By Scott Stewart
Much has been written since the July 30 confirmation that the Taliban's longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died two years ago. Most of the discussion has focused on the future of the Taliban movement, the impact of his death on the al Qaeda core — which had pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar as Amir al-Mu'minin, or "commander of the faithful," — and of course, the Islamic State's efforts to take advantage of Mullah Omar's death.
Certainly, the announcement has caused existing rifts among the various factions of the Taliban to become more pronounced. But these divisions have always existed, and the Taliban have long been anything but a cohesive, unified organization. The announcement also became fodder for a massive Twitter campaign by the Islamic State "Twitteratti," who are seeking to exploit the intentional deception of the Taliban cadres who sought to hide Mullah Omar's death. The Islamic State had publicly challenged the Taliban to publish proof of life for Mullah Omar, suggesting that word of the Talban leader's death had leaked. This likely forced the Taliban to admit that he was dead.
Islamic State gloating aside, I personally doubt we will witness the same scale of defections from the al Qaeda orbit of the jihadist universe that we did after the declaration of the caliphate last year. This is because the battle lines in the al Qaeda vs. Islamic State fight for the heart of the global jihad have become well established, and much of the shine has worn off the Islamic State's claim to be an inexorable force.
From my perspective, the more interesting aspect of the announcement of Mullah Omar's demise is that he had been dead since April 2013, but nobody really missed him. Concealing someone's death for one "Weekend at Bernie's" is one thing, but maintaining such a ruse for two years is quite another.
Despite losing their commander-in-chief in April 2013, the Taliban have been making steady progress in their military campaign against the Kabul government. During the 2014 and 2015 fighting seasons, the Taliban not only worked to solidify their hold in their traditional areas of control in parts of Helmand, Paktika and Zabul provinces but also focused on the country's northern provinces, a marked departure from their previous emphasis on traditional strongholds in the south and east. The Taliban also continued to conduct high-profile attacks in Kabul, though it is noteworthy that Afghan security forces have responded quite effectively to such attacks over the past few months.
The Taliban made these advances while engaged in negotiations with the government in Kabul to try to find a political solution to the violence. The negotiations have been deadlocked, and the Taliban hope to use gains on the battlefield to bolster their negotiating position. Continuing attacks in Kabul against targets including the national parliament also enable the group to make its presence felt at the very heart of Afghanistan's government.
The Taliban accomplished all this without Mullah Omar's direct leadership. One reason for this is that changes in the way the United States and its allies conduct their campaigns against militant groups such as the Taliban have caused a dramatic shift in how those groups operate. The use of Predator and Reaper strikes and commando raids to target militant leaders — supported by robust signals intelligence efforts — have forced militant leaders to dramatically decrease their profiles and curtail their communications. Most leaders now eschew electronic communications and rely on couriers to bring information to them and dispatch orders.
The insulation required to protect jihadist leaders from the relentless efforts to hunt them down means that subordinates rarely have direct interaction with senior leadership. Instead, instructions and guidance are passed via intermediaries. The intermediaries themselves are often isolated from the leaders, communicating with them only via courier. When leaders do come out of hiding to interact with their troops, they put themselves at risk of being killed, as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Emir Nasir al-Wahayshi was when he left his hideout to visit his triumphant followers after the capture of the Yemeni city of Mukalla.
Even showing your face on camera can come with a steep price, as seen by the number of al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula talking heads who have been killed by U.S. airstrikes, including U.S. citizens Adam Gadahn, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also lost spokesman Harith bin Ghazi al-Nadhari in January, along with Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish (the group's mufti) and Nasir bin Ali al-Ansi in April.
This reality reinforces the need to maintain a low profile. It unsurprising that some time has passed since al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri or Islamic State Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were last seen in person or on video. Yet the low-profile approach to jihadist leader survival also comes with a cost: This method of operation leaves apex leaders isolated and slightly behind the information curve. To offset this disconnect and time lag, more autonomy is being delegated to operational leaders in the field.
This delegation works well in a situation like Afghanistan where many elements of the Taliban movement, such as the Haqqani network, are more or less politically aligned with the Taliban leadership but militarily independent. But the situation is far from unique to the Taliban. We know from ample evidence, such as the correspondence recovered when Osama bin Laden was killed, that al Qaeda also functioned in this manner, and also that the Islamic State central core delegates a great deal of autonomy down to emirs at the wilayat, or provincial, level in Syria and Iraq.
In such a detached and decentralized system, it is easy to see how an intermediary could hide the death of an apex leader if the leader's death were only known to a handful of people. The commanders receiving instructions would not really perceive a noticeable difference in communication since they always hear from the intermediary. Such a ruse could be used if the intermediary — or others working with the intermediary — wanted to usurp the apex leader's authority. Obviously, such a ploy could cause considerable blowback once it is discovered.
But there are other, less sinister explanations for the employment of such a ruse. A major one ties back to the relentless campaign to hunt down jihadist leaders: If U.S. and allied intelligence are focused on looking for a ghost, they will not be able to use those same assets to search for the still-living jihadist leader or leaders now in charge.
Tip of the Iceberg?
One of the more interesting responses to the announcement of Mullah Omar's death and the naming of his replacement, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was that one of the statements of support for Mansoor was allegedly given by Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of the Haqqani clan. Soon after this statement of support was issued, reports began to surface that Haqqani had also died more than a year ago, although members of his family denied the report. His son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has been appointed by Mansoor as the operational commander for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This suggests the Haqqanis are indeed firmly behind Mansoor, but even so, this has not quieted the rumors that Jalaluddin is dead. And he is not the only jihadist leader rumored to be no longer among the living.
Islamic State fanboys on social media are often keen to criticize al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for being disconnected and essentially invisible, and some even claim al-Zawahiri is dead. But Islamic State Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself has also maintained an extremely low profile since declaring the establishment of the caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan last year in a speech at a mosque in Mosul, and there have been persistent rumors that al-Baghdadi was later either wounded or killed in a U.S. airstrike. The Islamic State has vehemently denied such rumors but has failed to produce any credible proof of life other than an audio recording released last November.
Similar rumors are swirling around Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Islamic State's Wilayat al-Sudan al-Gharbi, the Nigerian jihadist group formerly known as Boko Haram. Shekau has been repeatedly declared dead by the Nigerian government only to release videos mocking those claims, but he has not appeared in recent videos, and widespread rumors of his demise continue.
Operationally, such rumors will have very little impact on the battlefield even if proved true. Apex leaders can be important figureheads, skillful managers who can unify factions or raise funds and recruit new fighters. But in the end, very few of them are frontline warriors running their group's day-to-day military or terrorist operations. Although Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became widely celebrated in jihadist circles as the "prince of slaughterers," an outtake video released by U.S. forces showed how the man portrayed as vicious and powerful in al Qaeda in Iraq videos was actually wearing unfashionable white sneakers instead of combat boots and couldn't even clear a malfunction from the M-249 light machinegun he awkwardly handled.
Such figures are important symbols, but as seen in the case of Mullah Omar, bin Laden or al-Zarqawi, jihadist groups will continue to function after their leader has been killed. This is not only because the jihadist ideology embraces and even celebrates martyrdom but also because jihadists tend to create decentralized, robust organizations that can survive the loss of the apex leadership. As long as the ideology of jihadism retains its strength and appeal, jihadist groups will continue to recruit new members faster than they can be killed.