Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance is included in a newly-released, 14-minute message from As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm. The message was released late yesterday.
Zawahiri’s oath is delivered via an audio address. Other footage, including two scenes of Osama bin Laden, are included as well.
Zawahiri emphasizes that his oath to Mullah Haibatullah is the same “approach” bin Laden adopted when he swore his own fealty to Mullah Omar prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and called on Muslims to support the Taliban.
The al Qaeda leader’s oath to the head of the Taliban has become especially important for jihadists since the rise of the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s followers hold up Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (“Caliph Ibrahim”) as the “Emir of the Believers,” who rules over a “caliphate.” But al Qaeda and its members say that the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate is “illegitimate,” and the Taliban’s chieftain is the true “Emir of the Believers” — a title usually reserved for the caliph.
As the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Islamic State boiled over in 2014, al Qaeda began to aggressively market Mullah Omar as the “Emir of the Believers.”
In July 2014, Al Qaeda re-released a video (recorded in mid-2001) of bin Laden explaining his fealty to Omar.
“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,” bin Laden said in the clip. “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.”
Also in July 2014, al Qaeda published a newsletter in which it reaffirmed its loyalty to Omar, saying the organization’s members around the globe were his “soldiers.”
Just over one year later, however, the Taliban was forced to admit that Mullah Omar had actually passed away sometime in 2013. This meant that al Qaeda was advertising its loyalty to a dead man.
Despite the fact that the Taliban had reenacted “Weekend at Bernie’s” with Omar, and the subsequent embarrassment caused by the revelation of his death, Zawahiri quickly pledged his allegiance to Omar’s successor.
In mid-August 2015, As Sahab released an audio message from Zawahiri in which he swore bay’ah (allegiance) to Mullah Mansour. The message was similar to the new one released by As Sahab, with a still image of Zawahiri shown throughout as he read his oath to Mansour.
Zawahiri explained that his oath to Mansour was just like bin Laden’s pledge to Omar — the same claim Zawahiri now makes with respect to his fealty to Mullah Haibatullah.
Within hours of Zawahiri’s pledge to Mansour, the Taliban leader publicly accepted Zawahiri’s oath in a statement released on the Taliban’s official website. (It appears the Taliban took Mansour’s statement down after The Long War Journal first reported on it, but the message can be read in full here.)
Mullah Mansour was killed in a US drone strike on May 21 and Mullah Haibatullah was named as his replacement.
Mansour has been eulogized by jihadists around the globe, including al Qaeda’s branches.
On May 29, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al Nusrah Front released a statement of condolences for Mansour, praising his jihad against the “Crusaders.” The statement by the three al Qaeda branches did not say that they had pledged their own allegiance to Mullah Haibatullah, but this is not surprising.
In al Qaeda’s hierarchy, the regional branches — Al Nusrah, AQAP, AQIM, Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) — swear allegiance to Zawahiri. These groups are then responsible for waging jihad in their designated regions on behalf of al Qaeda. This means that they must follow al Qaeda’s preferred manhaj (methodology), which includes a set of guidelines for launching attacks.
Al Qaeda’s regional branches are loyal to the Taliban’s emir by virtue of their bay’ah (allegiance) to Zawahiri.
Therefore, al Qaeda’s members around the globe are now bound by a blood oath to Mullah Haibatullah as well. Although al Qaeda’s jihadists are technically Mullah Haibatullah’s subordinates, history shows that the Taliban leader has little say over al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.