Last month’s announcement of the death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar occasioned a barrage of commentary about the implications for the Taliban and the ongoing Afghan peace talks. But his final departure from the scene could have a momentous impact on the jihadi movement as well, strengthening ISIS and further diminishing al Qaeda.
The reclusive Omar was a strong ally of al Qaeda, and his passing is a major blow to the group and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Omar had been a loyal friend to al Qaeda since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. In those years, he stood by Osama bin Laden even as the al Qaeda chief defied his orders to stop giving interviews to Western media, which were complicating the Taliban’s efforts to normalize relations with the international community. Omar’s loyalty to bin Laden even caused discord within the Taliban; one faction wanted Omar to cut ties with the uncontrollable Saudi. The costs of protecting bin Laden and his followers mounted still further after 9/11, when Omar refused to hand over bin Laden, leading to the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban regime.
Al Qaeda’s approach toward the Taliban was more utilitarian. In 1998, bin Laden pledged allegiance to Omar, reluctantly and through a proxy rather than in person. It was an effort to assuage the Taliban’s anger about al Qaeda defying Omar’s instructions to lower its profile and avoid doing anything that harmed Afghanistan’s interests. In subsequent years, al Qaeda continued to view the pledge (Bay’a) through a pragmatic lens, shifting the way it used the oath to suit its own interests. After the Islamic State (also called ISIS) began its rise, al Qaeda found the pledge a useful tool for thwarting its former branch.
Still reeling from the death of bin Laden and other senior leaders, and grasping for a response to the events of the Arab Spring, al Qaeda didn’t have much power to counter
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