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The Taliban’s Victory Is Al Qaeda’s Victory

Afghanistan’s new rulers still have strong ties to the terrorist group that attacked the United States on 9/11.

By , the founder and executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, a counterterrorism non-governmental organization.
Osama bin Laden holds a press conference.
Then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (center) and al Qaeda associates hold a press conference in Afghanistan in 1998. AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Twenty years after the most devastating terrorist attacks on American soil, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—and the Taliban’s immediate takeover of the country—is the biggest boost to al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement since 9/11.

There is no doubt the Talibans victories are what have made the al Qaeda communitys celebration of this years 9/11 anniversary so much more intense than in previous years. Al Qaeda, along with its supporters and aligned media groups, hit social media with well-prepared barrages of content: speeches from leadership, posters, designated hashtags, and entire channels dedicated to 9/11. One al Qaeda-aligned media group even produced a much-hyped documentary styled video which, to no surprise, used Taliban video footage.

Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates, aligned scholars and social media groups, all have voiced their elation and shared sense of victory.

Twenty years after the most devastating terrorist attacks on American soil, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—and the Taliban’s immediate takeover of the country—is the biggest boost to al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement since 9/11.

There is no doubt the Talibans victories are what have made the al Qaeda communitys celebration of this years 9/11 anniversary so much more intense than in previous years. Al Qaeda, along with its supporters and aligned media groups, hit social media with well-prepared barrages of content: speeches from leadership, posters, designated hashtags, and entire channels dedicated to 9/11. One al Qaeda-aligned media group even produced a much-hyped documentary styled video which, to no surprise, used Taliban video footage.

Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates, aligned scholars and social media groups, all have voiced their elation and shared sense of victory.

Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates, aligned scholars and social media groups—all have voiced their elation and shared sense of victory. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called the Taliban’s conquest “the beginning of a pivotal transformation.” Al Qaeda’s North Africa and Sahel-based branches jointly called it proof that militant jihad is the only “path to glory.” Scores of new social media groups have popped up dedicated solely to these developments. Meanwhile terrorists the world over ponder a new jihadi hijra (migration) to Afghanistan, asserting the country to now indisputably be “the center of global jihad.”

It has been two decades since the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States, and the group has now consented to the Doha Agreement’s terms not to let al Qaeda plot attacks against the United States from Afghan soil. Would the Taliban actually jeopardize their newfound power by hosting a group set on doing exactly that?

It’s true the Taliban are not the same as they were in 2001. They are far more powerful militarily and, following their seizure of Afghanistan, are establishing relations with regional leaders and nudging their way into the international community. They have even waged a meticulously crafted global PR campaign: press conferences, promises of civility, an extensive online presence, and articles promising good treatment of women, among other things.

However, the Taliban’s activity in recent years—as well as al Qaeda’s—indicates they have no plans to cut ties with their longtime partner.


The Taliban have multiple faces. There is the civil side they display to the international community, and the other one for the only audience that matters: aligned jihadists and radical Islamist supporters. And once the U.S. withdrawal began, the Taliban didn’t skip a beat to show their true colors to the latter.

On Aug. 31, during the final hours of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban released a new issue of their Arabic-language publication, al-Somood. In it, the group countered accusations levied by its regional foe, the Islamic State, that the Taliban have become an agent of the United States because of the Doha Agreement.

The Taliban unambiguously assured readers “the Taliban of today is no different from the Taliban of yesterday, with the same exact ideology since it took charge in 1996 and whoever says otherwise or markets it in a different image is either ignorant of the Taliban ideology from its beginnings or has wishful thinking of some kind of deviation and change.”

From 9/11 to the present, the Taliban have played a rhetorical game of contradictions: embracing the 9/11 attacks while asserting there is no proof connecting them to bin Laden.

The Islamic State has long framed the Taliban as an apostate organization, in hopes of drawing disaffected members into its ranks. Yet the Taliban have never acknowledged these accusations in such a high-profile way—until the United States fully exited Afghanistan.

This was just one of many recent clues as to where the group stands. On Sept. 1, one day after the U.S. military brought its last soldiers home, the Taliban aired the third installment of their Victorious Force video series via the country’s state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan prior to releasing it online.

The group had promoted the release for more than a week. The installment, unsurprisingly, attempted to distance the Taliban from the 9/11 attacks while hailing them as “the result of the United States’ policy of aggression against the Muslim world.” The Taliban also called upon Afghans to be willing at any moment “to defend independence, land, and the Islamic system.”

This type of messaging is not new. From 9/11 to the present, the Taliban have played a rhetorical game of contradictions: embracing the 9/11 attacks while asserting there is no proof connecting them to bin Laden. A Pashto-language Taliban video from July 2019 describes 9/11 as a “heavy slap” on U.S. citizens’ “dark faces,” calling the events “the consequence of their interventionist policies and not our doing.”

So, if the Taliban are the same Taliban they assert themselves to be, what exactly should al Qaeda expect from them?


It is often acknowledged that al Qaeda has pledged loyalty to the Taliban. However, it is just as often understated how much weight that pledge carries.

This pledge, called bay’ah, is more than a mere gesture of alliance; it is a sacred, holy relationship that is rarely undone. One that continues to this day.

Osama bin Laden swore allegiance to then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the 1990s and, by extension, so did every al Qaeda leader and fighter. And in 2016, following the killing of Taliban head Mullah Mansour, al Qaeda published a 14-minute video featuring its current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri again pledging allegiance to the Taliban—this time to the group’s new leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Al Qaeda places Akhundzada’s rule at the apogee of Islam—in some ways similar to the credentials the Islamic State granted its so-called caliphs.

Speaking on behalf of al Qaeda Central and its affiliates in Somalia, Yemen, North Africa, and beyond, Zawahiri declared, “I as the emir of [al Qaeda], give you our pledge of allegiance, renewing the method of Sheikh Osama, may Allah have mercy on him, in calling upon the Muslim ummah to support the [Taliban] and pledge allegiance to it.

“We pledge allegiance to establish a caliphate on the prophetic method,” Zawahiri said to Akhundzada, whom he addressed as “emir of the believers.”

“We are your soldiers and supporters, and a brigade among your brigades.”

Al Qaeda places Akhundzada’s rule at the apogee of Islam—in some ways similar to the credentials the Islamic State granted its so-called caliphs Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. When Akhundzada says he rules an emirate, al Qaeda recognizes it as such and submits to its authority. This is why al Qaeda and the global jihadi community do not refer to the Taliban as such, but rather as the Taliban refer to themselves: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Thus, following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Akhundzada’s role as “Amir al-Muminin” and supreme leader of this Islamic Emirate now applies to the entire country. He is above any government agency or cabinet, and his word is the law.

To date, the Taliban has never disavowed al Qaeda’s pledge, which has helped fuel confidence in al Qaeda members and supporters that these ties endure, regardless of what the Taliban say to the world.

This loyalty dynamic can be seen in action just as much as words. In May 2019, a year into newly elevated peace talks between the Taliban and U.S. government, an al Qaeda regional offshoot, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, released a video detailing its members’ close relationship with the Taliban. The video even detailed a coordinated ambush on Afghan government forces “under the leadership” of the Taliban, providing a rare glimpse into a partnership that, while well-known, was seldom shown on video.

A video still of fighters discussing an ambush launched against Afghan National Army forces “under the leadership” of the Taliban is seen in the Indian subcontinent, released on May 9, 2019.

The video’s title alone, “Under the Shade of the Islamic Emirate” referring to the Taliban, speaks volumes to this partnership.

Understanding these intrinsic ties with the Taliban, it is not surprising that al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent deputy Mohammed Hanif was killed in Afghanistan’s Farah province in November 2020—just a month after the Afghan government killed al Qaeda media chief Abu Muhsin al-Masri in the country’s Ghazni province. Both areas were already under Taliban rule.

The Taliban have likewise signaled their enduring embrace for al Qaeda. Arabic publications have praised bin Laden and shared stories of al Qaeda martyrs to inspire the Taliban’s followers.

Nowhere was this seen more profoundly than with Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Taliban’s notoriously ruthless Haqqani network. Haqqani became the Taliban’s military commander just one month after 9/11—catapulting him to be one of the Taliban’s most influential figures. Following Haqqani’s death in 2018, the Taliban published his will, in which he voiced reverence for prominent al Qaeda figures such as bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and called on Muslims to follow in their footsteps.

Haqqani’s will was published through Taliban outlets, including al-Somood, in September 2019.

These ties are what give al Qaeda confidence that no agreement or geopolitical pressure will ever separate it from its longtime host. The roots of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda have simply grown too deep to be severed.

As one self-professed al Qaeda insider stated in a July 18 article published in multiple venues, both groups know their decades-long alliance transcends the Taliban’s public distancing from al Qaeda. “The relationship between the Taliban and the immigrants, especially those who joined them after aligning with them, is a strong and solid relationship that cannot be described with words, let alone wrapped with positions,” the insider wrote.

Such statements speak equally to what the Taliban stand to gain in their relationship with al Qaeda. Had it not been for al Qaeda, the Taliban would perhaps be viewed by many jihadists as a regionally focused, even nationalist-minded Islamist group. A team to cheer for, sure, but not outside of the context of Afghanistan.

However, by standing alongside al Qaeda as they have through these many years, the Taliban have been elevated as an integral part of a much grander narrative of a global religious war between righteousness and tyranny. As such, the global jihadi community will embrace them enthusiastically—and zealously defend them.


Al Qaeda has endured a series of crises in recent years, from the meteoric rise of its Islamic State rival to its deteriorating position in Syria and Yemen. In many corners of the world, al Qaeda’s oxygen levels were at critical lows.

Then came the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover. Now, with the Taliban freer than ever to host al Qaeda, jihadists online are beginning to encourage migration to Afghanistan.

Among the most enthused by these developments have been al Qaeda supporters from Syria’s Idlib province, where many of the group’s last remaining veteran operatives face U.S. and other airstrikes from one side and arrests by rival Islamist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from the other. An Aug. 23 conversation in a chat group of Idlib jihadists laid out what would likely be a new synergy between the Afghan and Syrian jihads.

“It is expected that a number of Syrians will consider asylum in Afghanistan,” one user noted, following up shortly after about how a stable Afghanistan could benefit the global jihad: “The Syrians have become experts in international smuggling, especially since it is expected that large numbers of Afghans will seek refuge abroad … meaning that the Afghan border will become like the Syrian border at the beginning of the revolution. Afghanistan will become the center of global jihad.”

It’s not just al Qaeda operatives who are inspired by the Taliban. Gaza-based factions like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad expressed the same inspiration applied to their fight against the Israeli government, exclaiming the Taliban’s defeat of the United States “proves that the resistance of peoples, foremost of which is our mujahid Palestinian people, will ultimately lead to victory.”

This is the power of the Taliban’s winning narrative: It can be applied to any Islamist insurgency or uprising, no matter how many years of bloodshed such conflicts bring. After all, here is a group that, once again, drove a major world power from its lands. Who could possibly tell this group who it can and cannot give haven to?

The roots of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda have simply grown too deep to be severed.

As much as some might hope that this new, tech-savvy Taliban might represent a kinder, gentler, and more rational entity, the group is still the same: brutally zealous, welcoming to foreign fighters, and dishonest to the bone. As such, it is apparent that years of war with the United States and its allies have not driven a wedge between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The Taliban have, as they see it, defeated the most powerful military force on the planet—one they know is war-weary and unlikely to restart an on-the-ground war against them.

The Taliban’s position is even stronger considering that Washington is mulling an alliance with the group to combat the Islamic State—a risky and short-sighted idea.

For all these reasons, the Taliban’s victory is al Qaeda’s victory. Given al Qaeda’s yearslong, bloody rejection of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, this vindication is exactly what the group needed to revive its agenda among jihadists.

As this grim conclusion to the United States’ longest war unfolds, a new chapter in the global fight against terrorism is beginning. And although no one knows what this evolved threat will look like, we must sadly anticipate that it will be more confident, aggressive, and seasoned than it was two decades ago.

Rita Katz is the founder and executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, a counterterrorism non-governmental organization. She tracks jihadist extremist networks, assists in government terrorism investigations, and helps shape public and private sector counterterrorism strategies. Twitter: @Rita_Katz

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