20 years after 9/11, has the Taliban severed its ties with Al-Qaeda?

20 years after 9/11, has the Taliban severed its ties with Al-Qaeda?
A handout picture of a video grab showing Al-Qaeda's chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri (L) at an undisclosed location making an announcement, and an undated handout photograph released by the Afghan Taliban showing the new Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. (File/AFP)
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Updated 08 September 2021

20 years after 9/11, has the Taliban severed its ties with Al-Qaeda?

20 years after 9/11, has the Taliban severed its ties with Al-Qaeda?
  • Taliban founder Mullah Omar refused to hand over 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden, prompting the US invasion
  • Under the terms of Feb. 2020 Doha peace deal with the US, the Taliban must dissociate itself from Al-Qaeda

PESHAWAR: Privately, Afghan Taliban leaders say they have made enough sacrifices for the sake of Al-Qaeda, despite publicly never conceding they ever harbored the group, its former leader Osama bin Laden, or that Afghanistan was used to prepare the 9/11 attacks and other operations.

They also argue that they lost power in Afghanistan resisting the US invasion after the 9/11 attacks, as the Bush administration launched a vengeful assault in October 2001 to destroy Al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban from power for harboring Osama bin Laden.




A frame grab (L) taken 29 October 2004 from a videotape aired by Al-Jazeera news channel shows Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (FileAFP)


The gap between the positions that the Taliban has adopted privately and publicly shows that the Islamist group, founded by Mullah Mohammed Omar, does not want to take responsibility for the attacks — its denials meant to argue that the Taliban was, in fact, an unwitting victim when the US invaded Afghanistan.

The jury is still out on whether the Taliban remains associated with Al-Qaeda 20 years on. However, the US as well as the UN continues to claim that the Taliban has not cut its ties, providing names of Al-Qaeda members and affiliates who have died in different provinces of Afghanistan while fighting alongside the Taliban. 




Fighters loyal to Kandahar Governor Gul Agha stand in the wreckage of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's compound, 14 December 2001. (File/AFP)

The Taliban has denounced the claims as propaganda, and issued blanket denials. This reaction is not surprising given that, under the terms of the Taliban-US Doha peace agreement of Feb. 29, 2020, the group must dissociate itself from Al-Qaeda. 

From the outset, the Taliban had a nebulous and controversial relationship with Al-Qaeda, with conflicting views over whether the former or the latter controlled the other. The general Western viewpoint was that Al-Qaeda funded and managed the Taliban, but Taliban leaders disputed this claim and argued that they were in power in Afghanistan and, naturally, called the shots.

The relationship was rather strange because the Taliban were Afghans, known for their fighting skills and a reputation for successfully resisting invaders, including three superpowers (Britain, the Soviet Union and the US). Al-Qaeda members, meanwhile, were mostly Arabs belonging to different countries, inspired by various causes and pulled to Afghanistan by the call of war.

Curiously, the first meeting between Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership took place in an environment of suspicion. It was held in Jalalabad just a few days before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban for the first time on Sept. 26, 1996. A Taliban delegation, led by one of their commanders, Mullah Mohammad Sadiq, who had lost his son battling the Mujahideen in Logar province a few days before, was sent to Bin Laden’s house on the outskirts of Jalalabad city to meet him and find out more about his future plans.

They were unsure if Bin Laden would stay put in Jalalabad, leave Afghanistan or accompany the Afghan Mujahideen trying to escape after facing defeat by the Taliban. The Taliban fighters had just captured the city, and were on their way to Kabul.




Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war. (File/AFP)

I was a witness to the conversation between Mullah Sadiq, Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, the deputy leader of the Taliban at the time, and Mullah Borjan, the top Taliban military commander, to frame a unified Taliban position ahead of negotiations with Bin Laden.

All expressed their reservations about his intentions and decided to take a firm stand before deciding to let the Al-Qaeda head stay in areas controlled by the Taliban. Eventually, the issue was resolved when he gave an assurance that he would stay loyal to the Taliban and accept Mullah Omar as the Ameer-ul-Momineen. Soon afterwards, he pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, which was conveyed to the Taliban chief through an interview I had conducted.

The Taliban supreme leader was called the Ameer-ul-Momineen (the commander of the faithful) because he had the final authority on every issue concerning the group. He was accountable to none; every member was answerable to him. His decisions had to be obeyed; disobeying him amounted to a sin.




Taliban fighters put down their weapons as they surrendered to join the Afghanistan government during a ceremony in Herat on 24, 2021. (File/AFP)

If there is a common factor that has kept both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda strong and relevant, it is their ability to survive in a united way as militant groups. Otherwise, both might have split not once, but many times over.

In hindsight, the Taliban’s decision, when it emerged as a movement in the autumn of 1994 in Kandahar, to have a supreme leader proved crucial in keeping the flock together. In Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda too had a resourceful founder.

For 27 long years, the Taliban has remained largely united despite the fact that its members were drawn to it from rival Afghan Mujahideen groups. Its leaders resisted political and monetary temptations to defect or launch separate wars on Mujahideen factions and US-led NATO forces.




Taliban fighters are pictured in a vehicle of Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) on a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (File/AFP)

Though there have been a few minor splits in the group, including one led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, none was big enough to weaken it and cause its collapse.

So far, the Taliban has had three supreme leaders, including Mullah Omar, a semi-literate village cleric from Kandahar, who was the founder and remained the supreme leader until his death in 2016. His leadership was unchallenged as long as he was alive and even his death was kept secret for nearly two years as other Taliban figures feared the group might splinter once the supreme leader was gone.

The other two supreme leaders were Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, a controversial military commander who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, and Shaikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, a respected religious scholar who has led the Taliban to their biggest military victory to date — the capture of the entire country.

Mullah Omar, as we know, refused to hand over Bin Laden to the US after the 9/11 attacks. Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on him, including the threat of an American invasion of Afghanistan, but none of this was enough to make him change his mind.




This undated photo obtained July 30, 2015 courtesy of the US State Department shows Mullah Omar. (File/AFP)

The Pakistan government, which was close to the Taliban, also applied pressure on the group through Pakistani religious scholars and the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to hand over Bin Laden to the US or Saudi Arabia. Once again, the efforts did not succeed.

The Taliban was defeated in a few weeks as its fighters had no protection from American air power. However, they did not suffer many casualties. They merely retreated, melting into the rural population.

When the Americans invaded, Al-Qaeda decided to go to Tora Bora on the border with Pakistan. The Americans came to know Bin Laden was there in December 2001, and bombed heavily.




A US soldier armed with an M249 light machine gun takes position on a dirt road while troops from Battle Company, 1-32 Infantry Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team and Afghan National Army soldiers approach Mullah Omar mosque. (File/AFP)

The chain of events thus culminated in the US invasion, the collapse of the Taliban regime and the deaths of scores of Taliban fighters. Mullah Omar made it clear that Islamic teachings did not allow him to betray and deliver a fellow Muslim, even if the man had a $10 million price on his head.

Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1


Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears
Updated 8 sec ago

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears

Hong Kong shuts secondary schools over COVID-19 fears
  • The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month
HONG KONG: Hong Kong will suspend face-to-face teaching in secondary schools from January 24, the Education Bureau said on Thursday, because of a rising number of coronavirus infections in several schools in the Chinese-ruled territory.
The government halted classes in primary schools and kindergartens early this month, and imposed curbs, such as a ban on restaurant dining after 6 p.m. and the closure of venues such as gyms, cinemas and beauty salons.

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests
Updated 20 January 2022

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests

North Korea suggests it may resume nuclear, missile tests
  • N. Korea has not tested nuclear bombs, ICBMs since 2017
  • Politburo says US threats ‘reached a danger line’

SEOUL: North Korea would bolster its defenses against the United States and consider restarting “all temporally-suspended activities,” state media KCNA reported Thursday, an apparent reference to a self-imposed moratorium on testing its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Tension has been rising over a recent series of North Korean missile tests. A US push for fresh sanctions was followed by heated reaction from Pyongyang, raising the spectre of a return to the period of so-called “fire and fury” threats of 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a meeting of the powerful politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday to discuss “important policy issues,” including countermeasures over “hostile” US policy, the official KCNA news agency said.
The politburo ordered a reconsideration of trust-building measures and “promptly examining the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” while calling for “immediately bolstering more powerful physical means,” KCNA said.
The politburo decision appears to be a step beyond Kim’s previous remarks at the end of 2019 that he would no longer be bound by the moratorium on testing nuclear warheads and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), after the United States did not respond to calls for concessions to reopen negotiations.
Washington’s policy and military threats had “reached a danger line,” the report said, citing joint US-South Korea military exercises, the deployment of cutting-edge US strategic weapons in the region, and the implementation of independent and UN sanctions.
“We should make more thorough preparation for a long-term confrontation with the US imperialists,” the politburo concluded.
The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Biden made no mention of North Korea during a nearly two-hour news conference on Wednesday held to mark his first year in office.
“We should brace for more sabre-rattling designed to create a warlike atmosphere — and possibly more provocation testing,” said Jean Lee, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, adding that Kim will use every opportunity to justify further weapons testing.

‘Vicious cycle’
North Korea could possibly test a long-range missile or other powerful weapon in time for the 80th and 110th anniversaries of the birthdays of Kim’s late father and grandfather in February and April, both major holidays in the country, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“It’s possible that the situation could go back to the vicious cycle of provocations and sanctions we saw in 2017,” he said.
After test firing a ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland in 2017, North Korea launched a flurry of diplomacy and has not tested its ICBMs or nuclear weapons since.
But it began testing a range of new short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) after denuclearization talks stalled and slipped back into a standoff following a failed summit in 2019.
Pyongyang has defended the missile launches as its sovereign right to self-defense and accused Washington of applying double standards over weapons tests.
On Monday, North Korea conducted its fourth missile test this year, following two launches of “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and another one involving a railway-borne missile system.
The unusually rapid pace of launches prompted US condemnation and a push for new UN sanctions, and Pyongyang threatened stronger actions.
Jenny Town, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s 38 North program, said despite its strong language, the politburo report left room for Kim to “ratchet rhetoric up or down as he sees fit” depending on future developments.
The Biden administration needs to lead more concerted, high-level international efforts to restart negotiations on step-for-step actions toward peace and denuclearization, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
“The North Korean nuclear and missile problem has not disappeared and will only grow worse in the absence of active, serious diplomacy,” he said.  


US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
Updated 20 January 2022

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike

US defense department releases first video of botched Kabul airstrike
  • The drone strike killed 10 civilians in the final hours of a chaotic American withdrawal that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon has declassified and publicly released video footage of a US drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians in the final hours of a chaotic American withdrawal that ended a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The New York Times obtained the footage through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against US Central Command, which then posted the imagery to its website. It marks the first public release of video footage of the Aug. 29 strike, which the Pentagon initially defended but later called a tragic mistake.

The videos include about 25 minutes of footage from what the Times reported were two MQ-9 Reaper drones, showing the scene of the strike prior to, during and after a missile struck a civilian car in a courtyard on a residential street. Indistinct images show individuals moving in or near the attack zone.
The military has said it struck what it thought was an extremist with the Daesh group’s Afghanistan affiliate who might imminently detonate a bomb near the Kabul airport, where a hurried evacuation was still under way.

Three days earlier a suicide bombing at the airport had killed 13 US troops and more than 160 Afghans. When it later acknowledged its error in the Aug. 29 drone strike, Central Command said it determined that the man driving the car had nothing to do with the Daesh group.
The man was Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for Nutrition and Education International, a US-based aid organization.

 


First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
Updated 20 January 2022

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption

First aid flight leaves for isolated Tonga after big volcano eruption
  • The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: The first flight carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga was finally able to leave Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left a huge volcanic eruption.
A C-130 Hercules military transport plane left New Zealand carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.
Australia was also preparing to send two C-17 Globemaster transport planes with humanitarian supplies. The flights were all due to arrive in Tonga on Thursday afternoon.
The deliveries will be done with no contact because Tonga is desperate to make sure foreigners don’t bring in the coronavirus. It has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 and has reported just a single case since the pandemic began.
“The aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” Defense Minister Peeni Henare said.
UN humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people — more than 80 percent of Tonga’s population — have been impacted by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of homes and polluted water.
Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami appeared to have broken the single fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga with the rest of the world. That means most people haven’t been able to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad, although some local phone networks are still working.
A navy patrol ship from New Zealand is also expected to arrive later Thursday. It is carrying hydrographic equipment and divers, and also has a helicopter to assist with delivering supplies.
Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check shipping channels and the structural integrity of the wharf in the capital, Nuku’alofa, following the eruption and tsunami.
Another New Zealand navy ship carrying 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water is on its way. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of liters of fresh water each day using a desalination plant.
Three of Tonga’s smaller islands suffered serious damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.
The UN’s Dujarric said “all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses remain on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka.” He said evacuations are under way for people from the islands.
According to Tongan census figures, Mango is home to 36 people, Fonoifua is home to 69 people, and Nomuka to 239. The majority of Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where about 50 homes were destroyed.
Dujarric said the most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and non-food items, and top priorities are reestablishing communication services including for international calls and the Internet.
Tonga has so far avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.


Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
Updated 19 January 2022

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU

Two Iraqi brothers accused of smuggling people from Mideast to EU
  • The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn

FOSSALTA DI PIAVE, Italy: Police in Italy and Albania have arrested more than 20 people accused of cashing in several hundred million euros to smuggle hundreds of refugees and migrants into the EU from Turkey on rented yachts and other leisure vessels, authorities said on Wednesday.

Two brothers who are Iraqi citizens are accused of masterminding a smuggling ring that mostly involved people fleeing Iraq and Syria. The men were arrested without incident near Venice before dawn.

The suspects, identified as Alaa Qasim Rahima, 38, and Omar Qasim Rahima, 30, are accused of running a ring that helped bring Syrians from Turkey to the EU using a network of associates in various countries.

They are believed to be part of a wider ring with as many as 80 members that allegedly organized at least 30 smuggling operations that transported at least 1,100 people by boat from Turkey to Europe.