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Singing Omar’s Praises, Staying Silent on Mansour

Al Qaeda affiliates' silence is a sign that the fight to succeed Mullah Omar as Taliban leader is not yet over.

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A joint eulogy that three al Qaeda affiliates issued Wednesday for former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose 2013 death was only recently confirmed, is as notable for what it didn’t say as for what it did.

The statement on behalf of al-Nusra Front in Syria, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the North African al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, praised Mullah Omar for sheltering Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and refusing to turn him over to the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

It also lauded the former Taliban leader, who is believed to have died two years ago, for allowing Afghanistan to become a school for jihadis “from which lions and thirsty heroes graduated,” according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Yet the statement failed to even mention Mullah Omar’s successor and former deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour — a sign the new leader has so far failed to convince al Qaeda militants of his power.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid announced Mullah Mansour’s appointment as the group’s leader on July 30. But Mujahid is believed to be close to Mullah Mansour, said a senior U.S. government analyst, and it is clear he is not speaking for the entire movement.

Until Mullah Mansour’s control over the Taliban is assured — if it ever is — al Qaeda affiliates have nothing to gain by recognizing him as the group’s leader, the senior U.S. analyst said.

The Taliban, which is based in Pakistan and operates in Afghanistan, long has been an unwieldy group fractured by internal competition. “The glue that held them all together was Mullah Omar,” said the senior U.S. government analyst.

In the latest split, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar resigned Monday, according to CNN, after refusing to endorse Mullah Mansour or otherwise take sides in the internal power struggle. The official in Qatar, Syed Mohammad Tayab Agha, was a close ally of Mullah Omar.

Mullah Omar’s family also is refusing to endorse Mullah Mansour, according to Reuters. Instead, the family issued a statement calling for the next leader to be chosen by Taliban veterans and Islamic scholars. Moreover, Mullah Omar’s son, Yaqoob, and the leader’s younger brother, Abdul Manan, were among a dozen figures to walk out of a Taliban leadership meeting on July 29, the day before Mullah Mansour’s appointment was announced, according to Reuters.

By arguing that the new leader’s appointment was premature, “Mullah Omar’s family is trying to oppose Mullah Mansour,” said retired Army Col. Derek Harvey, who served as director of U.S. Central Command’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Center from 2009 to 2013.

Other power centers within the Taliban include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior leader and Mullah Omar ally who was released in September 2013 from a three-year jail term in Pakistan to assist with the Afghan peace process; and Agha Jan Motasim, a moderate member of the group’s dominant Quetta Shura, Harvey said.

Even so, Mullah Mansour’s opponents cannot ignore the fact he must have been running the Taliban in the two years following Mullah Omar’s death in a Pakistani hospital — even if he kept the vast majority of its membership in the dark about the revered leader’s passing. “There are groups that think that Mullah Mansour, through his deception, betrayed the movement,” Harvey said.

As ever where the Taliban is concerned, the murky role played by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency will be key to the outcome. The ISI has nurtured the Taliban since the movement’s birth in 1994, and continues to exercise control over the group. “Mansour is widely and correctly seen as an ISI man,” said former CIA official Bruce Riedel.

Should it come, any recognition of Mullah Mansour as the Taliban’s leader by al Qaeda’s affiliates would be largely symbolic. The Taliban remain focused on the internal fight in Afghanistan and pay little heed to the global jihad. Similarly, al Qaeda’s affiliates are more focused on the fights in their own territories and, in the case of AQAP, on attacking the United States. “The guys in AQIM know nothing about what’s really going on in Afghanistan,” Harvey said.

One loosely affiliated wing of al Qaeda, Somali jihadi group al-Shabab, did not sign the joint eulogy. That could signal al-Shabab is considering shifting its allegiance to the Islamic State, said al Qaeda expert Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute. However, she noted, it might also just mean that al-Shabab is largely out the network’s communications loop.

Even more conspicuously absent is the voice of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over as al Qaeda’s top leader after U.S. forces killed bin Laden in a May 2, 2011, raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Riedel, who is now an intelligence expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said he found it “curious that al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan is not included” in Wednesday’s statement.

“They were much closer to Mullah Omar and pledged loyalty to him since 1998,” Riedel said.

Whether Mullah Mansour cares about having al Qaeda’s support — or even its blessing — as the Taliban’s leader is an entirely different matter, and one he ultimately may conclude is unnecessary.

“Mansour knows that they’re not the kingmakers,” said the senior U.S. government analyst. That role belongs to “the group leaders within the Taliban — the senior [Quetta Shura] members.”

Photo credit: JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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