The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor

By: Abdul Sayed

The Jamestown Foundation

Salafists in Afghanistan face severe challenges and insecurities after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15. The Taliban are suspicious of Afghan Salafists for supporting the Taliban’s arch-enemy, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). The Taliban’s abduction of one of the most influential and senior Afghan Salafist scholars, Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, from his home in Kabul on August 28 and his brutal and mysterious killing one week later has exacerbated fears among influential Salafist scholars that the Taliban is searching for other Salafists in Kabul and Nangarhar who will face the same fate as Mutawakil (Twitter.com/Ab. Sayed, September 5).

Afghan Salafists have long feared these threats from the Taliban, which is why they held a high-level meeting at the beginning of last year with the Taliban leadership. This article provides insights into that meeting and what was discussed between the Salafist and the Taliban leaders and how the current challenges faced by Salafists were reflected in those meetings’ speeches. This article further contextualizes the speeches of that meeting in the history of Taliban-Afghan Salafist relations. Finally, the article argues that the way their relations are unfolding will strengthen ISKP in its war in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

Afghan Salafists’ Pledge of Loyalty to the Taliban after ISKP’s Collapse

The Afghan Salafist Council under its emir, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Nooristani, met with Afghan Taliban leaders and pledged their allegiance to the Taliban’s supreme leader, Shaikh Haibat Ullah Akhunzada, in March 2020. The meeting was held after the Taliban defeated ISKP in the latter’s traditional strongholds of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces in eastern Afghanistan. This ocurred shortly before the US-Taliban peace deal was signed in Doha on February 29, 2020. The meeting’s details were later revealed through a 17-minute video entitled “Pledge of Allegiance of Salafi Ulama”, which was published by the Afghan Taliban’s official media arm, al-Emarah studio. [1]

According to the video, 32 influential Afghan Salafist ulema (scholars) and commanders accompanied Nooristani in this meeting. Most were from eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar, Nangarhar and Nooristan provinces and the neighboring Pashtun belt of Pakistan, meaning that some commanders were Pakistani. Among the prominent Salafist meeting participants were Haji Hayat Ullah, who is the nephew of the founder of Salafism in Afghanistan and Shaikh Jamil ur Rehman, who belonged to the Hizb-i-Islami party of Gulbudeen Hekmatyar and later established the first Afghan Salafist party, Jumat-ul-Dawa Lil Quran Wal Sunnah. [2] In addition, the most influential Pakistan-based Afghan Salafist scholar, Shaikh Ameen Ullah Peshawari, was represented by his brother in this meeting. Peshawari focuses on teaching and preaching the Salafist creed and avoids involvement in political and militant affairs. He is among the most influential Salafist scholars in the Pashtun belt because his family origin is Kunar, Afghanistan. However, his family has lived for decades in Peshawar, Pakistan, and hence he is considered both an Afghan and Pakistani.

The Salafists’ delegation requested the Taliban not to drag them into the Taliban’s bloody war with ISKP. Nooristani, Hayat Ullah, and other Salafist leaders explained to the Taliban leadership that although ISKP originates from among the Afghan Salafists, the latter do not support ISKP in its war against the Taliban. The Afghan Salafists called ISKP “an international conspiracy of the Jews and Crusaders” to confront the Taliban. Nooristani told the Taliban representatives that some of the Salafist figures present in the meeting who pledged loyalty previously to the Taliban did so in order to ensure the Taliban that the Salafists do not support ISKP, and that they were loyalists of the Taliban’s Emirate.

Shaikh Nida Muhammad and Shaikh Khalid were among the representatives of the Taliban. Both served as Taliban senior officials in its intelligence and Dawat Irshad (Invitation and Guidance) commissions. Nida has, since the fall of Kabul, become the Taliban’s governor for Nangarhar province, where he has arrested dozens of Salafists in the Taliban’s campaign against the ISKP. Khalid was appointed as a minister in the Taliban’s cabinet.

Khalid, Nida, and other Taliban leaders spoke triumphantly to the Afghan Salafists and told them that the Taliban as of the February 2020 had already defeated the superpower United States and its more than four dozen allies in Doha, so no one had the right to challenge the Taliban in Afghanistan. They reminded the Afghan Salafists’ delegation that the Taliban might have shortcomings, but there is no replacement. The Taliban promised the Afghan Salafists that it will allow religious freedom to all sects, including the Shias, so the Salafists in Afghanistan should also have no fear.

Taliban Actions After the Fall of Kabul

With the fall of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban violated its promises with the Afghan Salafists by launching a countrywide campaign against influential Salafists who were suspected of past links with ISKP. [3] The Taliban closed more than three dozen Salafist mosques and seminaries in around 16 provinces, including Nangarhar (Twitter.com/Ab.Sayed, September 11). The Taliban’s local fighters also tried to arrest prominent Salafist scholars in Afghanistan, but the latter went into hiding after the Mutawakil abduction. Among those in hiding include Abdul Zahir Daee and Ustad Maroof Rasikh in Kabul and Shaikh Ahmad Shah and Shaikh Sardar Wali in Nangarhar. [4] The Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid denied the Taliban’s links to the murder and abduction of Mutawakil, but notably he did not utter a single word to condemn the murder (Twitter.com/Zabihullah, September 5). He claimed the Taliban would investigate the case, but the Mutawakil family contested that those who abducted and murdered Mutawakil were Taliban fighters. [5]

Evidence shows that most of the influential Salafist religious figures in Afghanistan, including those mentioned above, condemned ISKP for its indiscriminate violence against civilians and other actions that the Salafists believed were against Islamic principles. Their opposition to ISKP further increased when the group declared that loyalty to the caliph Abubakar al-Baghdadi was a prime religious duty for all Muslims and that anyone failing to do so would become a sinner and be excommunicated from Islam. According to a former ISKP prisoner, the militant faction’s imprisoned members did not offer prayers after Mutawakil’s death because he had not pledged loyalty to al-Baghdadi [6]. Despite this, the Afghan government itself had once arrested Mutawakil and accused him of links with ISKP (Tolo News, February 9, 2019).

The ISKP targeted Salafist scholars who opposed ISKP. This included Ustad Mubashir Muslimyar from Kabul, who was a close aide of Mutawakil and a Kabul university lecturer (Tolo News, February 18). Although ISKP did not claim Muslimyar’s killing, its social media supporters excommunicated him for opposing ISKP’s ideology and celebrated his murder.

Why Are the Taliban Repressing Salafists?

The Taliban are arresting and killing Afghan Salafist scholars like Mutawakil—despite the fact that they opposed ISKP—for several reasons. For one, although disgruntled members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, founded ISKP, soon afterwards ISKP became a Salafist-dominated group and shifted to Nangarhar province in Afghanistan (TRT World, September 13). Afghan Salafists also took charge of ISKP after its founding Pakistani leaders who had defected from TTP were killed in the U.S. drone strikes and counter-terrorism operations in Nangarhar. As a result, Afghan Salafists and jihadists from Peshawar started flooding into ISKP ranks.

Afghan Salafists had previously faced several bans by the Afghan Taliban during the Taliban’s pre-9/11 rule, including Salafist madrassas, such as Mutawakil’s in Kabul and others in Nangarhar and its neighboring Laghman province. [7][8] Since that time, the Salafist’s main issue with the Taliban was that Sufi and Maturidi Hanafists dominated Taliban ranks. Salafist theologists declared those Sufi and Maturidi Hanafists impure Muslims and considered them apostates for their theological beliefs. This resulted in the unofficial Taliban bans on Afghan Salafists in the pre-9/11 era. As a result, Afghan Salafists shifted to Peshawar, which hosted Salafist madrassas. [9] There, they focused on preaching Salafism to the millions of Afghans in the diaspora and the local population in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

Afghan Salafists’ roots are also in the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtoonkhawa province, Peshawar, and its surrounding districts bordering Afghanistan, including Bajaur. These areas have accommodated large Afghan refugee camps since the early 1980s, where the Salafist madrassas funded from the Middle East propagated Salafist teachings to the Afghan masses. Peshawar was also the capital of the Afghan resistance groups fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Thousands of foreign fighters and donors for the Afghan jihad also based in Peshawar to help the Afghan resistance groups. The latter include influential Salafist international ideologues like Shaikh Abu Qatada Falistini, Abu Muhammad Maqdisi, Shaikh Isa al-Misri and others. [10] [11] The Afghan Salafists’ major madrassas were founded in Peshawar during this period from where thousands of youths graduated with specialization in the Salafists creed. They helped spread that Salafist creed in their home provinces in Afghanistan, Peshawar and elsewhere in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks meant the Taliban faced a strong enemy for which it needed every Afghans’ support. The Afghan Salafists decided to put aside their sectarian differences of the past with the Taliban to join them in the “greater jihad” against the United States. [12] The Middle Eastern Salafists in al-Qaeda’s rank and file further mediated the situation between the Afghan Salafists and the Taliban, unifying them for the more significant religious duty of fighting against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan. [13]

Al-Qaeda played a primary role in establishing the post-9/11 war front in Afghanistan when massive American attacks destroyed the Taliban’s organizational structure. [14] Al-Qaeda organized its local Pakistani allies and Afghan Salafists to help build an insurgency in Afghanistan, and gradually handed over its command to the Taliban. As soon as the Taliban took full control over the insurgency, it once again started purifying its ranks of Salafists. Although the Salafists in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces had a founding role in the post-9/11 jihad against the United States and its allies, the Taliban gradually marginalized them and gave them only minor commander roles. [15] The Taliban were, since the beginning, quite cautious in not allowing the Salafists to run parallel militant networks in Afghanistan.

The emergence of ISKP, however, provided a powerful platform for Afghan Salafists to establish military strength parallel to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Salafists flooded ISKP ranks from inside Afghanistan as well as from Pakistani Peshawar and its surroundings (Terrorism Monitor, November 20, 2020). These included students and followers of the Salafist scholars, including those from Kabul and Peshawar. Some even rose to ISKP’s senior leadership, including Shaikh Jalaluddin. He left Peshawar with his students and joined ISKP in Afghanistan at the beginning of ISKP’s emergence in early 2015. He soon became the ISKP’s top mufti and ideologue and was killed in a US drone strike in the Nangarhar province on October 13, 2015. His speeches still serve as ISKP propaganda narratives against the Taliban, which ISKP uses for mobilizing the Salafist support for ISKP. [16]

Afghan Salafists inside Afghanistan or those living in Peshawar were optimistic that with ISKP’s rise, Salafism might become supreme at least in ISKP strongholds of eastern Afghanistan, particularly Kunar and Nangarhar. [17] However, ISKP’s extreme interpretations of Islam and its indiscriminate bloodshed resulted in it losing the Salafist ulema’s support, who began calling on followers to defect from ISKP ranks. Even Peshawari sent a message to Jalaluddin to leave ISKP, but Jalaluddin disagreed. [18] Instead, Jalaluddin criticized the Salafist ulema, who were now opposing ISKP [19]. He reminded Salafist youths that the Salafist ulema were the same people who supported Shaikh Jameel’s declaration of an Islamic Emirate in Kunar in the late 1980s but now opposed being loyal to Abubakar al-Baghdadi, who, according to Jalaluddin, followed the same principles as Jameel.

Conclusion

The Afghan Salafist grievances due to the Taliban’s anti-Salafist policies helped ISKP to quickly establish a war front against the Taliban in Afghanistan in early 2015. These grievances were rooted in the Taliban’s hostile relations with the Salafists in Afghanistan since it took control of Afghanistan in the mid-nineties and, later, the marginalization of the Salafists who played the primary role in starting the insurgency in Afghanistan after 9/11. This complex history shows that the Salafists are not only an integral part of the ISKP challenge to the Taliban, but also that the ISKP emerged as a result of Salafist grievances of Afghan Taliban’s policies.

If the Taliban does not prevent its anti-Salafist segments from repressing Salafists and does not accommodate the Salafists in the Taliban Salafist-dominated provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and elsewhere in northern Afghanistan, their grievances will strengthen the ISKP’s recruitment and pose a threat to the Taliban.

External states that use militant proxies in Afghanistan, moreover, can exploit the ISKP threat to pressure the Taliban. This will exacerbate the decades-long protracted conflicts that have affected the Afghan masses and could lead to a brutal new era of religious extremists’ bloodshed in Afghanistan, as was seen in recent years in Iraq and Syria. This will ultimately increase the security challenges faced in the region around Afghanistan and in the international community.

Notes

[1] “The Pledge of allegiance of Salafi Ulama”, al-Emarah Studio, March 2020.

[2] See, for example, Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai, Night Letters, (Hurst Publishers: London, 2019).

[3] Author interview with a Salafist scholar who was a close friend and colleague of Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, remotely conducted, September 5, 2021.

[4] Author interviews with sources based in Nangarhar and Kabul, August and September 2021.

[5] Author interview, September 5, 2021.

[6] Author interviews, August and September 2021.

[7] Author interview, September 5, 2021.

[8] Author interview with an Afghan Salafist leader who was involved in the Salafist negotiations with the Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Muhammad Rabbani over the Taliban’s bans on several Salafist madrassas in Nangarhar and Laghman in the 1990s, Kabul, June, 2021.

[9] See Abdul Rahim Muslimdost and Badru Zaman Badr, Da Guantanamo Mati Zolani (The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo) [In Pashto], (Al-Khilafa Publishers: Peshawar, 2006).

[10] Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, (Cambridge University Press, New York: USA, 2012).

[11] For details, see, Syed Salim Shahzad, Inside al-Qaeda and Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, (Pluto Press: London, UK, 2011).

[12] Author interview with an Afghan Salafist leader who was based for decades in Peshawar and remained closed to Peshawari but returned to Afghanistan in recent years, conducted in Kabul, June 2021.

[13] The Egyptian Shaikh Abu Isa al-Misri played an influential role in Pakistan after 9/11 for channeling the Afghan and Pakistani Salafists to al-Qaeda camps in Waziristan and later for fighting under the Taliban ranks in Afghanistan against the US and allies. Al-Misri authored books explaining the importance of fighting against the invading ‘infidels.’ For details, see, Shahzad, 2011.

[14] Shahzad, 2011.

[15] Author interviews conducted on various dates in 2020 and 2021 with different sources based in Nangarhar and Kunar, which included former government officials, tribal elders, and journalists.

[16] The resurgence of ISKP’s “Voice of Caliphate” radio in the beginning of this year and propaganda videos from other ISKP local media outlets, like Khalid Media, mostly include extracts from Shaikh Jalaluddin’s speeches.

[17] Author interviews, 2020–2021.

[18] Author interview, Kabul, June 2021.

[19] Shaikh Jalaluddin, “Why we are fighting against the Taliban?”, August 2015, Khurasan Studio.

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