Home > AF-PAK strategy, AQ General, AQ Media, Taliban, Use of information communications technology > Peter Bergen’s new piece on the Taliban – Al Qaeda merger

Peter Bergen’s new piece on the Taliban – Al Qaeda merger

Peter Bergen has a new article out. It is an interesting read. I should be sleeping so I’ll keep this quick, well as quick as I can.

The jury is still out for me on Taliban-al Qaeda relations. I’m waiting to see what Mustafa Hamid has to say about it and watching carefully the changing nuances in Taliban communications of late. As I have written earlier, much of this debate stems on how one defines separate. I’ve already written a lot about it so I won’t re-hash too much here. Instead what follows are some comments from things that struck me in this article. These comments are drawn from my doctoral research as well as various other briefings I have provided on my research and are confirmed by multiple sources. I follow the rule that if I can’t find it in three separate sources then it isn’t verifiable.  The thesis research is under embargo for the time being so I can’t provide any more references but it’s not far away and fingers crossed the trials are all over by the time it is examined so I can publish it straight after.

While it is correct that most major attacks and attack plots lead back to Afghanistan or Pakistan it is worth remembering that not all of them were al Qaeda. And for the argument made in this piece, it is a crucial delineation to make.

  • The first WTC bombers  were part of a current that was a competitor to bin Laden and al Qaeda in Pakistan- Afghanistan at that time. They did not train in al Qaeda camps. They trained in Khalden and *possibly* (am still confirming this) Sadda. In fact at the time this training took place al Qaeda in bin Laden’s absence had taken a distinct takfir turn and had suffered a massive drop in numbers.
  • Khalden camp was *NEVER* al Qaeda run. In fact al Qaeda viewed it as strategic competition and repeatedly sought to get it shut down. It was unsuccessful in doing so until the takfiris who frequented the camp started calling the Taliban apostates for wanting UN recognition and deemed it and al Qaeda and all other groups aligned with the Taliban as apostates. That was what caused it to be closed down by the Taliban in mid 2000. Some of the trainers from Khalden subsequently went to work for al Qaeda because they had nowhere else to go, but it has yet to be determined  they became al Qaeda members. In fact all evidence suggests that they were not. There was a small window in 98 when al Qaeda may have briefly had access to the camp before this dispute escalated, which I am working to verify but all accounts I have thus far show clearly that there were large disputes between the groups using/based at or around Khalden (and its sister camp Derunta) and al Qaeda. These were still raging in early 2001 when Abu Qotada intervened with a fatwa. By that stage those who could flee after Khalden was shut had based themselves in Peshawar and were issuing fatwas condemning the Taliban and everyone aligned with it. Hence Qotada was called in to counter issue a fatwa or two. It was nasty.
  • Jemaah Islamiyyah members mostly trained at Sadda. Very few went through al Farouq. I think it was two who went through from memory. They were not a part of the Bali I bombings.
  • The 2007 plots in Germany were IJU plots not al Qaeda.

I raise these points because the article argues about al Qaeda specifically. Obviously one doesn’t want to see any of these groups reconstitute themselves or train in the region at all, but it is important to delineate what is or has been al Qaeda if we are to properly debate the issue at hand.

I disagree that the Taliban and al Qaeda function almost as a single entity and I don’t see this demonstrated in this article or in any available materials.

Provision of training and technology exchange implies a similarity of purpose but this does not mean they function as a single entity. Not by a long stretch.And this is common for many groups. Taking this logic on board could even lead one to draw the conclusion from intel reports that when Hizbollah trained al Qaeda members (which I don’t believe but anyway) that they increasingly functioned as a single entity. Enough said on that point.

For them to function as a single entity bin Laden for starters would need to get off his rear end and actually give Omar a personal oath of allegiance, which he has never done. He gave it by proxy in late 1998 only under great pressure and as a means to try to shore up his position against the IMU faction. Making the oath by proxy allowed him  to stay outside the authority of Omar *technically* while being able to claim allegiance. Zawahiri refused point blank. It caused a lot of issues within the Arab Afghan milieu.

The output of Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda media is not interchangeable. The case with the Pakistan Taliban is more complicated, but even here there are still different dissemination channels and different mechanisms for approving media, with different shura councils and different coordination processes. I even note the recent unofficial As Sahaab tape as a point in case (i’m still working on this – it’s odd).

As I’ve said earlier, the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda  is not a marriage, it’s friends with benefits.

At the moment their goals are the same and hence they continue to do the dirty together but it is worthwhile remembering that right before 9/11 bin Laden was booted out of Omar’s bed so to speak. He was seriously in Omar’s bad books. So much so that Omar gave control of the foreign forces to the IMU which caused HUGE issues in the Arab Afghan milieu. It’s a long long story which I go into in significant depth in my thesis. But the short of it is that  9/11 was in many respects bin Laden’s saving grace because the subsequent US invasion forced unity upon the various factions, who were all starting to really fight each other.

There are multiple accounts of this. I remember one detained jihadi’s comments as particularly telling. He said that when the US left Afghanistan everyone would go back to fighting eachother and take off where they had left. It’s important to remember what drives unity is a sense of threat, real or perceived. It’s not only key to radicalisation dynamics but also to the nitty gritty of jihadi alliances between groups. Al Qaeda is especially adept at selling this threat. This is why I am so interested to see Mustafa Hamid re-emerge because he has the capacity to totally squash this narrative that al Qaeda is presumably still trying to sell the Taliban. But I digress.

During the summer of 2001 the IMU and AQ had incidents where weapons were drawn. It wasn’t all holding hands and singing nasheeds. There were some serious power struggles going on and apparently the head of the Taliban in Kabul went and had himself a mini nervous breakdown trying to manage it all forcing Omar to intervene, which is when he got so cranky at al Qaeda he gave control of the foreign forces to the IMU.

My point in this rather long diatribe (so much for short) is that there were real fissures before the invasion. What the invasion unwittingly caused was the forced unity to fight the greater threat. Apart from the obvious practicalities of unifying and the necessity of doing so for survival, it is also a crucial part of the methodology of jihad, as it is practiced and understood by these groups. And when unity is not possible cooperation is not only necessary but mandated.

This brings me back full circle to the point that the Taliban and al Qaeda have not merged, nor have they unified in either a physical sense or a policy sense. They cooperate because they have reason to do so. The real question to me is what if anything would cause them not to? Here the Taliban has the answers because al Qaeda needs the Taliban. The Taliban does not need al Qaeda. Nor did it need al Qaeda before 9/11. Ergo the question of how much does the Taliban want Afghanistan back and the nuances in its recent communications and what they may mean. How much credence one puts in that, who knows. But the point is that they haven’t merged and these moves away from al Qaeda, as nuanced as they are, are very important.  Even outside of the debate at hand. More simply for driving a wedge in the relationship regardless of which strategy gets adopted by the Obama administration.

Much of the reason Mullah Omar refused to give up bin Laden was that by giving up what the western world saw as the most powerful foreign militant in Afghanistan (despite the fact he was not; this title belonged to Tahir Yuldashev), Omar would undermine his own position with the other foreigners whose support he needed to take on the Northern Alliance. They thought they would be next. This created instability when he did not need it -especially in relation to the foreign volunteer force. It’s pretty real politik really. Then you also have the issues of Omar’s credibility as leader particularly in light of the fact that the Taliban was still fighting the Northern Alliance and was itself wracked with internal factionalism so booting out  al Qaeda was not a risk he was prepared to take, either in late 98 or again in any other time up to the US invasion.

Al Qaeda took out Masood to get back in the good books. It wasn’t done for 9/11. It was planned and ready to execute well before OBL even got the final notification the plots were all set.  Then there’s the tribal code issues and also the issue of unity in terms of defensive jihad and in the face of a threat, which is a massively underestimated, but yet crucial part of the manhaj of jihad. I explain this all in the thesis too. But that’s the short of it.

Regarding the use of information communications technology…

There is evidence that al Qaeda and others plan and operate over the internet and the internet has featured prominently in the operationalisation of many plots. In fact the internet features in nearly all al Qaeda plots. Well actually it features in pretty much every plot – at least in the west. I have yet to see one where it hasn’t featured. I’d be fascinated to see or hear of one if anyone can point one out for me btw.

A great deal of communications and plot coordination takes place over the internet. Entire groups have formed online and become operationalised later in real physical spaces.I have a particularly strong case study for my thesis but it is under embargo because of its linkages into trials that are still ongoing.

I’d also point out that 9/11 relied a great deal on use of ICT despite the plot originating in Afghanistan with its poor  infrastructure. However,  it is worthwhile remembering that much of the planning and communications for 9/11 was done via KSM’s Karachi based network and his UAE facilitation hub — all of which relied extensively on the internet.

The web is an effective place for first level training. There are entire online courses run by explosives engineers (some of who are al Qaeda members) who offer feedback and guidance and hold classes. People send in their questions, their trial efforts to build devices. They send pictures and video and surveillance and then get feedback on how to build IED’s, revise the construction of them with guidance from the engineers, are told how much explosives they need on the basis of the target pictures they have submitted.  Some of these training sessions have then then carried over into the real world. Again thesis mini case study. Again embargo. sorry.

The Mobtakker is a viable design. It was disseminated on the internet and then put into place in the 2003 NYC subway plots Ayman Zawahiri subsequently called off.  It wasn’t trained for in a physical camp that I know of.  The reason I know this: I downloaded the manual in 2003 (or 2002 I can’t remember off the top of my head). But anyway, I got it  from the site where these gents were discussing their training and plans and operationalising. I can confirm via other operations and mishaps they spoke about which subsequently did occur that this was legitimate. That site is long gone and some of the copious references/links are  in one of my  corrupted/missing databases, which I am still trying to recover. Hoping I can get it because it will be a nice little addition to one of my chapters.

Operational orders are issued over the internet. I know this because I have downloaded some. again thesis. again embargo.

Bottom line: what a safe haven provides is more sophisticated training. And it does solidify bonds. But not all cell members (with the exception of the 9/11 plots) train together. It is usually only one or two key figures who then return and recruit. What the training in camps provides is  a form of brand protection for attacks that are novel and also for attacks that require additional approval beyond that already approved in doctrinal works. You can see this in the types of manuals distributed on first level courses online, versus those given in the more exclusive online training sessions versus the types of devices used by  operatives physically trained in the camps. The detonation mechanisms for example are more sophisticated in physical  training. Online manuals usually only have single switch detonation devices.  This is brand protection, pure and simple.It ensures that al Qaeda  has control over the bigger plots because people have to come to it for certain levels of expertise and support.

Bonds of deep trust have been established on the internet as trial documentation from UK/US/Bosnia/Canada/Sweden clearly shows with transnational networks where several of the key players have never met and those who did meet in the real world did so after meeting and establishing trust online. In fact the role of the virtual ummah is one that is vastly underestimated in radicalisation dynamics. What is more take a look at the host of bonds of deep trust that form in many online communities such as gamers etc etc (an aside here lots of online jihads are gamers I’ve noticed). It does happen. All the time. Jihadis are no different although a little more wary these days due to interdiction efforts. But nonetheless it still does happen. I’ve been on these forums since 2001. I’ve briefed on them. My research has been sought in other circles so I can say that I know and can confirm that the internet is used in this way.

Ok that’s my ten cents worth. I have to go sleep.

The Front | The New Republic.

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  1. dd
    10/20/2009 at 12:45 am

    Excellent and thoughtfull article Leah. I was wondering if your thesis is covering the aspect of ‘Pashtunwali’ tribal codes with regard to the relationship AQ-Taliban ? You briefly touched upon it here, but I do wonder to what extent it will prevent the Taliban from ‘selling out’ AQ, realpolitics aside.

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      10/20/2009 at 1:18 am

      Thank you! Pashtunwali is not something I am covering off on too much depth simply because of the language issues with translation. I do have some explanation but I have to be careful because that is an explanation from the perspective of foreign militants.

  2. Steveo
    10/20/2009 at 4:38 am
    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      10/20/2009 at 10:11 am

      Thanks for link! Cheers.

    • Tim Knight-Hughes
      12/20/2010 at 5:26 am

      That Article you have linked is awful and full of historical inaccuracies and spin. For example the author claims in this paragraph that the British succeeded ‘sometimes’ in conquering Afghanistan in order to support his claim that “history is not against us”:

      ‘One such voice recently opined, “Afghanistan is a 40,000 rural, rugged village fortress and thus a graveyard of empires since Alexander the Great — unconquered by Romans, Medians, Persians, Turks, Mongols, British, Soviets and our shrinking “coalition” forces.”

      Overlooking the fact that the Romans never came anywhere near Afghanistan and that many village fortresses are pro-American, the truth is that all of the above people except for the Soviets actually succeeded in “conquering” the Afghans! A perusal of maps of bygone empires will show that Alexander, the Persians, the Turks, the Mongols, and even the British at times succeeded in “conquering” Afghanistan (the British absorbed the tribal territories of the North West Frontier Province from Afghanistan into their Indian empire).’

      I’m sorry but as a British Historian this is hogwash! Pure Hogwash! In the First Afghan war (1838- 1842) we were driven out of that country as this passage from Piers Brendon’s “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781 – 1997″ clearly states:

      It was soon evident that Shah Sja, ‘an obstinate, proud, wrong headed man’, could only survive inside a ring of British bayonets. Thus the Army of occupation (British Army) became the common enemy of Afghan tribesmen who, in the absence of an alien foe, devoted their full energies to fighting one another.
      ‘We and our King are extremely distasteful to the country,’ wrote an English subaltern. ‘We are not tyrants enough to be feared and have done little to be respected by a semi-barbarous country.’ Its people were, a Scottish officer later declared, ‘a race of tigers’. Now they stalked their prey amid the labyrinth of narrow, sordid alleys flanked by flat roofed, mud brick houses that was Kabul. Every male among its sixty Thousand inhabitants possessed ‘a sword and shield, a dagger, a pistol or a musketoon’. They insulted, assaulted and then murdered foreign infidels, their most prominent victim being the British envoy Sir William Macnaghten. He was struck down during negotiations with Dost Mahomed’s vengeful son Akbar Khan, whose face, as he did the deed, twisted into a grimace ‘of the most diabolical ferocity’. Parts of Macnaghten’s dismembered body were paraded through the streets while his torso was hung on a meat hook in the Great Bazaar. Yet the British garrison, whose officers had raced, skated, fished, played cricket, pursued Afghan women and jumped their horses over the cantonment wall instead of fortifying their position and foraging for supplies, did not retaliate. Instead, under the command of General William Elphinstone, a ailing incompetent who had last seen shots fired in anger at Waterloo, they beat the most disastrous retreat in British military history.” (Brendon,2007, pp 111-112)

      On the 6th January 1842 that whole army of around 17 000 strong departed from Kabul heading for Jalalabad. (a 90 mile hike) Only one man arrived , Assistant Surgeon William Brydon. The rest were killed by the Afghan’s and the weather. Eventually, the British did a deal with petty monarch’s who inhabited Afghanistan and its regional neighbours.

      I would love to ask Brian Glyn Williams (the author of that historically accurate article!) what part of that wondrous history could be considered a success! Perhaps the ability of British Officers to chase women in a country entirely hostile to them! What a Moron!

  1. 10/21/2009 at 10:15 am
  2. 10/21/2009 at 7:26 pm
  3. 11/13/2009 at 9:35 pm
  4. 05/16/2012 at 7:24 am

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