The symbiotic relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taleban had been over-emphasised. Therefore, the impact on them by OBL’s death will remain limited, argues AAN’s Thomas Ruttig – in part 2 of a series of still raw thoughts on the Abbottabad raid.
‘Bin Laden had mostly taken on a symbolic role and his removal doesn’t directly affect an organization that is largely decentralized. The fate of Ayman al Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, remains unknown, but he will probably replace bin Laden and an internal crisis like the one that divided the Pakistani Taliban is unlikely.’
This statement by Carnegie’s Gilles Dorronsoro hits the nail on the head. Only that one wants to ask: ‘which organisation’? Because often it seems as if al-Qaeda does not exist anymore, except, maybe, in the heads of some increasingly successless jihadist wannabe terrorists like the ‘shoe bomber’, the ‘underpants bomber’ or the (German) Sauerland group. And in analyses of diverse intelligence agencies – but they kind of make their living from, well, exaggerations. Who can really confirm those reports that this guy or the other went to a camp in Waziristan or got some bucks and some encouragement from Zawahiri?
Of course, we do not want to re-enforce conspiracy theories here. But one should not overlook that what terrorism analysts call ‘al-Qaeda Central‘ – namely Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and a few other guys in a cave (or in a somewhat more comfortable villa in a Pakistani garrison town) – probably do not play much of a role in what remains the Jihadist terrorist international.
At least from what I can see, this international consists of, apart from the (still dangerous, no doubt) individual nutters, of two components: First, groups like AQIM and AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Arabian Peninsula) whose application to join the network was positively accepted by the men in the cave who otherwise would be destined to oblivion. These groups probably do not need any Zawahiri money or explosives but raise their own funds by kidnapping Western tourists, through donations in radical mosques in Kuwait, London or Karachi or, perhaps, by silent cash flows from Arab regimes that do not want to get targeted by them. They also have (had?) plenty of personnel, as long as it was provided by Mubarak’s, Ben Ali’s or Ghaddafi’s torturers – propped up by ‘alternativeless’ Western realpolitics and Western claims (heard over decades) that ‘Muslims are not able to do democracy’.
Component number two are groups like the Afghan and the Pakistani Taleban, Lashkar-e Taiba and the diverse ‘Kashmiri’ and Punjabi terrorist and sectarian groups in Pakistan. They owe their existence – or at least their ascent (as in the case of Mulla Omar’s men) – to the ISI who created or instrumentalised them as anti-Indian proxies. Maybe, the ISI lost a bit control over them of late. Maybe, as in Abbottabad.
Noteworthy is that the Afghan Taleban organisationally kept their distance from al-Qaeda, both before and after 9/11. It did not join OBL’s ‘World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders’ set up in February 1998 by OBL together with groups from Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan, and kept this line post-9/11. There was no Afghan amongst the 9/11 terrorists; there was no Afghan Taleb in any post-9/11 terrorist attack (Mr Najibullah Zazi of Denver, of Afghan origin indeed, was more a self-declared US Taleban cell than linked to Mulla Omar’s men). There are no Afghans in the al-Qaeda leadership, and no Arabs in the Afghan Taleban command-and-control shuras. In Jihadist terms: al-Qaeda concentrates on the ‘far enemy’, i.e. the US and its allies on their own soil, while the Taleban fight the ‘near enemy’, the ‘occupiers’ of Afghan (‘Muslim’) land. Neither the US nor the EU, the UK or the UN ever listed the Taleban as a terrorist organisation.
Even if this has been the prompting of the ISI, in order to avoid the direct wrath of the US, this is a fact that cannot just be cast aside. But the lacking enthusiasm of the Afghan Taleban for global jihad is also partly homegrown: with the planned withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan around 2014, they do not want to repeat their pre-9/11 mistake and risk complete isolation from the international community – in case they return to power (or participate in it) at a time when Western interest in Afghanistan will have largely subsided and the West might swallow a regime of ‘good enough Islamists‘.
Apart from this, we have often argued that the Taleban do not need al-Qaeda anymore in the way they did before: they have suffient financial means (from ‘taxing’ drugs and projects and contracts), still enough personnel to fill the gaps of their ‘captured-or-killed’ commanders, and a mission statement which is increasingly bought also by Afghans who do not naturally support them: that the country is occupied, both by troops and by a heavy political footprint that has led to a corrupt regime that is syphoning off what they see as their promised ‘reconstruction‘ dividend – while the social gap is widening between those who are bailed out when their banks fail (again with the West’s help) and the many who even have not seen the interior of a bank in their lives.
Meanwhile, Dorronsoro is right when he sees that OBL’s death ‘could help facilitate a political solution in Afghanistan’ and that ‘this is a chance for Washington to change strategy and do the sensible thing’ and ‘make a major diplomatic opening’ towards the Taleban. (Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn have said already earlier this year that there is ‘room to engage the Taleban on issues like renouncing al-Qaeda and providing guarantees against the use of Afghanistan by international terrorism in a way that will achieve core U.S. goals’.)
Only on one point, Dorronsoro seems to be overly optimistic (or maybe, he wants to be) – when he says that ‘conditions on the ground making it obvious that a military solution doesn’t make sense’. After ‘getting’ OBL that mentality might even get another boost, with the result that bloodshed will continue and windows of opportunity close again before they really have opened.
And, please, those in Washington who really believe that Afghanistan needs a political solution, don’t stop pushing for this when the Taleban issue an official statement of solidarity with the deceased: it is not what is written on paper, stupid!No one ever has said that this will be an easy way out.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020