Published March 10, 2008
CAIRO, Egypt – Al Qaeda supporters on the Web have unleashed an unprecedented flood of criticism of Afghanistan's Taliban, once seen by extremists as the model of an Islamic state.
Now extremists accuse the Taliban of straying from the path of global jihad after its leader Mullah Omar issued a statement saying he seeks good relations with the world and even sympathizes with Shiite Iran.
In February, the Taliban announced it wanted to maintain good and "legitimate" relations with neighboring countries. Then, last week online militants were outraged when the movement expressed solidarity with Iran, condemning the latest round of sanctions imposed on Tehran by the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear enrichment.
The Shiite Islamic state of Iran is viewed as anathema by the Sunni militants of the Al Qaeda and other extremist movements.
"This is the worst statement I have ever read ... the disaster of defending the (Iranian) regime is on par with the Crusaders in Afghanistan and Iraq," wrote poster Miskeen, whose name translates literally as "the wretched" and who is labeled as one of the more influential writers on an Al Qaeda linked Web site.
While anyone with a password can comment on these militant Islamist forums, the Al Qaeda-linked forum moderators single out certain individuals as particularly important. It's not clear, however, whether the resentment among Al Qaeda supporters reflects a rift between the Taliban and Al Qaeda's leadership.
The Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 toppled the movement, and since then the Taliban and Al Qaeda are believed to have worked closely in the Afghan-Pakistan border area.
"The Taliban seeks to be a respected political movement that can at the same time govern Afghanistan and be at limited peace with its neighbors," said Rita Katz, the director of the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group which monitors militant Web traffic.
But she cautioned that the "Taliban's surprising call to support Iran in the face of new U.N. sanctions does not mean that the group is suddenly offering unequivocal support to Iran," though it shows readiness to coexist with the neighbor.
Cairo-based expert on Islamic movements Diaa Rashwan linked the Taliban's quest for international legitimacy to possible future negotiations with the Afghan government.
"Mullah Omar's statement about good relations are in response to accusations from the West that the Taliban is radical and does not accept dialogue or negotiations with others," he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in September he was ready to negotiate with the Taliban, including Mullah Omar himself, to put an end to the insurgency, while U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood said in December he would support reconciliation talks, with some conditions.
"The only problem about an eventual compromise with the Taliban is the fate of Al Qaeda, whether it will be expelled from Afghanistan or commit itself to the Afghan government," Rashwan said.
The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and created a society run according to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law that has since been seen as a model for conservative Muslim militants the world over.
However, it's pursuit of practical policies that involve working together with entities that have different ideologies counters the beliefs of the global jihadist trend represented by Al Qaeda.
"I am afraid that a nationalist ... trend is penetrating Taliban regime," Miskeen said.
"Sheiks Osama (bin Laden) and (Ayman) al-Zawahri should censure Taliban for these statements," said another poster, by the name al-Zarqawiya, an allusion to Al Qaeda leaders.
Katz, however, noted that "Bin Laden and Zawahri understand the need for diplomacy" and may well understand that the Taliban wants to walk a fine line between being part of the international global jihad while still positioning itself to one day rule Afghanistan.
"The Taliban is not necessarily moving away from its model of an Islamic state, but instead seeking a path that will enable the Taliban to achieve its concept of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan while at the same time attaining the respect of at least some members of the international community," she said.