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Al Qaeda leader argues Taliban’s ‘blessed emirate’ a core part of new caliphate

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri calls on Muslims to unite against an alleged “international infidel alliance” in a newly released video. The 5-minute production, which was posted online yesterday (Aug. 23), is titled “The Battle of Awareness and Will – The Solid Structure.” In it, Zawahiri holds up the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as an example for Muslims to emulate, claiming that the Taliban corrected the “course of the Afghan jihad” after it had fallen into discord.

The al Qaeda leader begins his brief lecture by reminding his audience that the last Islamic caliphate fell during the First World War. Zawahiri laments that the infidels and occupiers divided the ummah’s territory into dozens of pieces. But from Zawahiri’s perspective, all hope wasn’t lost.

Various movements “emerged” from within the ummah (worldwide community of Muslims) “to resist” the “tyranny” of the infidels. The most important of these was the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which set the jihadists’ project in Afghanistan on the right path.

Zawahiri’s message highlights a key point that is often missed: Al Qaeda considers the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to be the centerpiece of its imagined, resurrected caliphate. Of course, al Qaeda rejects Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State and its caliphate, which has lost most of its territory. The two sides have been in open conflict since 2014. And Zawahiri implicitly draws a contrast between the Islamic State’s exclusive claims on power and al Qaeda’s own approach, which is supposedly more inclusive.

The linchpin of Zawahiri’s argument is that the Taliban’s emirate enjoys widespread support and it is the jihadists’ duty to support it.

Zawahiri says that Osama bin Laden and other jihadist “leaders” knew how important it was for the mujahideen to rally around the Taliban’s “blessed emirate,” as it is the “core” or “nucleus” of the Muslims’ effort “to reestablish their caliphate according to the Prophetic methodology.”

Bin Laden called on the ummah to unite behind the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and, Zawahiri claims, “many answered his call.” Although bin Laden died as a “martyr,” he had already “planted the seed of this gathering around the Islamic Emirate.” Zawahiri claims that many groups joined “together around this Islamic Emirate,” forming “an international jihadist” alliance stretching from Turkestan to the Atlantic Ocean.

According to Zawahiri, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate has won the affection of the ummah and continued to enjoy this support even as it fought against the Crusaders and infidels who invaded Afghanistan. Therefore, it is the jihadists’ “duty” to “strengthen” the Muslims’ unity around it. He calls upon Muslims to support the Taliban’s war against the Crusaders’ campaign in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Building on the example of the Taliban’s emirate, Zawahiri argues that “sincere” scholars and mujahideen should cultivate unity among the public, while warning against those who sow divisions and justify the spilling of Muslim blood. Zawahiri says al Qaeda wants to “unite” the ummah, as this would strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. “Unity” will lead to “victory” and is the “solid foundation” necessary for resurrecting the caliphate.

Part of al Qaeda’s pro-Taliban, anti-Islamic State messaging

It is not surprising that Zawahiri invests his hopes for the future in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Following in the steps of bin Laden, Zawahiri has repeatedly sworn his allegiance to the Taliban’s emir.

In June 2016, Zawahiri pledged his fealty to Hibatullah Akhundzada, who was named the successor to Mullah Mansour. The al Qaeda honcho had previously sworn allegiance to Mansour, who was killed in May 2016. Mansour publicly welcomed Zawahiri’s gesture. And Zawahiri had pledged his loyalty to Mullah Omar before that.

Indeed, al Qaeda increasingly marketed its allegiance to Taliban founder Mullah Omar as the Islamic State rose to prominence in 2014, portraying the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as a religiously legitimate entity, unlike Baghdadi’s project. This should have been more than mildly embarrassing for al Qaeda, given that Mullah Omar was dead at the time when Zawahiri and others were pointing to him as the rightful “Emir of the Believers.” But al Qaeda persisted.

In Sept. 2014, Zawahiri announced the creation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the newest branch of his international organization. One of AQIS’s “major objectives” is “strengthening the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, defending it, and bringing stability to it.” In its “code of conduct,” AQIS stressed that it is loyal to the Taliban’s emir by virtue of its fealty to Zawahiri. Other al Qaeda branches have made the same point, noting that their emirs are loyal to the Taliban through their oaths of allegiance to Zawahiri.

In al Qaeda’s scheme, each of its regional branches is waging jihad to build new Islamic nations, with the Taliban’s emirate being central to its long-term plans. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the nucleus of a new caliphate, as al Qaeda’s leaders envision it. As a result, AQIS’s men fight under the Islamic Emirate’s banner, as their main priority in Afghanistan is to eject foreign forces and help the Taliban capture more ground. US and Afghan forces regularly target al Qaeda figures who are supporting the Taliban-led insurgency.

In a recent report, a team of UN analysts assessed that al Qaeda’s “alliance” with the Taliban “remains firm,” as the two are still “closely allied” after 17 years of war. On this point, the UN’s assessment is consistent with FDD’s Long War Journal’s analysis.

As Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s claim to rule over a caliphate slips away, the Taliban and its allies contest or control more ground now than at any point since late 2001. With the US looking to negotiate its way out of the Afghan War, al Qaeda’s leader may sense a victory in Afghanistan is closer at hand today than in previous years. And Zawahiri is hoping that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate becomes the crown jewel in a new caliphate.

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