He’s back: Al-Qaida’s leader resurfaces in a video message

After an unprecedented 11 months of silence, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaida, this week issued a video message proclaiming his loyalty to the new head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. The almost 10-minute long message dramatically reaffirms the alliance between al-Qaida and the Taliban, a setback for efforts to bring the Taliban into a political process.

The video was released by al-Qaida’s media arm As-Sahab, meaning “in the clouds” or an allusion to the jihadi symbolism that al-Qaida operates in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. According to the Pakistan newspaper Dawn, As-Sahab recently relocated its real ground game from Pakistan (where it has been operating since 2002) back to Afghanistan in Helmand province. The Afghan Taliban supported the move and provides safe haven for al-Qaida, which means 14 years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, al-Qaida is again running operations out of Afghanistan.

This video is in Arabic.

Al-Zawahiri’s message underscores that al-Qaida remains close to the Taliban. According to Dawn, a senior As-Sahab official, Qari Abu Bakr, said “the bond between us and our Taliban brothers is a solid ideological bond. The Taliban opted to lose their government and family members just to protect us. There is no question of us moving apart now after going through this war together.” In a warning to the United States, he says, “Our common enemy does not know what is coming its way.”

In his new message, al-Zawahiri eulogizes Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban, as a hero of the global jihad along with Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Mullah Omar is lauded by al-Zawahiri for creating the first true Islamic emirate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. He makes no mention of reports Mullah Omar died two years ago in a Pakistan hospital in Karachi under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.

In his first message since last September, al-Zawahiri promises the global jihad will continue until all Muslim lands are freed from Islam’s enemies especially Jerusalem. Al-Zawahiri calls for the recovery of lost lands like Kashmir and Spain (Al Andalusia). He makes no mention of the Islamic State or his rival Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself the Caliph Ibrahim. Mullah Mansoor is the rightful leader of the global jihad for al-Zawahiri; al-Baghdadi is an upstart who is not worthy of comment.

Al-Qaida has always been much more vocal about its ties to the Afghan Taliban than the Taliban is about its ties to al-Qaida. The Taliban focuses its attention on Afghanistan and enjoys close support from the ISI. It has engaged in a furious offensive this year to defeat the Kabul government, an offensive Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently said is backed by the ISI. The Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban which has gained influence in the movement with the ascension of Mullah Mansoor is very close to both al-Qaida and the ISI. For tactical reasons, the Taliban does not advertise its partnerships with al-Qaida and the ISI, which would undermine its claim to be Afghan nationalists.

The civilian Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been pushing the Taliban to enter a political process with Ghani’s government. The process has been suspended since the news of Mullah Omar’s death was released by Afghanistan’s intelligence service. The intricacy and deviousness of Pakistan’s complex and deep ties to jihadi terrorists is at the root of the survival of both al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban in South Asia. The Pakistani Army, which controls the ISI, is determined to keep intact its ties to jihadis as long as they don’t target the army itself. Under pressure from Prime Minister Sharif, the Taliban’s new leadership may return to talks with Kabul, but it is not likely to accept a cease fire or break its decades old ties to al-Qaida.