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The al Qaeda- Taliban Connection

Obama takes his eye off the ball.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By BILL ROGGIO and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On Friday, the New York Times reported that the cellphone used by Osama bin Laden’s most trusted courier was captured during the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The courier had been in touch with members of Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HUM), a terrorist group backed by Pakistan’s spy agency. HUM leaders have endorsed al Qaeda’s terror since the 1990s.

Bin Laden invested heavily in al Qaeda’s ties to the Taliban in particular, an alliance that is not likely to fray any time soon. Years before the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda fighters joined their Taliban brethren in combat in Afghanistan. Bin Laden established al Qaeda’s 55th Arab Brigade specifically for this purpose. Recently leaked memos authored by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) describe the brigade as bin Laden’s “primary battle formation supporting Taliban objectives,” with bin Laden “participating closely in the command and control of the brigade.” 

In late 2001, the 55th Arab Brigade was smashed by coalition forces, with dozens of its surviving members transferred to Gitmo. Bin Laden and al Qaeda then rebuilt the brigade as the Lashkar al Zil, or the Shadow Army. 

The Shadow Army enlisted support from a range of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including senior jihadists bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders had befriended in the 1980s. The Shadow Army also received support from powerful state backers, including elements of Pakistani and Iranian intelligence.

The untold story of the Shadow Army can be found in the threat assessments of JTF-GTMO, which were published online in late April by WikiLeaks. Consider just three striking examples. 

An Afghan named Haji Hamidullah has been detained at Guantánamo since 2003. JTF-GTMO found that Hamidullah was an “agent of the Iranian Savama [Ministry of Intelligence and Security]” and “closely associated” with the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and al Qaeda. One especially intriguing intelligence report contained in his file reads:


December 2002 reporting linked [Hamidullah] to a Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) initiative to create an office in Peshawar combining elements of the Taliban, HIG, and al Qaeda. The goal of the initiative was to plan and execute various terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Members were to attack the foreign headquarters in Kabul in late January 2003. 

Afghan officials linked Hamidullah to numerous attacks, resulting in the deaths of 71 people. Such is the nature of the jihadist coalition in Afghanistan that a suspected terrorist like Hamidullah can cooperate not just with terrorist groups but also with Pakistani and Iranian intelligence. 

Another detainee, Abdul Razak, was identified as “a high-level military commander in a newly-conceived ‘unification’ of Al Qaeda, HIG and Taliban forces within Afghanistan.” Osama bin Laden, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the leader of the HIG and longtime ally of bin Laden), and Mullah Omar “envisioned this new coalition of HIG, Al Qaeda, and Taliban during a meeting in Pakistan in early spring 2003.” (Razak was repatriated to Afghanistan from Gitmo by the Bush administration.)

Still another file contains intelligence on Haroon al Afghani, who is still held at Guantánamo. Al Afghani admitted to U.S. authorities that he studied at a school set up by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and then joined the HIG. He also served as a courier under Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, bin Laden’s chief lieutenant in the 55th Arab Brigade, who is also currently detained at Guantánamo. Afghani’s file contains this startling intelligence report:

[Afghani] is assessed to have attended a joint operations meeting among extremist elements in mid-2006. A letter describing an 11 August 2006 meeting between commanders of the Taliban, al Qaeda, [Lashkar e Taiba], Pakistani military and intelligence officials, and the Islamic Party (probably a reference to the HIG), disclosed that the groups decided to increase terrorist operations in the Kapisa, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangarhar provinces, including suicide bombings, mines, and assassinations.

These are just a few reports, chosen from many in the leaked Guantánamo threat files, that demonstrate a high degree of collusion between al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Their common goal is to drive the U.S.-led coalition out of Afghanistan. 

The Obama administration is right that al Qaeda is headquartered in Pakistan. But that does not mean al Qaeda has removed itself from the coalition attempting to wrest control of Afghanistan. The jihadist hydra in Pakistan has its sights firmly set on Afghanistan. The withdrawal of American troops will only make the defeat of al Qaeda more difficult.

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