WASHINGTON - It did not take long for conspiracy theories involving Pakistan to surge once word got out that al-Qaida’s leader had pledged loyalty to the Taliban’s new leader.
Within hours of the posting Thursday of an audio recording thought to be al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri giving his allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, supporters of the rival Islamic State group, among others, had taken to Twitter.
“They’re circulating hashtags saying that Zawahiri has pledged allegiance to Pakistani intelligence with the implication that the Taliban’s current leader [Mullah Mansour] is owned by Pakistani intelligence,” said J.M. Berger, a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World.
Berger said many of the tweets were derisive in nature, meant to both demean and to delegitimize the Islamic State’s main competitor as both groups vie to win over jihadists from around the world.
Pakistani involvement questioned
Still, in a region where there is little transparency on relations between various governments and insurgent groups, some say a conspiracy theory about Pakistani involvement in the Zawahiri pledge cannot be entirely dismissed.
“Mullah Mansour is often described as being the candidate of the ISI, Pakistan’s spy service, and as we know, al-Qaida has received the sanctuary and support from people within ISI, potentially up to the very highest levels,” Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation said.
“Could it be that the bayat [pledge] of Ayman al-Zawahiri was in essence brokered by Pakistan, that Pakistan is trying to use its influence to bolster Mullah Mansour rather than see the Taliban fracture into a number of different factions?” asked Blank.
He pointed out there is no evidence to support such claims. Additionally, al-Qaida and the Taliban have themselves had long running ties, with al-Qaida previously pledging loyalty to former Taliban ruler Mullah Omar.
U.S. officials also argue that despite long-running ties between Pakistan’s security services and the Taliban, Pakistan has been aggressive in its efforts to counter al-Qaida.
On Thursday, Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, with the U.S. Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, made note of Pakistan’s efforts to help broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, expressing hope it ultimately can succeed.
Still, the notion that Pakistan may have first brokered a deal with al-Qaida to bolster the image of the Taliban’s new leader may be hard to shake because, to many, the rationale makes sense.
“For Pakistan, they would much rather have a group that is beholden to them and is at least willing to listen to what they have to say, rather than have ISIL make real inroads and be faced with a group they have no control over,” said the RAND Corporation’s Blank.