Mullah Omar and al Qaeda: a long term relationship

George Washington University’s National Security Archive has released a series of documents and cables from the US State Department and the CIA on the Taliban. Titled “The Taliban Biography, The Structure and Leadership of the Taliban 1996-2002,” the documents provide interesting background information on the Taliban leadership, and most importantly, show that back in 1998, it was clear that Mullah Omar was close to al Qaeda and had adopted a view of global jihad:

Three years before al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on 9/11, U.S. officials detected an alarming shift in the ideological stance of Taliban leader Mullah Omar toward pan-Islamism – a change that portended a burgeoning alliance between the Afghan regime and Osama bin Laden. The report that Omar might be falling under bin Laden’s “influence” is contained in a December 1998 U.S. Embassy cable from Islamabad, Pakistan, one of a number of recently declassified government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive and published here today on the eighth anniversary of the Taliban’s expulsion from Kabul.

In addition to highly informative biographical materials, the declassified documents in this briefing book contain fascinating new details about Taliban structure, decision-making and evolving ideology. The December 1998 Embassy cable noted above describes how Mullah “Omar – perhaps under the influence of bin Ladin and other extremists – may have become more sympathetic to pan-Islamist thinking. For example, he was quoted at least twice in 1998 as criticizing the U.S. presence in the Gulf, which is not usually a great concern of Afghans.”

Omar was also keen to purge the so-called “moderate” elements of the Taliban, led by Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, from the leadership ranks. Rabbani believed that al Qaeda was a liability to the Taliban government:

Furthermore, Mullah Omar’s Taliban ruling style may be even more controlling and brutal than previously reported. The December 1998 Embassy cable mentioned above notes that Omar “maintains an idiosyncratic, almost obscurantist, leadership style,” making policy decisions, “but generally leav[ing] the day-to-day matters to his key lieutenants.” In order to ensure his deputies remain “off balance” and do “not grow overly comfortable in their positions, Omar also rotates Taliban officials from post-to-post, apparently at a whim.” Omar may have felt threatened by his now-deceased deputy, Mullah Mohammad Rabbani. A “moderate,” who reportedly disagreed with Omar’s decision to protect al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Rabbani wanted to “settle the [bin Laden] matter before [the Taliban] become even more isolated from the international community.” By 1996, Omar had purged Taliban members loyal to Mullah Rabbani in order to prevent his Deputy from gaining popularity and an independent base of power.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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