The Taliban is touting the defection of a jihadist who purportedly served as the deputy leader of the Islamic State’s Khorasan province (Wilayat Khorasan). On Nov. 30, the group released a propaganda video featuring a man identified as Mullah Abdul Razzaq Mehdi. FDD’s Long War Journal cannot independently confirm his identity.
The Taliban is using Razzaq’s testimony to encourage more defections from Wilayah Khorasan. But in so doing, the Taliban effectively concedes that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s followers are not all that different from its own, despite the differences between the two organizations. Razzaq himself had previously served in the Taliban’s ranks and has now returned to the fold, arguing that there is no need for the so-called caliphate’s governance because the Taliban is already implementing sharia.
The US military has said in the past that Wilayah Khorasan was in contact with the Islamic State’s mothership. And Razzaq’s testimony is consistent with this assessment, as he tells his Taliban interviewer that he was initially tasked with overseeing its international communications.
“My first duty in Daesh [Islamic State] was communication director between Iraq and Afghanistan and with the passage of time, I was named the deputy leader for Khorasan province,” Razzaq says.
The Taliban interviewer asks Razzaq why he defected.
“The reasons for which I broke with the group Daesh and pledged allegiance to…Hibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan], was because those appointed as leaders in Daesh group committed crimes,” Razzaq replies. “For example, they loot the homes of people under the name of Ghanimah (war spoils). When I did my research, I found that this was not Ghanimah, rather they plundered homes of people under the name of Ghanimah and their hands were deep in murder.” Razzaq emphasizes: “They had murdered people whom I found not to be criminals even in the rules of Daesh.”
“They were also very ignorant,” Razzaq continues. “They did not have a system where one could make the other understand. A young student would get up and implement a Shariah ruling.” In addition, there was “a prevailing ignorance and their people were ignorant and therefore I left them and joined the Islamic Emirate to continue my jihad.”
Razzaq explains that he had served the Taliban previously. “I had rendered many sacrifices in the Islamic Emirate before and I understood that Daesh cannot benefit me and is not the place of Jihad.”
He argues that Wilayah Khorasan has “no future in Afghanistan because they are extremists and do not have qualified people in their setup who understand how to run an administration.”
“Another reason is because their people in Afghanistan are very limited” and there is “limited” opposition to the Taliban, which has “waged jihad here for years and are firm upon shariah and do not have any problems.”
Of course, the Taliban has its share of problems, so Razzaq’s argument shouldn’t be accepted at face value. And it is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black for Razzaq to label Wilayah Khorasan’s members as “extremists,” as the Taliban’s own ranks are littered with fanatics. Some of the Islamic State’s most notorious practices, such as the targeting of religious minorities, were first carried out by the Taliban years ago. The Taliban has simply modified its tactics in recent years as part of its bid to garner more popular support. So, for example, the Taliban is concerned with how its operations are perceived by the broader public — a concern that Baghdadi’s followers are less likely to share.
Razzaq also confirms that there is no need for Islamic State-style governance, because the Taliban is already pursuing a similar program.
“So if they want to come to these areas and establish parallel governance, I do not see this to be fit and I see a dark future for them because it is not in the interest of the Muslims,” Razzaq says of his former compatriots. He elaborates by trumpeting the Taliban’s own shadow governance efforts. “The things they seek to do here are unachievable because there already exists an Islamic system here,” he says. “There is no need for a parallel system and the ideology they hold onto cannot find traction in Afghanistan.”
Razzaq claims that “there are no leaders” left in Wilayat Khorasan, only “low-level officials.” And he calls on Wilayat Khorasan members to follow his lead by defecting to the Taliban, because it “is holding firm to sharia.” He argues that their fighting with the Taliban “only benefits the infidels.”
“Therefore I call upon you to wage Jihad in the framework laid out by the Islamic Emirate, pledge your allegiance and if you do not wish to do so then sit at home and do not create problems for the Mujahidin,” Razzaq says. I want to send this message to all my former friends.”
In Oct. 2016, press reports indicated that Razzaq had been killed by the Taliban. TOLOnews reported at the time that Razzaq “was in charge of training suicide attackers” for the Islamic State’s Khorasan province. The Taliban’s video does not mention this role.
The Taliban’s video of Razzaq is propaganda intended to undermine the will of its rivals in the Islamic State’s Wilayat Khorasan. But close scrutiny reveals that it highlights a key flaw in the arguments made by Russia and others.
The Russian government has argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark against the self-declared caliphate. But some Wilayah Khorasan commanders, like Razzaq, are Taliban defectors who can rejoin the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s fold. Indeed, the Islamic State grew in South Asia by peeling off a number of disaffected Afghan and Pakistani Taliban commanders. Although Razzaq now blasts the Islamic State’s “extremism,” its differences with the Taliban in this regard are really only a matter of degree.
Moreover, while the Taliban and Wilayah Khorasan often clash, there are reports of collusion as well. Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, raised this issue with Russian Prime Minister Demitry Medvedev during a recent meeting. According to TOLOnews, Medvedev said the “cooperation” between Taliban and Wilayah Khorasan has “complicated” the case. If true, then Medvedev has conceded that the Taliban isn’t such a valuable ally.
After all, men such as Mullah Abdul Razzaq Mehdi move between both groups.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.