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Fragmented alliances. This paper examines the nature of the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban after 2001, which is complex because neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda is a homogenous actor. Rather, each is a network of like-minded groups and individuals that answer, to some degree or other, to a centralized leadership.
Al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s contribution to the Afghan insurgency since 2001 has been highly localized, taking place mostly in the southeastern and eastern provinces of the country. This concentration is due to both geographic factors and al-Qaeda’s long-standing ties to local militants in these regions.
Al-Qaeda and the Quetta Shura. While al-Qaeda fighters continue to cooperate with the Taliban on a tactical level, al-Qaeda and the Quetta Shura have diverged strategically since 2001. This development can be ascribed to al-Qaeda’s relocation to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2001–2002—hundreds of miles from the Quetta Shura’s base in Baluchistan—and its alignment with Pakistani tribal militants.
Fighting on two fronts. Initially, the alliance between al-Qaeda and its tribal hosts was based on a shared desire to fight U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, 2004 saw the rise of a violent campaign against the Pakistani state, which was intensified after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege in Islamabad in July 2007. Militants in the FATA, such as the network of Baitullah Mehsud, participated in the campaign, while the Afghan Taliban opposed it. Al-Qaeda decided to lend vocal support to the campaign, although it essentially contradicted the Quetta Shura’s policy of fighting inside Afghanistan only.
Pakistan as a likely recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. In a fundamental shift in al-Qaeda’s strategy, al-Qaeda’s leaders are seeking to be more influential in the Pakistani militant environment. This is probably not a conscious change, but the result of the network’s development over time after being relocated to Pakistan in 2001–2002. While the jihad in Afghanistan is still al-Qaeda’s top priority, Pakistan is emerging as a likely recruiting ground in the future.
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Anne Stenersen is a research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, Norway. She has worked with FFI’s Terrorism Research Group since 2006 and conducted research on terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaeda’s use of the Internet, and militant Islamism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She has an M Phil. in Asian and African studies from the University of Oslo, majoring in Arabic language. She is pursuing a doctorate about the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.