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July 27, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1590

U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Invigorates Leading Jihadis To Follow Taliban's Model: Insight Into The Narrative Of Salafi Jihadi Clerics And Shi'ite Militias

July 27, 2021 | By S. A. Ali*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1590

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

Introduction

The U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 2021 is provoking a victorious narrative among Salafi-jihadi clerics and some Shi'ite militants in Iraq as both groups exploit the withdrawal not only to motivate fighters to never abandon jihad or, in the case of the Shi'ite militias, to continue targeting the U.S. interests in the region, but also to discredit rival groups.

On one hand, Salafi-jihadi clerics are perceiving the Afghan Taliban's surge in Afghanistan as a victory for its ideological parent: Al-Qaeda. On Telegram, while supporters of jihadi groups eagerly shared videos showing Taliban fighters taking control of borders crossings and advancing on cities, jihadi clerics were actively messaging on Taliban's "steadfastness" that ultimately led to a "victory" over a superpower. Coupled with praise for the "glories of jihad," posts argued that the Afghan model is the one to follow in order to impose sharia. Others criticized regional players and those perceived as opponents of jihad, such as Turkey.

Meanwhile, messaging by Shi'ite militias in Iraq, which often perceive Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Afghan Taliban as terrorists, this time spoke in a different tone, arguing that the Afghan model is the only way to oust the American "occupier."

The following report will examine examples of how the jihadis' narrative is exploiting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban advances.

Abu Qatada Al-Filistini: Taliban Adopted "Traditional Islamic Fiqh [Jurisprudence] Yet Remained Creative in Implementing Its Goals"

Jordan-based Salafi-jihadi ideologue 'Umar Mahmoud 'Uthman aka Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini is an important influence on Salafi-jihadis worldwide, particularly supporters of Al-Qaeda and Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Abu Qatadah was born in 1960 in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, which at the time was controlled by Jordan, making him a Jordanian citizen. He spent a brief period in Pakistan in the late 1980s before returning to Jordan. In 1993 he applied for asylum in the UK, claiming he was suffering religious persecution in Jordan. In 1999, the Jordanian government tried him in absentia for alleged involvement in a terrorist plot to attack tourists and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Abu Qatadah was arrested in 2002 in the UK on terrorism charges and spent some time in prison there before being deported to Jordan in 2013. In Jordan he was retried and released from prison in 2014 after being found not guilty. Since then, he has been living in Jordan as a free man.[1]

Recently, Al-Filastini has shared on his Telegram channel lengthy posts commenting on the developments in Afghanistan. On July 11, 2021, Al-Filastini, who has significant influence on Salafi-jihadis worldwide, particularly supporters of Al-Qaeda, praised the Taliban for adopting a "traditional Islamic fiqh [jurisprudence]" yet remained creative in implementing its goals.[2]

Praising the Taliban's strategy, the cleric said that the group has not wasted time in theorizing the concept of Islam. Instead it has been more focused on dealing with "the facts on the ground."

Tactfully criticizing jihadi groups that "try to present itself to the West as moderate groups," the cleric attributed Taliban's uniqueness to its commitment to its founding principles including its fighters' physical appearance.

"Relying on its profound convictions, the Taliban insisted on staying genuine, preserving its image rather than distorting it with modernism... This includes even the length of [its fighters'] beards – which some mocked, or when it comes to keeping the religious national dress [Afghan dress]. Our group likes to fit within the scene, with their words and terminology, and by their clothes, and by trimming their beards so they would not look obvious on camera, and therefore they like to be part of the band of modernity, not history."

On the same day, Al-Filastini posted again an image showing a seal allegedly used by Afghan Taliban to allow vehicles to pass through the Islam Qala border crossing, which Taliban took over the same day, between Afghanistan and Iran.

He praised the group for giving the crossing a new name after Abu Baker Al-Siddiq, one of the companions of Muhammad, sending a strong message to the Shi'ite regime in Iran, which ideologically resents Al-Siddiq.

Al-Filastini further published the full transcript of an interview conducted by local Afghan media with Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, saying that the interview should be "examined and studied because it shows how the Taliban's media syncs with its political and ideological principles."

In line with his vigorous support of Taliban, the cleric, who often appears in official Al-Qaeda video releases, devoted another lengthy post on July 13, denouncing Turkey's proposal to leave some 500 troops at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to secure foreign diplomatic missions after the remaining NATO forces leave.[3]

He considered Turkey's proposal a betrayal of its Islamic identity, saying that Ankara decided to "trump race over religion" in order to guard the Uzbeks of Afghanistan in the country's north, who are ethnically Turkic.

Idlib-Based Jihadi Cleric Abu Yehya Al-Shami: Taliban's Ability To Prevail Is Due To Its Vast Loyal Base, Commitment To Shari'a

Abu Yehya Al-Shami, who presents himself as a researcher and expert in "shari'a politics," shared on July 15 an article he wrote for Al-Balagh, an Idlib-based monthly magazine issued by a group of jihadi clerics, in which he portrayed the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a "humiliating defeat," and a "victory for the Afghan people who over the years have managed to defeat all the empires."[4]

Further demeaned the U.S.-backed Afghan government and forces, Al-Shami said that they have "regressed in the face of the progress made by the genuine Afghan Islamic movement [Taliban], which has never been affected by the barbaric attacks launched against it and its loyal incubator."

Al-Shami attributed the Taliban's ability to prevail to its vast faithful base, and to its commitment to the rule of shari'a, which he said has ensured its self-determination far from any international influence.

"The Taliban and those who embrace it have a deep old desire to rule [in accordance with] shari'a. This only leads to unity and independence from any international interference," he said.

Abdullah Al-Muhaysini: Water The Thirsty Ummah From The Cup Of The Taliban's Glory

U.S.-sanctioned Abdallah Al-Muhaysini is a senior cleric who has served at various times as a recruiter, fundraiser, and religious advisor for Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).[5] In April 2016, Muhaysini launched a campaign to recruit 3,000 child and teenage soldiers from across northern Syria. He has also served at various times as its military strategist and political representative.

The Syria-based Saudi Salafi cleric has in recent weeks shared dozens of posts celebrating the Taliban's seizure of districts across the country. Al-Muhaysini, who often visits jihadi fighters on the front lines to raise their morale, shared on June 19 a post on his Telegram channel joyfully listing the key areas that the Taliban had seized since the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, dubbing them "conquests" that remind him of the days of Jaysh Al-Fatah ("the Army of Conquest"), a group in Syria that he served as a religious judge.[6]

He also posted videos showing Taliban fighters seizing "spoils" and others of Afghan forces surrendering to the Taliban following the withdrawal of the U.S. forces on May 1.

To inspire other jihadi groups to follow in the Taliban's footsteps, he wrote: "The lions of the Taliban are the men of Islam. By Allah, I have tears of joy as I watch the conquests of the Taliban, the men of Allah. In this video, 300 commandos affiliated with the American forces are surrendering to the hands of your brothers. The lions of jihad are patting their shoulders and saying: Go, you are free. Share these bright models... to quench the thirsty Ummah [i.e., Islamic nation] from the cup of Taliban's glory."

Abu Razzaq Al-Mahdi: Commanders Of Syria-Based Factions Should Examine Taliban's Model

The Syrian jihadi cleric who is affiliated with Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and is actively involved in motivating jihadi groups in Idlib shared a photo on July 8 showing a "beautiful scene of a U.S. armored vehicle that the Taliban fighters have taken in a picnic."[7]

Al-Mahdi who was recently honored by Rabitat Al-Wafa', an association of Saudi-born jihadis in Syria, for his role in encouraging the mujahideen, wrote on his Telegram channel on July 2 a post in which he commented on the U.S. withdrawal from “Bagram base in Afghanistan, which was bult by the Soviets," saying: "America has been defeated just like Russia was." He called it "a devastating defeat for America at the hands of the Taliban, which is devoted to its religion."

On June 23, Al-Mahdi shared two photos showing "Humvees, which were seized by Taliban fighters." In his caption, he called on commanders of jihadi factions operating in Syria to copy the Afghan model. "Commanders of Idlib and north Aleppo-based factions: Unite your ranks and rely on Allah, examine the lessons and the experiment of Taliban," he said.[8]

Abu Mariyah Al-Qahtani: Taliban Not Intimidated By The Enemy Or Disheartened By The Loss Of A Friend

Abu Mariyah Al-Qahtani, a senior religious official of Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), wrote an article shared by HTS media affiliates,[9] commenting on the Taliban's victorious advancement in Afghanistan. Al-Qahtani, whose real name is Maysar Ali Musa 'Abdallah Al-Juburi, tied the Taliban's steadfastness to the unity among its ranks.

Addressing HTS rivals who are applauding the Afghan group, he called on them to follow in their footsteps, especially their commitment to the unity of the mujahideen. He argued that "the Taliban is made of faithful scholars who do not get intimidated by the statements of an enemy or disheartened by the loss of a friend." He praised the Taliban for "seeking first to please Allah only and not being concerned with the masses or the number of followers it has."

He attributed the Taliban's success to their "strong tribalism," a factor that he said it uses to serve Islam, and to its agreement on pursuing "one school of faith, one creed, and for favoring the interests of its country rather than the personal interests of its members."

Admitting that Afghanistan's rugged terrain gave the Taliban a defensive advantage, Al-Qahtani stressed that the group was fortified by Allah's religion and remained united, "holding fast with the rope of Allah [Quran 3:103]." He added that those praising the Taliban and claiming it is an inspiration should follow in its footsteps, especially concerning unity, noting that "Allah has ordered us to do this but our sick selves and desires hinder us and glamorize division and fragmentation."

 

Iraqi Shi'ite Militias: The Americans Will Be Ousted From Iraq As They Were From Afghanistan

In Iraq, media outlets affiliated with Iran-backed militias capitalized on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to justify their escalated attacks on U.S. forces in the country, which recently stretched to Syria.

In April 2021, when U.S. President Joe Biden announced his intention to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, Qais Al-Khazali, the U.S.-sanctioned Secretary General of Iran-backed Asa'ib Ahal Al-Haq (AAH), which was involved in the kidnapping of four U.S. soldiers from an Iraqi police headquarters before killing them in 2007, capitalized on the opportunity by arguing that "the Afghan model is the only way to ensure that the Americans are out of Iraq."[10]

Encouraged by his statement and the flood of video clips on social media showing the Taliban takeover of Afghan border crossings, Sabreen News, a Telegram channel believed to be affiliated with AAH, shared a post on July 10 threatening U.S. forces, saying that they will be forced to leave Iraq as they were forced to leave Afghanistan.[11]

"You shall leave humiliated; no meditation will help you. The world will witness a similar view of what happened to you in Afghanistan," said one post threatening more attacks on military bases housing U.S. forces.

Ibn Al-Sikkit, another Telegram channel affiliated with Iran-backed militias in Iraq, took another angle when it shared on July 7, a news story saying that 1,000 Afghan soldiers had fled to Tajikistan to avoid persecution by the Taliban. The channel commented on the story, saying that "after 20 years of U.S. training," the Afghan soldiers eventually fled to Tajikistan.[12]

The post was projecting the same fate for the Iraqi security forces that the current U.S. military mission in Iraq has trained. Presenting the Iraqi forces as weak naturally serves another goal; validating the necessity of having an alternative armed entity capable of guarding Iraqi Shi'ites, a role that these militias claim.

"20 years of training and the outcome is a massive flight to Tajikistan. America does not create armies. Thank you, Allah, for the blessing presence of Hashed [i.e., Popular Mobilization Units]," the post read.

Conclusions

Over the years, the relationship between the Taliban and other jihadi movements has been consolidated through ideological ties, personal ties, and common goals. In a recent wide-ranging interview with Afghan television network TOLOnews, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid refused to denounce the Taliban's ties with Al-Qaeda, or for that matter with any Muslim group, citing faith in Islam as the reason. Asked about the Taliban's commitments to the Doha agreement, Zabihullah Mujahid said: "[The pact] has not mentioned anything about relations [between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda]. The relation between Muslims in the world is in faith. This is not logical at all [to cut ties with Al-Qaeda]."[13]

Such ties and goals, along with the jihadi perception of the U.S. withdrawal as a victory for the Taliban and a humiliating defeat for Washington, reinforces the group's legitimacy in the global jihadi leadership.

Together with the defeat of ISIS "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is enabling the Taliban to rise as the model to which jihadi groups aspire. The jihadi narrative, as demonstrated above, reflects such aspirations that will continue to lure youths and jihadis.

As for Shi'ite militias in Iraq, which are even fundamentally at odds with the radical Sunni Taliban, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is unleashing a valuable opportunity to escalate attacks against the American forces under the cover of the "legitimate resistance" against the "U.S. occupier, which can only be ousted by force in a way similar to what happened in Afghanistan," as Qais Al-Khazali indicated.

On the other hand, by questioning the efficiency of the U.S.-trained Afghan forces, they are placing more pressure on the Iraqi government, which is trying walk a thin line with these militias to convince them to keep the current U.S. military mission for training purposes.

* S.A. Ali is the Director of the MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM) Project.

 

[2] Telegram, July 11, 2021.

[3] Telegram, July 13, 2021.

[4] Telegram, July 15, 2021.

[5] Treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0605.aspx, November, 10, 2016.

[6] Telegram, June 19, 2021.

[7] Telegram, July 8, 2021.

[8] Telegram, June 23, 2021.

[9] Telegram, July 2021.

[10] Twitter, April 24, 2021.

[11] Telegram, July 10, 2021.

[12] Telegram, July 7, 2021.

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