The Taliban’s new leadership is allied with al Qaeda

Images of Siraj Haqqani, one of the Taliban’s new deputy emirs, from a US government wanted poster.

The Taliban has announced that a new emir and two deputy emirs have been chosen to lead the organization following the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death.

The Taliban’s new emir is Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a longtime deputy to Omar. Mansour previously served as the minister of civil aviation and transportation during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001 and as the group’s shadow governor for the Kandahar province.

Mansour’s importance within the Taliban has long been well-known. The West has sought to negotiate a peace deal with Mansour, thereby recognizing him as one of the Taliban’s chief power players during Mullah Omar’s reign. US, NATO, and Afghan officials even believed at one point that they were directly negotiating with Mansour, only to learn they had been duped by an impostor.

According to the Taliban, Mansour’s top deputies are Moulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, a “religious scholar” who previously headed the Taliban’s judiciary branch, and Sirajuddin (Siraj) Haqqani, the son of the “renowned jihadi and scholarly figure” Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Mansour and Siraj Haqqani are both allied with al Qaeda. Mansour recently described al Qaeda’s leaders as the “heroes of the current jihadist era.”

Siraj’s dossier is filled with ties to al Qaeda. For instance, files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound show that he was working closely with bin Laden’s lieutenants in the months leading up to the al Qaeda master’s death. Siraj’s father, Jalaluddin, is a legendary jihadist figure and was one of Osama bin Laden’s most important backers in South Asia.

The new “Amir-ul-Momineen”

The Taliban’s statement describes Mansour not just as the group’s new leader, but also as the “Amir-ul-Momineen,” or the “Emir of the Faithful.” The title has profound ramifications in the jihadists’ world. Mullah Omar was first given this honorific, which is usually reserved for the ruler of an Islamic caliphate, or caliph. Al Qaeda and other jihadists repeatedly venerated Omar as their “Emir of the Faithful.”

However, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s emir, claims to be the caliph and his supporters refer to him in the same fashion. As the rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda reached a boiling point last year, the two sides argued over who deserved the title more. This is crucially important to the jihadists because the “Emir of the Faithful” is supposedly owed the loyalty of all Muslims. Baghdadi has explicitly made this claim, which has been rejected by both the Taliban and al Qaeda.

On June 16, Mansour released a statement chastising the Islamic State for dividing the jihadists’ ranks in Afghanistan. Baghdadi’s followers have repeatedly clashed with the Taliban’s men since the beginning of the year. And Mansour warned that the infighting could severely damage the jihadists’ cause. [See LWJ report, Taliban chastise Islamic State for dividing jihadist ranks in Afghanistan and beyond.]

While arguing that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (as the Taliban’s refers to itself) is the only legitimate jihadist entity in Afghanistan, Mansour noted that top al Qaeda leaders have based their activities in the country. He went so far as to describe Osama bin Laden as the “leader of mujahideen.”

“The heroes of the current jihadist era – the prayer leader of mujahideen, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam; the leader of mujahideen, Sheikh Osama bin Ladin; the defeater of crusaders, Abu Musab al Zarqawi; and the defeater of atheists, Khattab – had the privilege to be students of jihadist seminaries in Afghanistan,” Mansour said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.

Azzam is widely considered the godfather of global jihad. He co-founded al Qaeda with bin Laden and also co-founded Lashkar-e-Taiba. Azzam was bin Laden’s mentor until he was killed in 1989. Zarqawi ran a training camp for jihadists in Afghanistan and was the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to Baghdadi’s current Islamic State. Zarqawi was killed in Iraq in 2006. “Khattab” is Ibn Khattab, the leader of al Qaeda’s International Islamic Battalion in Chechnya before he was killed in 2002.

Mansour counted a radical Saudi cleric who supported al Qaeda as one of the Taliban’s chief ideological boosters. And he also mentioned bin Laden’s endorsement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In fact, both bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, swore an oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar.

“The country’s 1,500 Ulema [the religious council of scholars in Afghanistan] have chosen, and pledged allegiance to, the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in accordance with sharia, and famous religious scholars of the world like Sheikh Hamud bin Uqla al Shuaybi [a Saudi ideologue who supported the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks], may God have mercy on him, and famous jihadist leaders like Sheikh Osama, may God have mercy on him, have announced their support and allegiance to the lawful Emirate,” Mansour said.

Thus, Mansour used al Qaeda’s endorsement to argue in favor of the Taliban’s ideological legitimacy. Mansour’s argument that the Taliban has the appropriate jihadist credentials has been used by al Qaeda’s members and others to undermine the Islamic State. Their belief is that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi did not properly consult with or receive the endorsement of recognized jihadist figures before declaring himself to be the caliph. This is in direct contrast to Omar and now Mansour, who claim to have the backing of well-established jihadist authorities around the globe.

Osama bin Laden’s files underscore al Qaeda’s close relationship with Siraj Haqqani

Siraj Haqqani’s tight working relationship with al Qaeda has been reported by multiple sources. But files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound reveal the depth of the collusion.

In a memorandum to bin Laden dated June 19, 2010, Atiyah Abd al Rahman described al Qaeda’s paramilitary presence in Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: ‘Very strong military activity in Afghanistan.’]

“We have very strong military activity in Afghanistan, many special operations, and the Americans and NATO are being hit hard,” Rahman wrote. Rahman, who was al Qaeda’s general manager at the time, made a point to highlight al Qaeda’s ongoing cooperation with Siraj.

“The last special operation we participated in,” Rahman explained, “was (the Bagram operation), in summary: We cooperated with Siraj Haqqani and another commander down there (Kabul/Bagram).” The plan was to “sneak into the Bagram base with the infiltrators unit wearing explosives vests, a good amount of Kalashnikov ammunition, some with Beka [PK machine gun, called BKC in Arabic], and some with R.P.G.” Rahman claimed the attack as a success.

The joint operation with Siraj described in Rahman’s memo is the May 19, 2010 suicide assault at Bagram Air Base in the central and normally peaceful province of Parwan.

Rahman mentioned Siraj again in a July 2010 memo describing complex negotiations involving al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the brother of Pakistan’s current prime minister, and Pakistan’s intelligence service. [See LWJ report, Osama bin Laden’s Files: The Pakistani government wanted to negotiate.]

“We let slip (through Siraj Haqqani, with the help of the brothers in Mas’ud and others; through their communications) information indicating that al Qaeda and Tahreek-i-Taliban [the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] have big, earth shaking operations in Pakistan, but that their leaders had halted those operations in an attempt to calm things down and relieve the American pressure,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden.

“But if Pakistan does any harm to the Mujahidin in Waziristan, the operations will go forward, including enormous operations ready in the heart of the country,” Rahman continued. This is the message al Qaeda “leaked out through several outlets,” including Siraj. In response, “they, the [Pakistani] intelligence people…started reaching out to” al Qaeda through Pakistani jihadist groups they “approve of.” Rahman, who was subsequently killed in an August 2011 drone strike, goes on to explain the meetings took place.

In his role as a prominent jihadist leader, Siraj has sat at the nexus of the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. Both he and his father are ideologues who worked with Sheikh Issa al Masri, an influential al Qaeda thinker who helped radicalize thousands of jihadists by indoctrinating them with al Qaeda’s version of Islam.

Siraj has served as the operational commander of the Haqqani Network, as well as the leader of the Miramshah Regional Military Shura, one of the Afghan Taliban’s four regional military commands. The Haqqani Network operates primarily in the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, and also has a presence in several other provinces.

In October 2007, the US military identified Siraj as a growing threat when it issued a press release describing his importance to the Taliban. The US military offered a reward of $200,000 for information leading to Siraj’s capture. In March 2008, the US State Department listed him as a specially designated global terrorist. In March 2009, State upped the US military’s ante and offered a bounty of $5 million for information on Siraj’s whereabouts.

Since Siraj’s designation by the US government in 2008, 12 additional senior Haqqani Network leaders have been added to the list of global terrorists. All of them have ties to al Qaeda. [See LWJ report, US adds 3 senior Haqqani Network leaders to terrorism list.]

US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Siraj is a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or top council, and has actively recruited foreign terrorists to serve in the Haqqani Network. His “extended reach brings foreign fighters from places like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries into Afghanistan,” Major Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the US military, said in October 2007.

The US military and the the CIA have targeted Siraj in numerous raids, conventional airstrikes, and drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan since identifying him as a major threat. Several senior Haqqani Network leaders, including one Siraj’s brothers, Badruddin, have been killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Additionally, some of al Qaeda’s top leaders, such as Abu Laith al Libi, were killed in strikes in areas under Haqqani Network control.

Indeed, the US drone campaign has focused heavily on Haqqani-controlled turf in northern Pakistan. Multiple al Qaeda plots against the West have been traced to the Haqqani Network’s territory.

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

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  • ramrahim says:

    Dear Bill,
    for last four years plus have enjoyed your analysis and has helped me understand the situation in AfPak much better. Could I request you to put little analysis on quams of various emerging Taliban leaders both in Pakistan and Doha to understand the Pashtun dynamics better. thanks . an admirer

  • Tony Celso says:

    Al Qaeda is an increasingly an inept, failed and fragmenting network rend asunder by ISIS who is leap years ahead of its many enemies and this unfortunately includes the US government so driven by a risk averse political calculus that is oblivious or recklessly indifferent to long term consequences of ISIS evolving caliphate. Al Qaeda is dying organization and ISIS is by far the most successful jihadist organization in world history. We will have to wait for another Administration to have the courage and foresight to effectively deal with this threat that is likely to remain and expand in the near future.

  • Ayamo says:

    Thank you very much for this very interesting story!

  • mike merlo says:

    this as strange, weird, bizarre, etc., as things can get. Besides being dead since 2013 it was ‘mentioned’ that Omar was quite ill even hospitalized. Sifting through past articles, analysis, etc., by TLWJ are that much more interesting in light of this recent revelation. Who actually knew & when they did of Omar’s status compound’s this puzzle even more


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