Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri found enough common ground with the new head of the Taliban to fully throw his support behind the Afghan terror leader.
The Taliban quickly decided to move a deputy of slain Mullah Mansour, Haibatullah Akhundzada, into the leadership role after last month’s U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.
Akhundzada is a spiritual leader instead of a battlefield veteran, holding considerable sway over madrasas in Balochistan, the Pakistani region where Mansour was killed, and serving as administrative assistant to previous Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Detractors of Akhundzada slam the new leader as being Sufi, whereas Zawahiri follows strict Wahhabi Islam. Tweets from ISIS supporters claimed the al-Qaeda leader was violating Islam with the pledge.
Zawahiri’s pledge of allegiance came in a 14-minute audio recording, which was also released as a video by al-Qaeda’s As-Sahab Media set to a still image of the al-Qaeda leader and preceded with 1998 footage of Osama bin Laden.
“Mullah Akhtar Mansour, may Allah have mercy on him, refused to recognise the government in Kabul which was an agent and highlighted the fact that it was an agent created by the crusaders who occupied the lands of Islam,” Zawahiri said. “…Being the Amir of al Qaeda, I am here with you with our pledge of allegiance to renew the path of Sheikh Usamah, may Allah have mercy on him, in calling the Muslim ummah to support the Islamic Emirate and pledging allegiance to it.”
“We pledge to you that we will establish Shariah until it is in all Muslim lands, lands ruled and not yet ruled and leading and not leading, with no higher or conflicting authority or power… We pledge to you we will wage jihad to free every inch of Muslims’ lands which have been raped and stolen from, from Kashgar to Andalusia and Caucasus to Somalia and Central Africa, and from Kashmir to al Quds and the Philippines to Kabul and Bukhara and Samarqand. We pledge to you we will wage jihad against rulers who provide alternatives to Shariah law and who implement on the Muslim people the rules of the kuffar [disbelievers] and who spread corruption and who make Muslims slaves to murtad [apostate] regimes and collaborate with them.”
Zawahiri got in a dig at ISIS, which has been trying to make inroads in Afghanista, vowing to establish a caliphate “which spreads justice and promotes consulting one another and obtains security and stops oppression and brings back the rights and raises the flag of jihad.”
It was the Taliban giving safe haven to al-Qaeda and its training camps that prompted the U.S. to invade Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and Zawahiri’s proclamation is further proof that the relationship is still close.
The Obama administration is trying to urge the Taliban to join a peace deal with the Kabul government, but the new mullah quickly said that wasn’t going to happen.
Mullah Mansour had recently launched Operation Omari, the Taliban spring offensive named in honor of Mullah Omar.
Akhundzada is a cleric known for his Quranic interpretations and was entrusted by Mullah Omar to give the last word on fatwas, particularly those justifying terrorist operations. He was a leader of the judiciary when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
He’s been active in day-to-day Taliban operations and his name was already floated as a likely, seamless successor should something happen to Mullah Mansour. Another front-runner was Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob — who isn’t even 30 years old but reportedly runs Taliban military ops in 15 provinces. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was Mansour’s other deputy, and Yaqoob were named Akhundzada’s deputies.
This week, the Taliban announced that they would also start tweeting in English from spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid’s account, where he would also take journalists’ questions.