Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appears to have pledged the group’s loyalty to the new leader of the Afghan Taliban, a move that could strengthen both terror organizations as they fend off challenges from Islamic State.
"We pledge our allegiance ... [to the] commander of the faithful, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, may God protect him,” said Zawahiri during a 10-minute recording that surfaced on the Internet Thursday.
U.S. counterterrorism officials are still studying the message but said there was “no reason to believe it is not authentic.” Private analysts said the recording bears similarities to other messages attributed to Zawahiri, but it was released with more speed than usual.
“In al-Qaida’s world, especially in Zawahiri’s world, they’re very deliberative,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of The Long War Journal. “They go through a very rigorous sharia process to figure out how to handle these types of matters.”
Afghan officials announced the death of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar late last month, with Taliban officials confirming it on July 31. Joscelyn said this recording appeared to have been made just one day later, on August 1.
“It suggests to me that they basically knew about this beforehand and were planning on pledging allegiance to Mansour as soon as Omar’s death was announced,” he said.
That level of planning and coordination could suggest al-Qaida and the Taliban may be trying to forge an even closer relationship.
“It’s not immediately clear what al-Qaida gains from it, other than making it a sort of poke in the eye to ISIL,” said Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, using an acronym for Islamic State. “I think Zawahiri is signaling that he still hopes to get something from the Taliban.”
Some analysts say there are indications al-Qaida has been moving assets back into Afghanistan, where the group first grew to prominence under the protection of the Taliban in the late 1990s.
Since then, however, al-Qaida has struggled, hunted by the United States after carrying out the terror attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. More recently, al-Qaida has been eclipsed by Islamic State, a former al-Qaida affiliate that last year declared the establishment of its own caliphate in Iraq and Syria, attracting thousands of jihadists from around the world.
In the audio recording, Zawahiri rejects Islamic State’s claim of a caliphate, calling the Islamic emirate established by former Taliban leader Mullah Omar “the first legitimate emirate after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.”
'Weak' move for al-Qaida
Still, there is skepticism that Zawahiri’s pledge of allegiance to Mansour, himself trying to overcome divisions within the Taliban’s ranks, can do much to change al-Qaida’s fortunes.
“While Zawahiri's purported pledge may find some resonance among those partial to al-Qaida, it’s doubtful that such a statement alone would have a major impact on ISIL's day-to-day ambitions or capabilities,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity.
Terrorism analyst J.M. Berger was also unimpressed.
“It seems like a pretty weak move,” said Berger, an expert on U.S. relations with the Islamic world at the Brookings Project.
“For ISIS supporters, all these developments are very vindicating,” he said, using a different acronym for the group. “It gives them an opportunity to say, ‘We were right all along. There is no credible competition and all the people who were criticizing us were lying.’ ”
IS making inroads
Meanwhile, Islamic State has been making inroads into areas once dominated by al-Qaida, its affiliates or its allies, including Afghanistan.
"We are seeing some fighting between Daesh and Taliban in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
But he said IS in Afghanistan is not yet capable of the kind of operations the group conducts in Syria and Iraq. “We do note the potential for them to evolve into something more serious, more dangerous,” he told reporters at the Pentagon by phone, speaking from his offices in Kabul.
But some analysts say they are surprised that Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have not done more to capitalize on the death of former Taliban leader Omar, especially after Afghan officials alleged he died two years ago.
“If that’s true, then that means al-Qaida throughout its rivalry with the Islamic State has basically been reaffirming its allegiance to a corpse,” said the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Joscelyn.
“Curiously, we haven’t heard from Baghdadi, or his spokesman [Abu Muhammad al-Adnani] after Mullah Omar’s death,” Joscelyn said. “You would think Islamic State would want to beat al-Qaida to the punch.”