The Death of Mullah Omar Could Help ISIS in Afghanistan

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Men offer funeral prayers for the late Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar at Jamia Masjid Khyber in Peshawar, Pakistan on July 31. Fayaz Aziz/Reuters

The reported death of Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, comes at a pivotal moment for the Taliban as it faces up to the growing threat of ISIS in Afghanistan.

ISIS, with its expansionist model, thrives on instability. Judging by previous rhetoric and actions in Afghanistan, it is likely that ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi will pounce on this opportunity and maneuver themselves into the leadership void left by Omar.

Omar was shadowy and aloof rather than a hands-on charismatic leader. But he was a vital figurehead with huge ideological influence due to the central importance of religious legitimacy to the Taliban's campaign in Afghanistan.

In hindsight, the Taliban's Cultural Commission's biography of Omar's life, released in April, now reads more like an obituary. It presents an image of someone who was destined to lead not only the Taliban but also all of Afghanistan's Muslims, strengthened by Omar being descended from a respected clan and a family of notable religious scholars and martyrs.

Although the Taliban commit brutal violence, piety plays an important part in the movement's internal culture. There is immense pressure to maintain a reputation of moral uprightness and to hide activities that fellow Taliban would consider corrupt.

Credible Taliban sources have said that Mullah Akhtar Mansour, Omar's second-in-command, will now take charge of the group. Mansour is more pro-dialogue than Omar, and will prove a polarizing figure.

Rumors of increased factionalism have permeated from the movement over the past year. These largely arise from moves towards peace with the Afghan government by elements of the group and the rival claims of ISIS leader Baghdadi to be leading the "true" jihad in Afghanistan.

Many suggest that it was this ongoing power struggle (and possibly internal knowledge of Omar's death) that prompted the splinter group from the Taliban in January 2015 that formed the "Khorasan Province" of ISIS.

One of the major disputes between ISIS and the Taliban has been over the title amir ul momineen (commander of the faithful) laid claim to by both Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Omar. The title is traditionally associated with leadership of the global ummah and derives from the "rightly guided" caliphs of early Islam.

Despite these global connotations, the Taliban's outlook has been predominantly nationalistic, seeking to bring about an "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." This stands in stark contrast to the international "caliphate" of ISIS. A Taliban spokesman has claimed that this title will be automatically inherited by the group's new leader.

ISIS will challenge this religious legitimacy and claim to be more pious and religiously pure than its competitor. In a recent issue of its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, a defector from Al-Qaeda to ISIS criticized Omar for his "significant Shariah mistakes."

Amongst the group's "deviations" is its association with the Deobandi movement, and, indeed, its membership of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. ISIS—together with most Salafi groups—holds itself above such things, regarding them as innovations of the faith that came after the time of the salaf (early generations of Muslims).

The revelation of the death of Omar will likely also create a power vacuum within the entire South Asian jihadi landscape, where ambiguous ties existed between Omar and a number of different militant groups, including both Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

Omar's departure will also leave Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, who pledged allegiance to him, in a challenging position in his effort to assert himself as the leader of global jihad. Having taken over the group after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri has rarely been seen since the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But he continues to exercise authority over the operations of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout the world. He will be forced to choose whether to again throw his religious allegiance behind an increasingly fractious group.

This all adds up to a favorable landscape for ISIS. They have already made inroads in Afghanistan, but the combination of a weak government and a quarrelling Taliban presents a further opportunity.

Even if ISIS does not expand territorially in Afghanistan, Taliban instability may result in more militants becoming disillusioned and switching their allegiances, further weakening the group's claim to "ownership" of the Afghan jihad. This makes the situation in the country ideal for ISIS to advance.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst for Religion & Geopolitics, which is where this article first appeared.