MANY Islamist militants and their sympathisers, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are recovering from the shock of Mullah Omar’s death and struggling to spin a new narrative when confronted with difficult questions by opponents.
Why was Omar’s death kept a secret? Was he merely a symbolic figure, held hostage by some powerful Taliban figures close to Pakistan’s security establishment? Should the latest official statements by Taliban denying the internal rifts and power tussle be considered reliable? Is this the beginning of the decline of the Afghan Taliban? Is Al Qaeda set to lose its strongest ally?
As questions reverberate in jihadi circles, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al Qaeda remained largely silent, leading many of their foot-soldiers to speculate and draw their own conclusions.
Many of the otherwise accessible TTP commanders have not been available on their mobile phones or through email. When eventually contacted, some attributed the lapse and subsequent delays to the latest offensive on both sides of the Durand Line which has hampered their lines of communication. However, they are adamant that Omar’s death is not going to have a major impact on their overall movement.
“There is no question of change of direction. We pray for Mullah Omar but people need to understand that we are not into personality cults. People die but not our ideology,” TTP’s central spokesman Mohammad Khurasani told this correspondent.
Others have tried to rationalise the secrecy surrounding the reclusive Afghan Taliban leader’s death as a ‘war tactic’.
“Someone’s death should not be kept a secret for so long. But that is the general rule. Special circumstances have their own rulings. This is a war. We can understand that for strategic reasons the Amir-ul-Momineen’s death may have been kept a secret. You should not make such a fuss out of it,” argued Marwan, a TTP commander close to Mullah Fazlullah.
In online forums, some Taliban supporters have expressed fear that the movement established by Omar may split into factions and some of them may embrace democracy.
“It seems Pakistan wants the Taliban to enter mainstream politics. What are the chances of Taliban accepting democracy?” questioned a self-proclaimed Taliban supporter on a closed Facebook group.
But the new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor has been quick to dispel such fears with a clear message reiterating Shariah law as authority.
“No democracy or any of those useless ideologies. Our goal is Shariah and the path to that is through jihad,” he said in his first audio speech after taking charge.
While some in Pakistan have been arguing that Omar’s death is likely to weaken Al Qaeda-Taliban relations, the ground reality suggests otherwise. One of the newly appointed deputies of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the most feared and wanted militants who the US accuses of doing much harm to the US and her allies in Afghanistan. In addition to running the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin is also in Al Qaeda’s innermost circles and has participated in its shura meetings.
Moreover, while the Afghan Taliban have been claiming through their official statements that their struggle is confined to Afghanistan, they continue to shelter Al Qaeda. The latest case involves Taliban providing safe havens in Helmand to Al Qaeda operatives escaping Pakistan’s Zarb-i-Azb military operation in North Waziristan.
Al Qaeda welcomes the gesture with a warning to the ‘common enemy’.
“The bond between us and our Taliban brothers is a solid ideological bond. They opted to lose their government and family members just to protect us. There is no question of us moving apart now after going through this war together. Our common enemy does not know what is coming its way,” asserted Qari Abu Bakr, a member of Al Qaeda’s media wing As Sahab.
Splinter groups appear to endorse Al Qaeda’s view and explain that the goals are fundamentally similar.
“We may have our differences over strategy or some other matters but our goals are the same. Clearly all of us are being targeted by Nato, Afghan forces and others. So why should we not fight back together? And we will,” claimed TTP Jamat-ul-Ahrar’s spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
Will IS overshadow TTP, Al Qaeda?
Such resolve aside, the TTP, Jamat-ul-Ahrar, Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban cannot ignore a challenge that seems to be growing by the day — Baghdadi’s self-styled Islamic State (IS).
IS has been winning recruits from Taliban and Al Qaeda ranks and has practically ‘ordered’ all jihadis to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi or be prepared to be dealt with as a rebel — the punishment for which they decree death. Over the last few months, IS and its supporters have been engaged in attempts to discredit Mullah Omar, accusing him of being mysteriously missing, disconnected from the Muslims, having a “narrow nationalistic Afghan perspective”, not being a Qureshi and hence not fit to be pledged allegiance to as a caliph.
Many IS supporters have pounced on the news of Mullah Omar’s death to discredit the Taliban and Al Qaeda. According to them, Taliban have committed “treachery” by concealing Omar’s death and issuing statements in his name. IS supporters online say the Afghan Taliban will be reduced to a nationalist force and eventually fade away.
They are also critical of Al Qaeda chief Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, accusing him of deception in the case that he was aware of Omar’s death and chose to renew pledge of allegiance to a “dead man” instead of accepting Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. On the contrary, they blame him for being out of touch if he was unaware of the supremo’s demise.
IS fighters have tried to assert authority in parts of Eastern Afghanistan by executing people they accused of spying or other crimes.
But Al Qaeda and Taliban figures say the dust will eventually settle.
“Ultimately we are heading into a scenario where people with knowledge and sincerity will outrun the emotional, thoughtless types. This is not the end of the war. It is merely the start of a new phase,” said Al Qaeda’s Qari Abu Bakr.
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2015