This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.
After an unprecedented 11 months of silence, Ayman al-Zawahri, the emir of Al Qaeda, this week issued a video message proclaiming his loyalty to the new head of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. The almost 10-minute long message dramatically reaffirms the alliance between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a setback for efforts to bring the Taliban into a political process.
The video was released by Al Qaeda's media arm As-Sahab, meaning "in the clouds" or an allusion to the jihadi symbolism that Al Qaeda operates in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.
According to the Pakistan newspaper Dawn, As-Sahab recently relocated its real ground game from Pakistan (where it has been operating since 2002) back to Afghanistan in Helmand province. The Afghan Taliban supported the move and provides safe haven for Al Qaeda, which means 14 years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, Al Qaeda is again running operations out of Afghanistan.
Al-Zawahri's message underscores that Al Qaeda remains close to the Taliban. According to Dawn, a senior As-Sahab official, Qari Abu Bakr, said "the bond between us and our Taliban brothers is a solid ideological bond. The Taliban opted to lose their government and family members just to protect us. There is no question of us moving apart now after going through this war together." In a warning to the United States, he says, "Our common enemy does not know what is coming its way."
In his new message, al-Zawahri eulogizes Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban, as a hero of the global jihad along with Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Mullah Omar is lauded by al-Zawahri for creating the first true Islamic emirate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. He makes no mention of reports Mullah Omar died two years ago in a Pakistan hospital in Karachi under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
In his first message since last September, al-Zawahri promises the global jihad will continue until all Muslim lands are freed from Islam's enemies, especially Jerusalem. Al-Zawahri calls for the recovery of lost lands like Kashmir and Spain (Al Andalusia).
He makes no mention of the Islamic State (ISIS) or his rival Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself the Caliph Ibrahim. Mansoor is the rightful leader of the global jihad for al-Zawahri; al-Baghdadi is an upstart who is not worthy of comment.
Al Qaeda has always been much more vocal about its ties to the Afghan Taliban than the Taliban is about its ties to Al Qaeda. The Taliban focuses its attention on Afghanistan and enjoys close support from the ISI. It has engaged in a furious offensive this year to defeat the Kabul government, an offensive Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently said is backed by the ISI.
The Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban, which has gained influence in the movement with the ascension of Mansoor, is very close to both Al Qaeda and the ISI. For tactical reasons, the Taliban does not advertise its partnerships with Al Qaeda and the ISI, which would undermine its claim to be Afghan nationalists.
The civilian Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been pushing the Taliban to enter a political process with Ghani's government. The process has been suspended since the news of Mullah Omar's death was released by Afghanistan's intelligence service.
The intricacy and deviousness of Pakistan's complex and deep ties to jihadi terrorists is at the root of the survival of both Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in South Asia. The Pakistani Army, which controls the ISI, is determined to keep intact its ties to jihadis as long as they don't target the army itself.
Under pressure from Prime Minister Sharif, the Taliban's new leadership may return to talks with Kabul, but it is not likely to accept a cease fire or break its decades old ties to Al Qaeda.
Bruce Riedel is director of The Intelligence Project and senior fellow at Foreign Policy Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. He joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings in the Middle East and Europe. Riedel was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House.