number of Osama bin Laden's documents that have been released to the public. Bin Laden and his general manager, Atiyah Abd al Rahman, frequently discussed the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. While the al Qaeda leaders often express frustration over the Taliban's attacks that kill civilians and other issues, it is clear that al Qaeda exercises a degree of control over the group." On the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) the new Amir of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, renews its ties with the Afghan Taliban Mullah Omar.
The long standing relationship between Taliban groups (both Pakistani and Afghan) and Al-Qaeda seems to strengthen amid the surfacing of ISIS. There are some ideological gaps between the two such as the Taliban adhere to Deobandi brand of Islam whereas Al-Qaeda to the Wahabi version of Islam. But the political ambitions of the two remain the same and with common enemies the two appear to continue to work together. As slain Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mustafa al-Yazid said "We participate with our brothers in the Islamic Emirate in all fields; this had a big positive effect on the (Taliban) self-esteem in Afghanistan."
-  Abubakar Siddique, "Are the Afghan Taliban terrorists?", Dawn, February 7, 2015, available at : http://www.dawn.com/news/1162111/are-the-afghan-taliban-terrorists
-  Gretchen Peters, The Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, the ISI and the New Opium Wars, Hachette, 2009, p. 99.
-  Peters, Ibid p.130
-  The Taliban Religious police (Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue) was modelled on Saudi Arabian religious police
-  Ibid, p.80
-  Ibid, p.86
-  Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, Penguin Books, London, 2004, p.232
-  Thomas Joscelyn, "Al-Qaeda renews its oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar", The Long War Journal, July 21, 2014, available at :
-  Bill Roggio, "Pakistani Taliban praises slain Al-Qaeda leaders", The Long War Journal, April 15, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/04/pakistani-taliban-praises-slain-al-qaeda-leaders.php
-  "Al-Qaeda announces India wing, renews loyalty to Taliban chief", The Express Tribune, September 4, 2014, http://tribune.com.pk/story/757736/al-qaeda-announces-india-wing-renews-loyalty-to-taliban-chief/
-  "Al-Qaeda's third in command killed", NBC News, June 1, 2010, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37440747/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/islamic-site-al-qaidas-third-command-killed/