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Al Qaeda's Zawahiri backs new Taliban chief

Shamil Shams June 11, 2016

Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri has endorsed new Taliban chief Akhundzada in a video message, according to a monitoring site. Experts believe al Qaeda's pledge could be an attempt to curtail IS' expansion in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri announces the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group at an unknown location in this still image taken from an undated handout video provided by SITE on September 4, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/SITE via Reuters)
Image: Reuters/SITE

Ayman al-Zawahiri sent out a message of support to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in a 14-minute video posted online, the US-based monitor SITE Intelligence Group said Saturday.

"We pledge allegiance to you on jihad to liberate every inch of the lands of the Muslims that are invaded and stolen - from Kashgar to al-Andalus, from the Caucasus to Somalia and Central Africa, from Kashmir to Jerusalem, from the Philippines to Kabul, and from Bukhara to Samarkand," the monitoring group cited al-Zawahiri as saying.

The video message included images of al Qaeda's former chief, Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US special forces inside Pakistan in 2011.

Last month, the Afghan Taliban confirmed the appointment of Mullah Akhundzada as the militant group's new leader and successor to Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in Pakistan on May 21 by a US drone strike.

The new Taliban leader is believed to be in his early 50s and, like other former heads of the insurgent group, hails from Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the movement. He had served as deputy to his predecessor Mansour, who had taken charge of the Taliban after Mullah Omar's demise.

The new leader of Taliban fighters, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada poses for a portrait (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Afghan Islamic Press via AP)
Akhundzada is a religious scholar and a military court judge for the TalibanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Afghan Islamic Press via AP

The IS threat

Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been partners since the latter captured Kabul in the late 1990s. Their alliance continued after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the eventual overthrow of the Taliban's Islamist regime.

But al Qaeda has lost much of its power since al-Zawahiri took charge of the jihadist group following bin Laden's assassination.

South Asian militant groups, including some factions of the Afghan Taliban, are moving closer to "Islamic State" (IS), which has proven its strength in the past few years by capturing vast swathes of territories in Iraq and Syria, something which al Qaeda never achieved.

Experts believe that al Qaeda is worried about IS' expansion in Afghanistan, and that the pledge of support to the new Taliban head is a desperate call for unity against IS.

IS is already supporting a breakaway Taliban faction, headed by Mullah Rasool. The Rasool group does not recognize Akhundzada as the legitimate Taliban leader.

IS and the Taliban are on hostile terms, despite the fact that both organizations are dominated by Sunni extremists. Lately, IS has been building up its presence in Afghanistan and recruiting disenchanted Taliban members.

A picture made available on 01 August 2015 shows an unidentified child from a militant of Islamic State (IS) playing with an AK-47 rifle as the text on the wall reads in Arabic 'Islamic State - Khurasan Chapter' at an undisclosed location in Kunar province, Afghanistan, 30 July 2015 (Photo: EPA/GHULAMULLAH HABIBI)
IS is gaining strength in Afghanistan, experts sayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi

"IS remains the major problem for the Taliban movement. It is gaining strength and the Taliban infighting will help this process," Siegfried Wolf, director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), told DW. "I expect more fighting between different Taliban factions in the future as well as more clashes between Taliban fighters and IS militants."

Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on Islamic terrorism, says he does not see "a bright future for al Qaeda in South Asia and Afghanistan."

"It is largely considered an Arab organization in the region. On the contrary, the IS' strategy is to infiltrate local groups, instead of looking for affiliates. IS is the biggest beneficiary of al Qaeda's decline. Many al Qaeda members and its affiliates have joined the organization. It is a growing Islamic terrorist group in both Pakistan and Afghanistan," Jamal told DW.

Insurgency to continue

The common enemy, however, could consolidate the bond between al Qaeda and the Taliban, and al-Zawahiri's message should be seen in that light, analysts say.

Despite infighting and schisms, Taliban leader Akhundzada has promised to continue the insurgency in Afghanistan.

"The new Taliban chief will continue attacks in Afghanistan to prove that the movement has not been weakened despite the killing of their leader," Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, told DW.