26 October 2009

The Taliban's Growing Ambitions

After reading JD’s post on David Rohde’s article and the links between AQ/Taliban and the Haqqani network (HQN), I wanted to respond to one portion in particular.

JD, you said, “Even with that said I still have not seen any evidence that Pashtun tribesmen are willing to conduct terrorist attacks outside of the AfPak region. We won’t see any evidence of this while the main battleground is in their backyard.”

While I agree that the current pressure on the Taliban will keep them mostly occupied and tied down in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I wanted to shed some light on what I see as the growing radicalization and “globalization” of the Taliban. As Rohde mentioned, there is a growing element within the Taliban who aim to achieve a wider Islamic Caliphate (which falls in line with AQ’s stated goals). Especially at the higher levels, I believe that the line of distinction between AQ and the Taliban is very blurry – and may not even exist in many cases.

Peter Bergen’s recent article in The New Republic, entitled “The Front,” examines the links between AQ and the Taliban, using the case of Najibullah Zazi (recently detained by US officials in Aurora, CO for planning attacks within the US) as an example.

Bergen highlights the critical role that AQ training camps has played in all of the recent attacks in the West (including 1993 WTC attack, 9/11, 1998 African embassies, USS Cole, 2002 Bali, and the failed 2006 British airline plot), explaining that the AfPak border continues to serve as the “epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism.”

Most importantly, Bergen offers some facts that point to an increasing level of cooperation between AQ and the Taliban, including some efforts by the Taliban to attack Western targets outside of the immediate AfPak region (he cites the involvement of Baitullah Mehsud – recent EKIA and former leader of the Pakistan Taliban – in a plot to dispatch suicide bomber to Barcelona in 2008). I believe this is similar to some of the attempts by Zarqawi (AMZ) to extend the reach of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) outside of Iraq –including a major suicide attack against a Western hotel in Jordan. As senior Taliban leaders (many of whom are Pashtun tribe members) become increasingly close with AQ, I think we’ll see them become more and more involved in planning attacks in the West.

Many details are still sketchy about who exactly Najibullah Zazi was working with and receiving direction from prior to his arrest in September, but I would be willing to bet that some of the “un-named intermediaries” that connected Zazi to Mustafa Abu al Yazid (a top AQ operational and financial leader) were in fact just “local Afghans.”

In my mind, this is what makes Afghanistan (and its porous border with Pakistan) the most dangerous of potential AQ safe havens – as compared to areas such as Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia. In the AfPak region, AQ has built an extensive and complicated web of interwoven personal relationships that affords them protection and support (for example, Zawahiri is even married into a local tribe). They continue to involve themselves more heavily in Taliban efforts, embedding AQ “Arabs” as trainer and leaders within the existing Taliban leadership structure (similar to what we saw with the re-organization of the Mosul “Arab Battalion” when it was broken up and distributed across the entire military structure). As AQ increases its involvement in the Taliban at the operational and tactical level, I expect to see an even stronger relationship at the top-tier strategic level.

There are more Najibullah Zazi’s out there right now, being identified by embedded AQ leaders/trainers and recruited to move up within the AQ structure. This is who we need to watch out for…

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