Isis stands to gain from Taliban crisis

Mullah Omar’s death and turmoil over his successor means there is no obvious challenger in the global jihadi movement to Isis chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Amid unrest and confusion over who will succeed Mullah Omar as leader of the Taliban, one group stands to win no matter who is chosen: Isis.

The Taliban has been in turmoil since it confirmed 11 days ago that Omar, long hidden from the public eye, was dead.

Soon after the announcement, a statement on the Taliban’s website designated Omar’s deputy, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor, as its new leader. But that succession has since been contested, including by members of Omar’s family.

With Omar gone there is no obvious challenger in the global Islamist movement to the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the Taliban’s repeated rebukes of its rival have lost their authority.

“The death of Mullah Omar takes away the main centre of gravity in the jihadi movement that competes with Islamic State,” said JM Berger, co-author of Isis: The State of Terror. “There’s not really another figure that can compare to Mullah Omar. This undercuts that side of the equation in a major way.”

The long-delayed announcement of Omar’s death, which Afghan intelligence claims happened more than two years ago, has put the Taliban’s new leader in an awkward position.

As Omar’s deputy since 2010, Mansoor was part of a tiny clique with direct access to the reclusive leader, and was responsible for putting out messages in Omar’s name. Most recently, on 15 July, the Taliban’s website released a statement, in which Omar purportedly endorsed recent peace talks with the Afghan government.

“The question is when he died. If the Taliban have been sending out messages in his name after his death, it’s a huge credibility problem for them,” said Berger.

In an apparent attempt to portray unity, and to show that the jihad against government forces and their foreign backers continues despite internal chaos, the Taliban carried out at least two remarkably vicious attacks in Kabul on Friday. The insurgents claimed responsibility for an assault on an Afghan police academy and a US military base, and are suspected of detonating a truck bomb in a residential area, all within 24 hours. At least 50 people were killed and several hundred wounded in what amounts to the bloodiest day for Afghan civilians in many years.

As the capital was on high alert, a car bomb exploded near the entrance to Kabul airport on Monday, killing four.

Isis is thriving off the visible disarray in the Taliban, with supporters taking to social media, jubilantly denouncing Mansoor as a liar.

“The reason Taliban wanted to hide Mullah Omar’s death was to stop Muslims from pledging allegiance to Islamic State,” one Isis devotee tweeted.

Others spread unsubstantiated rumours that Mansoor had poisoned Omar and dumped his body in a river.

The Taliban have sought to counter Isis’s growing influence within Afghanistan. In an open letter in June, Mansoor warned Baghdadi not to interfere in Afghanistan. The July message in Omar’s name was also seen as a thinly veiled threat to Isis.

However, if Omar really died in April 2013, he was not alive to criticise Isis’s declaration of a caliphate, which was made in 2014.

Borhan Osman, a Kabul-based analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said Omar’s demise leaves Isis with a rhetorical opening: “They showed some caution in describing the Taliban as a deviant group because of the huge importance of Mullah Omar as a symbolic jihadist godfather,” he said. “They are now talking about the new leader in very harsh language.”

In January, a self-proclaimed Isis commander declared a new province in Afghanistan and Pakistan called Wilayat-Khorasan. Since then, small pockets of Taliban fighters have pledged allegiance to Isis. Those groups can now grow.

“The people who swore allegiance to Mullah Omar are not obligated to swear allegiance to his successor,” Berger said. Omar’s death leaves a vacuum, just as the killing of Ahmed Abdi Godane, leader of the Somali Islamist outfit al-Shabaab, did in that group in 2014. “And Isis has been working on al-Shabaab pretty hard for a while,” Berger said.

Yet, there are significant ideological differences between the Taliban and Isis, which are likely to limit defections. Osman described the Taliban fighters prone to joining Isis as “a very small segment”. However, he added, it is difficult to gauge why people join certain militant groups.

“If we look at who has so far joined Islamic State, they have not done so only out of ideology,” Osman said. Equally important factors have been opportunism, crime, grievances against the Taliban, or simple attraction to the Isis brand, he said.

Omar’s death is also likely to have ramifications beyond the Taliban. A win of this sort for Isis is also a loss for its other major rival al-Qaida. In September 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, renewed his bayah – oath – to Omar, implying that if anyone should be caliph of the Islamic world, it should be the Taliban leader, not Baghdadi.

With the coverup of Omar’s death, Zawahiri’s credibility is now strained, too. Either he was embarrassingly uninformed about a man he pledged allegiance to, or implicit in the lies, said Berger. Either way, Zawahiri, who has been publicly silent since September, “has to make an appearance and come up with a plan. If not, al-Qaida will continue to lose ground”, Berger added.

• This article was amended on August 11 2015 to correct a quote from JM Berger. An early version referred to the Islamic movement, when he meant the jihadi movement.


Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul

The GuardianTramp

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