Newly-released documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound reveal that the Taliban expressed its condolences to al Qaeda for the death of one of its top leaders who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in May 2010. The letter of sympathy and unity was issued during the same timeframe that the Obama administration and US military officials were optimistic about conducting negotiations with the Taliban, and the conventional wisdom was that al Qaeda and the Taliban had split.
The Taliban letter, which was issued by the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Political Commission, Media Division,” is undated but was sent to al Qaeda sometime in late May 2010 or after. The letter expresses “Condolences on the occasion of the martyrdom of Shaykh Abu-Yazid al-Mustafa,” who was also known as Mustafa Abu Yazid and Sheikh Saeed al Masri.
Yazid, who served as al Qaeda’s general manager, chief financial officer, and commander in Afghanistan, was killed in a drone strike on May 21, 2010 in the village of Mohammed Khel in the Datta Khel area of Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan. Datta Khel is a known al Qaeda hub in North Waziristan.
“With hearts filled with patience, hope, and the belief in God’s judgment and acts, we received word of the martyrdom of the heroic fighter and veteran leader, Shaykh Abu-Yazid al-Mustafa, together with a group of the knights of jihad and faith,” The Taliban stated. “May God rest their souls, all of them, and make them to live in the highest paradise with the prophets, the true believers, the martyrs, and the righteous, as they are the best to be friends with.”
“In the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, we offer our condolences to our brothers the mujahidin of al Qaeda and to the Islamic Nation in general for the loss of this heroic fighter,” the letter continues.
At the conclusion of the letter, the Taliban refer to itself and al Qaeda as “we” and refer to the war against the West as “our jihad.”
“We bring you the good news that victory is near, and the crusader enemy will be defeated. We must all observe precision and preparation in managing the matters of our jihad. We must keep our ranks free of divisions and selfishness. We must be alert against all the conspiracies which are contrived to harm the reputation of the mujahidin. We must focus our efforts in the field of resistance on striking the usurping enemy. We must not become preoccupied with anything that distracts us from the original goal,” the letter concluded.
Yazid was closely tied to the Taliban
Yazid was one of the most senior and revered al Qaeda leaders killed by the US in its drone campaign in Pakistan. In its own eulogy, al Qaeda described Yazid as the “commander of its experienced leaders, master of masters, prince of financial princes, distinguished sheikh, and triumphant hero,” as well as “the commander in chief of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
The 9-11 Commission identified Yazid as al Qaeda’s “chief financial manager.” In this role, Yazid was responsible for disbursing funds from what is known as the Bayt al Mal, or al Qaeda’s treasury. This responsibility made Yazid one of the most trusted and important al Qaeda leaders.
Yazid was also a key link between al Qaeda to the Afghan Taliban. He publicly announced that “ties” between al Qaeda and the Taliban have “increased” since 9/11, and affirmed al Qaeda’s oath to Mullah Omar.
“The ties between the brothers in al Qaeda and brothers in the Taliban have increased. The affection between them has increased,” Yazid stated in a joint video with Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, who served as the Taliban’s military commander in the south before he was relieved of his command in December 2007.
“And here, we emphasize our Bayah [oath of allegiance] and obedience to Amir al Mumineen [commander of the faithful], Mullah Mohammed Omar, and we affirm that Qaeda al Jihad Afghanistan is no more than one of the brigades of Amir al Mumineen and the Islamic Emirate and the soldiers of al Qaeda are no more than loyal soldiers of Amir al Mumineen and the Islamic Emirate,” Yazid continued. [See Threat Matrix report, Dadullah and Yazid on ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban.]
Other senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, including Abdullah Sa’id al Libi and Mullah Sangeen Zadran, have made similar statements.
Taliban praised Yazid as West sought to negotiate
As the Taliban gained strength in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007 and began to take over significant amounts of territory throughout the country, Western officials sought to end the war by negotiating with the jihadist group. One justification offered for the negotiations was the unsubstantiated claim that the Taliban had “severed ties” with al Qaeda, according to CNN. At the time, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that no such split had occurred. As late as August 2012, the Taliban denied press reports that it had severed its relationship with al Qaeda.
The Obama administration pushed for peace talks with Taliban in 2010. Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, began the process to open talks with the Taliban. In her book, Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton explains that as Secretary of State she endorsed Holbrooke’s push for peace talks.
Top US military leaders in Afghanistan were also looking for openings to negotiate with the Taliban. In March 2010, Major General Michael Flynn, then the intelligence chief for the International Security Assistance Force (he later became the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency), told The Atlantic that the Haqqani Network, a dangerous Taliban subgroup with close ties to al Qaeda, was “absolutely salvageable.”
But the Taliban and the Haqqanis continued to shelter al Qaeda and fight alongside the global jihadist group in Afghanistan. Despite claims that the Taliban had severed its relationship with al Qaeda, the Taliban praised Osama bin Laden as a “dedicated supporter” who “laid foundation of strongholds of the invincible struggle and Jihad and continued with the task of rearing, training, enlightening and equipping Mujahideen.”
“The Islamic Ummah will neither forget the struggle of this great Mujahid nor his unwavering stance against falsehood and arrogance in the way of realization of truth,” the Taliban said of bin Laden after his death.
Mullah Omar’s representative corresponded with al Qaeda while negotiating with the State Department
State Department representatives met with Mullah Omar’s emissary, Syed Tayyab Agha, on several occasions in 2010 and 2011. The Abbottabad letters show that Agha continued to communicate with bin Laden even as Foggy Bottom was trying to convince him to break ties with al Qaeda. There is no evidence of tension between Agha and his al Qaeda comrades in the few letters made available to the public.
Al Qaeda general manager Atiyah Abd al-Rahman explained to bin Laden that he was communicating with Agha in a letter dated June 19, 2010. Agha is described as the “friend of Amir Al Mo’mineen,” a title meaning “Emir of the Faithful,” which is how al Qaeda refers to Mullah Omar.
“Attached is a letter from Tayyab Agha, the friend of Amir Al Mo’mineen, and we are in contact with him, thanks to Allah,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden. Agha’s letter, Rahman added, “seems to be a reply to another, older letter from [Ayman al Zawahiri] that we sent to them maybe a year ago.” Rahman summarized the contents of Agha’s letter: “It includes a warning, reminder and discussion about: Iran, UAE and some expressions that they use.” The last part, mentioning “some expressions” used by the Taliban, is cryptic, but may be a reference to the Taliban’s public rhetoric.
In early April 2011, just weeks before bin Laden’s death, Rahman said he was going to forward new letters from Agha to his boss. “I will also include two letters from Tayyab Agha along with my responses,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden.
Agha’s letters to Rahman and bin Laden have not been released, so there is no way to tell what he wrote. At a minimum, the references to his correspondence indicate that he communicated with al Qaeda’s senior leadership right up until the weeks prior to bin Laden’s death.