Why the death of Mullah Omar could help ISIS in Afghanistan
31 Jul 2015
The reported death of Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, comes at a pivotal moment for the Taliban as it faces up to the growing threat of ISIS in Afghanistan.
ISIS with its expansionist model thrives on instability. Judging by their previous rhetoric and actions in Afghanistan, it is likely that ISIS and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will pounce on this opportunity and manoeuvre themselves into the leadership void left by Mullah Omar.
Mullah Omar was shadowy and aloof rather than a hands on charismatic leader. But he was a vital figurehead with huge ideological influence due to the central importance of religious legitimacy to the Taliban's campaign in Afghanistan.
In hindsight, the Taliban's Cultural Commission's biography of Mullah Omar's life, released in April, now reads more like an obituary. It presents an image of someone who was destined to lead not only the Taliban but also all of Afghanistan's Muslims, strengthened by Omar being a descended from a prestigious clan and a family of notable religious scholars and martyrs
Although the Taliban commit brutal violence, piety plays an important part in the movement's internal culture. There is immense pressure to maintain a reputation of moral uprightness and to hide activities that fellow Taliban would consider corrupt.
Credible Taliban sources have said that Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Omar's second-in-command, will now take charge of the group. Mansour is more pro-dialogue than Mullah Omar, and will prove a polarising figure. Rumours of increased factionalism have permeated from the movement over the past year. These largely arise from moves towards peace with the government by elements of the group and the rival claims of ISIS leader Baghdadi to be leading the 'true' jihad in Afghanistan. Many suggest that it was this ongoing power struggle (and possibly by internal knowledge of Mullah Omar's death) that prompted the splinter group from the Taliban in January 2015 that formed the 'Khorasan Province' of ISIS.
One of the major disputes between ISIS and the Taliban has been over the title amir ul momineen (commander of the faithful), laid claim to by both Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Mullah Omar. The title is traditionally associated with leadership of the global ummah and derives from the 'rightly guided' caliphs of early Islam. Despite these global connotations, the Taliban's outlook has been predominantly nationalistic, seeking to bring about an 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.' This stands in stark contrast to the international 'caliphate' of ISIS. A Taliban spokesman has claimed that this title will be automatically inherited by the group's new leader.
ISIS will challenge this religious legitimacy and claim to be more pious and religiously pure than its competitor. In a recent issue of its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, a defector from al-Qaeda to ISIS criticised Mullah Omar for his "significant Sharia mistakes."
Amongst the group's "deviations" is its association with the Deobandi movement, and, indeed, its membership of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. ISIS – together with most Salafi groups – holds itself above such things, regarding them as innovations of the faith that came after the time of the salaf (early generations of Muslims).
The revelation of the death of Mullah Omar will likely also create a power vacuum, within the entire South Asian jihadi landscape, where ambiguous ties existed between Mullah Omar and a number of different militant groups, including both al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.
Mullah Omar's departure will also leave Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, who pledged allegiance to him, in a challenging position in his effort to assert himself as the leader of global jihad. Having taken over the group after the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri has rarely been seen since the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But he continues to exercise authority over the operations of al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout the world. He will be forced to choose whether to again throw his religious allegiance behind an increasingly fractious group.
This all adds up to a favourable landscape for ISIS. They have already made inroads in Afghanistan, but the combination of a weak government and a quarrelling Taliban presents a further opportunity. Even if ISIS does not expand territorially in Afghanistan, Taliban instability may result in more militants becoming disillusioned and switching their allegiances, further weakening the group's claim to 'ownership' of the Afghan jihad. This makes the situation in the country ideal for ISIS to advance.