UN: Al-Qaeda maintains close ties to Taliban despite talks with U.S.

Al-Qaeda emphasized its unity with the Taliban in a 2019 video titled,  “Under the Shade of the Islamic Emirate.”

Al-Qaeda’s relations with the Taliban “continue to be close and mutually beneficial,” according to a newly released report authored by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team responsible for tracking terrorist groups around the globe.

Al-Qaeda supplies “resources and training in exchange for protection” from the Taliban.

The monitoring team points to a joint U.S.-Afghan raid in the Musa Qala district of Helmand in September as evidence for this observation. Asim Umar, the first emir of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and several other AQIS figures were killed in that operation. The UN team notes that the Taliban’s “shadow governor” for the district had “arranged” for the protection of AQIS’s men.

As first reported by FDD’s Long War Journal, the U.S. military has withheld a press release concerning Umar’s death out of a concern that it would highlight the ongoing al-Qaeda-Taliban relationship, thereby undermining the State Department’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Taliban’s delegation was willing to announcing their break from al-Qaeda before the talks were called off by President Trump last September. Secretary Pompeo did not explain how this would work in practice, namely, how the U.S. would verify that the Taliban held true to its political representatives’ statements.

The Taliban has lied about its relationship with al-Qaeda since the 1990s, and continues to obfuscate the presence of foreign fighters waging jihad under its banner.

But the UN team confirms, once again, that foreign jihadists are indeed participating in the Taliban-led insurgency.

“Al-Qaeda and foreign terrorist fighters aligned with it, under the protection and influence of the Taliban, pose a long-term global threat,” the UN’s monitoring team reports.

Of course, the Islamic State [ISIS or ISIL] has a presence in Afghanistan as well, despite the setbacks it has suffered at the hands of both the Taliban and the internationally-backed Afghan government. Afghanistan “continues to be the conflict zone of greatest concern to Member States outside the ISIL core area and suffers by some measures the heaviest toll from terrorism of any country in the world,” the report reads.

Thus far, the Taliban hasn’t demonstrated any public willingness to enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government. Instead, the organization says it is willing to participate in looser “intra-Afghan” talks once a withdrawal deal with the U.S. is inked.

Nevertheless, the UN’s monitoring team finds that al-Qaeda “is concerned about the current focus of the Taliban leadership on peace talks.” Therefore, al-Qaeda’s “representatives undertook shuttle diplomacy, persuading various factions of the Taliban and field commanders not to support negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan and promising to increase financial support.”

Various “Central Asian groups” are “experiencing financial problems” and “tend to support al-Qaeda,” the report reads. “If a peace agreement is reached, Al-Qaeda intends to develop a new narrative to justify continuing the armed conflict in Afghanistan.”

Again, there is currently no public indication that the Taliban is willing to agree to a significant ceasefire, let alone reach a peace accord with the Afghan government. The Taliban and U.S. representatives have floated an amorphous “reduction in violence” in place of a ceasefire. Still, it is interesting that al-Qaeda has reportedly taken countermeasures to ensure the jihad continues in the event that the Taliban, or some part of it, decides to engage in a meaningful peace process with the Afghan government and others.

The Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban’s command structure, is not mentioned in the UN’s report. The Haqqanis, including their leader Sirajuddin, are among al-Qaeda’s oldest allies. Sirajuddin (Siraj) Haqqani is also the deputy emir (#2 overall) in the Taliban’s chain-of-command. Al-Qaeda continues to market its loyalty to both Siraj Haqqani an the Taliban’s overall leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, namely Central Asian groups and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (Turkistan Islamic Party), are discussed throughout the report. The UN’s monitoring team writes that there are “an estimated 400 to 600 Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, mainly in the Provinces of Khost, Kunar, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.” Helmand is not listed despite being the site of the aforementioned raid that led to the deaths of several important AQIS figures.

Also, FDD’s Long War Journal cautions that fighter estimates are notoriously suspect. The U.S. and its allies have struggled to come up with reliable estimates for years, and the assessments suffer from a number of epistemological issues.

The UN monitoring team’s new report is the latest to discuss the ongoing relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. For summaries of these previous UN reports see:

Al Qaeda’s alliance with the Taliban ‘remains firm,’ UN says

UN: Al Qaeda continues to view Afghanistan as a ‘safe haven’

Al Qaeda growing stronger under Taliban’s umbrella, UN finds

UN Security Council continues to report on al Qaeda-Taliban alliance

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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