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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Claims to Lead Muslim World Split Jihadists - Leader of Islamic State Challenges Afghan Taliban's Mullah Omar

From The Wall Street Journal:

KABUL—The rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, just as the Taliban are plotting a comeback in Afghanistan, has ignited a shadowy feud within the jihadist universe: Which "emir of the believers" is the real McCoy?
 
The lofty title denoting spiritual leadership of the Muslim world was claimed in 1996 by the Afghan Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who famously wrapped himself in Prophet Muhammad's cloak in a Kandahar mosque.
 
It was to him that Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders then-based in Afghanistan pledged their allegiance—an oath to which most of al Qaeda's old cadre still subscribe, at least theoretically, and which al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, reaffirmed in his latest video statement this month.
 
But in June, flush with power after seizing Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, decided to one-up Mullah Omar.
In addition to proclaiming himself the new "emir of the believers," he announced that he was also assuming the title of caliph of the entire Muslim world, and would henceforth be known as "Caliph Ibrahim."
 
That was a bold claim that shocked even old guard Islamist extremists, let alone ordinary Muslims who have been horrified by Islamic State's atrocities. The title of caliph, after all, has lain dormant since the heir to the Ottoman throne Abdulmecid II relinquished it in 1924.

In any case, no caliph in more than a millennium actually ruled the entire Muslim world, in part because of the myriad differences in culture and language between, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The demand by Mr. Baghdadi that all the world's Muslims pledge allegiance to him has gained little traction outside Syria and Iraq. But the global ambitions of Islamic State, with its blitzkrieg battlefield victories and a slick propaganda machine, are increasingly unnerving the Taliban.

"In Islamic law, you can't have two persons as the emirs of the believers—one of them should be killed," says Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst who served in the Taliban regime's foreign ministry before the 2001 U.S. invasion, and still maintains contacts with Taliban leaders.

In this contest, he adds, the reclusive Mullah Omar—who communicates with believers twice a year by issuing a holiday encyclical in a variety of languages—is at a disadvantage in the new age of social media and satellite television.

"Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is present, he is talking, people see him. But Mullah Omar has disappeared and nobody knows where he is," Mr. Muzhda says.

Islamic State has already begun trying to gain recruits in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands that shelter the remainders of al Qaeda and a constellation of other jihadist groups. It has started publishing propaganda in Pashto and Dari languages.

So far, however, its inroads have been limited, with only a handful of small, publicity-hungry splinter groups pledging allegiance.

"This is more of an Arab phenomenon. There is no impact here," Afghan Interior Minister Umar Daudzai said about Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The Afghan Taliban, who are under Mullah Omar's leadership, and the main factions of the Pakistani Taliban, who acknowledge him as a spiritual leader but operate separately, have all rejected Mr. Baghdadi's demand for a bayaa, or allegiance pledge. Still, their spokesmen have been cautious to avoid direct criticism of Islamic State.

"We are engaged in an ongoing jihad in our own country, and therefore we don't want to make any comment on the developments and movements in other countries," says Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

The original founders of Islamic State in Iraq— Abu Musab al Zarqawi, killed in 2006, and his successor Abu Omar al Baghdadi, killed in 2010—both spent time in Afghanistan, with Mr. Zarqawi commanding Arab volunteers in Herat under a Taliban commander named Mullah Hanan. As with other Arab jihadists sheltered here, they acknowledged Mullah Omar's authority.

It is unclear whether "Caliph Ibrahim" ever set foot in Afghanistan. While a senior Afghan official says he believes so, others close to the Taliban deny that.

To be sure, for many Arab militants, the pledge to Mullah Omar has always been more of a practical arrangement that allowed them to operate in pre-2001 Afghanistan than a sign of ideological affinity.

Those ideologies have diverged even more over the past decade, as the Taliban focused on regaining power in Afghanistan and opened peace talks with the U.S.

These days, even the more hard-core Afghan Taliban have been repulsed by Islamic State's bloodthirsty ways, such as the wholesale slaughter of Shiites and Yazidis.

"They don't treat people the right way and are much more extreme. The Taliban didn't kill nearly as many people. The Taliban don't force people to convert to Islam," says Mohammad Akbar Agha, a former senior Afghan Taliban commander who was involved in kidnapping United Nations staff in 2004, and is the cousin of the Taliban's political commission chief, Tayeb Agha.

When the founder of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, established his empire in the 18th century, he refused to bow to the Ottoman caliph, addressing him insolently as "brother," Mr. Agha points out.

"This is the attitude of the Afghans," he says. "I don't think they will oblige Islamic State."

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