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Al Qaeda Boss Zawahiri Pledges Allegiance to New Taliban Leader

The announcement comes on the heels of news of Mullah Omar's death in 2013.

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The announcement of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death has set off a power struggle within the group, with some members pointedly refusing to support his successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. The new Taliban leader scored an important victory Thursday, however, when al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri — one of the most prominent jihadis in the world — pledged allegiance to the Taliban.

In a message distributed on Twitter and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online jihadi statements, Zawahiri eulogized Mullah Omar and pledged both his own and al Qaeda’s loyalty to Mullah Mansour. “We are your soldiers and your supporters and a brigade of your brigades,” Zawahiri said.

Zawahiri’s statement comes as Mullah Mansour has struggled to secure the loyalty of other key players within the hard-line Islamist movement. Earlier this month, the Taliban’s political chief in Qatar resigned in protest over how Mullah Mansour was picked. Mullah Mansour’s selection is considered by analysts to have empowered the Pakistani branch of the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States. (The Taliban, by contrast, is not formally listed as such.) The political chief, Syed Tayyab Agha, said that Mullah Mansour’s choice was a “great historical mistake” and noted that he had been “appointed outside the country and from the people who are residing outside the country,” a reference to the Pakistani branch’s ascendancy and perhaps its links to the Pakistani government.

Mullah Mansour has also struggled to win support in the broader jihadi community. A joint eulogy of Mullah Omar published by three al Qaeda affiliates — al-Nusra Front in Syria, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the North African al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — pointedly did not mention Mullah Mansour’s name. It is unclear to what extent the statement of Zawahiri, the leader of what remains of the so-called “core al Qaeda” that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, signals that Mullah Mansour has secured broad support within the al Qaeda network. Each al Qaeda affiliate has their own leader, and several have clashed with — or entirely ignored — Zawahiri in the past.

The appointment of Mullah Mansour comes as the Taliban has been exploring peace talks with the Afghan government. Those negotiations were recently suspended, and on Thursday Afghan officials arrived in Pakistan to discuss their revival.

Mullah Mansour is believed to favor such talks, but there are reportedly deep divisions within the movement about whether to seek a negotiated end to the country’s long-running civil war or to continue an insurgency that has been gaining momentum with the gradual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. According to U.N. figures, civilian casualties sharply increased during the first half of 2015, with more than 1,500 killed.

For that reason, Zawahiri’s statement comes at an interesting moment for jihadi politics. Possible splintering within the Taliban may result in some commanders abandoning the group for the Islamic State, a group with which al Qaeda is in intense competition for the position of top dog within the broader world of Islamist terrorist groups. In his pledge of allegiance to Mullah Mansour, Zawahiri recalled Osama bin Laden’s decision to pledge allegiance to the Taliban and placed his decision to do the same within that context.

“In the world, there was no other legitimate emirate,” Zawahiri said, referring to the Afghan Taliban regime toppled by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. “So it waged jihad to promote virtue and prohibit vice, and established sharia. The mujahideen and the immigrants felt from it honesty and loyalty, so they pledged allegiance to it. The renewer Imam Osama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him, pledged allegiance to it and called upon the Muslims to pledge allegiance to it, and he declared his pledge to it to be a great pledge.”

Another portion of the letter seemed to be a shot across the bow of the Islamic State. “We pledge allegiance to you to establish the Islamic caliphate that rises on the selection of the Muslims and their approval, and spreads justice and consultation, and achieves security, removes injustice, restores rights, and raises the banner of jihad,” Zawahiri wrote. Those first few words are key. Senior Islamic State leaders say they’ve already established an Islamic caliphate in the areas of Iraq and Syria they control. Zawahiri, by contrast, says no such caliphate currently exists — and promises to fight alongside the Taliban as they seek to create one.

Photo credit: Visual News/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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