Taliban to give Al-Qaeda covert, not overt support: analysts

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Paris (AFP)

The Taliban will offer support to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan more discreetly than during their first period in power when they openly embraced the terror network, analysts say.

After conquering Kabul for the first time in 1996, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime provided Al-Qaeda with a safe haven to operate training camps, even describing its leader Osama bin Laden as a "guest" of the country.

But after being overthrown in 2001 in retaliation for the September 11 attacks in the United States, which were planned from Afghanistan, the incoming Taliban authorities in Kabul are expected to take a new approach this time.

"If the Taliban of 2021 are different from those of 2001, it's not because they have moderated their religious obscurantism, but because they don't want to make the same strategic error, which was their blind support for Al-Qaeda which cost them power," said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a jihadism specialist at Sciences Po university in Paris.

Filiu told AFP that he expected the Taliban to again offer safety to bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, citing personal links between the two organisations.

The fathers of Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob, both senior leaders in the modern-day Taliban, had past links to bin Laden, for instance.

When the Taliban's leader Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed in 2016 Zawahiri showered him with praise, calling him "the emir of the faithful".

- 'Under protection' -

Under a US deal brokered with the Taliban last year under former president Donald Trump, the Taliban promised to prevent jihadist groups from using the country as a base.

Then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo claimed the group had "made the break" from Al-Qaeda in an interview in March 2020.

But Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and analyst at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, said "the Taliban were never sincere about cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, nor should we have expected them to be".

"After all, this isn't a matter of two political or military groups cutting ties, but rather brother cutting ties with brother and cousin with cousin," he told AFP.

Edmund Fitton-Brown, the head of a UN mission to monitor the Islamic State terror group, Al-Qaeda and Taliban, came to the same conclusion.

"We believe that the top leadership of Al-Qaeda is still under Taliban protection," he told US news network NBC in February this year.

- Covert, not overt -

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a security expert and fellow at George Washington University, predicted that the links between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would be different this time round.

"It will be more covert. It won't be such an open presence. I don't think they will allow them to open training camps that could be detected from the outside and could face bombing attacks," Tamini told AFP.

"The Taliban might try to do something similar to Iran's policy, where they keep some AQ leaders under house arrest while giving them some leeway for example to communicate with affiliates."

Iran denies any links to Al-Qaeda or harbouring its operatives, although US media outlets reported in 2020 that the network's number two had been assassinated in Tehran by Israeli agents.

Rubin said the lightning Taliban takeover was a major intelligence failure that could augur badly for the West's ability to counter the new threat emanating from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

"Consider what the CIA missed: The Taliban had started political negotiations with local officials throughout the country in order to win their defections, and the CIA had missed the fact that the Taliban had deployed its forces throughout the country to preposition them for assaults on every provincial capital," he said.

Another possible consequence of the Taliban takeover could be a battle against a local offshoot of the Islamic State group which was formed in 2014 by defectors from the Taliban.

Filiu from Sciences Po university said the Taliban "would never pardon such a betrayal and will fight to the end to crush this jihadist group."

"The Taliban will no doubt play up their repression of the Islamic State to improve their image in the eyes of the West," he added.