The Afghan Taliban has often been contrasted with al-Qaeda. While it might have hosted Bin Laden and his men in the 1990s, the Taliban never shared al-Qaeda’s interest in global jihad and stayed focused on Afghanistan. None of its members was involved in 9/11, and it has generally eschewed terrorist activity overseas.
Indeed, the Taliban was in many ways cut off from the world during its rule in the 1990s. Only three governments recognized its regime – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – and, of those, only Pakistan had an embassy in Afghanistan. Added to that, the Taliban were placed under UN sanctions after the al-Qaeda embassy bombings in 1998.
The original leadership of the Taliban hailed predominantly from the Afghan countryside and had seen little, if anything, of the outside world. Mullah Omar, for example, travelled abroad twice in his entire life, both times to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, according to journalist Bette Dam.
This all started to change after 9/11. The Taliban was toppled by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and many of its members fled into exile, fanning out to Pakistan, the Gulf states, Iran, and even Turkey. This broadened the Taliban’s horizons, exposing the group to new ideas.
The movement has certainly become more cosmopolitan. Its officials communicate with foreign media regularly in English. Its website is available in multiple languages, including English. It is very active on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and its spokesman uses WhatsApp.
Moreover, its members have become veritable globetrotters. Since the Taliban opened its political office in Doha, delegations have travelled repeatedly to Iran, China and Russia, not to mention Saudi Arabia and the UAE. More recently, they have ventured as far afield as Uzbekistan and Indonesia. This is a far cry from the isolation of the 1990s.
Furthermore, the movement has engaged with multilateral institutions such as the European Union and Shanghai Cooperation Organization; it has maintained a dialogue with the United Nations regarding civilian casualties; and its officials have attended conferences overseas.
True, the Taliban still shows little willingness to get involved in foreign terrorist activity. However, the Haqqani Network – which has always been closer to al-Qaeda than the core Taliban – did send some fighters to Syria, according to Antonio Giustozzi in his book The Islamic State in Khorasan.
But this is an outlier. The Taliban, far from dispatching its own members to fight abroad, instead attracts foreigners to join its ranks. Not only does the group have an abiding relationship with al-Qaeda, but Pakistanis from Lashkar e Taiba and other militant organizations have fought alongside it.
The Taliban’s ideology has also become less parochial. In a groundbreaking essay, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Anand Gopal explain that there has been a shift in Taliban thinking away from the traditional Islam of the Afghan countryside, which emphasizes ritual purity, towards the modern, political Islamism of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rather than rejecting modernity outright, the latter seek to appropriate aspects of the modern world and engage in forms of political participation to advance their ultimate goal of an Islamic state. The Taliban, with its embrace of social media and technology, its shadow government and involvement in peace talks, appears to be going in this direction.
As Steve Coll writes in his book Directorate S, “Taliban leaders forced into exile in Pakistan after 2001 were exposed to diverse strains of Islamist politics they had previously ignored or disdained when they were mired in the Islamic Emirate’s obscurantism… They absorbed the examples of negotiation and proselytizing advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Taliban has praised the Muslim Brotherhood. When Mohamed Morsi was elected Egypt’s president in 2012, the group issued a statement congratulating him as a champion of oppressed Muslims. And when Morsi died in 2019, the Taliban again commented that his death was “a great loss for Egypt and the entire Islamic world.”
One facet of political Islam is its universalism. Islamists tend to be concerned with the global community of Muslims (ummah) oppressed by the forces of western imperialism. The Taliban has issued many statements regarding developments elsewhere in the Muslim world, especially Palestine.
For instance, in a statement from 2018 about Trump’s relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Taliban called on Muslims “to side with the oppressed, to hold back the hands of the oppressor as well as to practically, politically and ethically support the wronged Palestinian people.”
The Taliban also issued a statement in response to the Christ Church attack in March 2019, condemning the incident “in the strongest terms. Attacking innocent worshipers is a sign of absolute hatred and an unforgivable crime.” Once again, we see the Taliban taking an interest in developments outside Afghanistan, especially those affecting Muslims.
In its travels to Uzbekistan and Indonesia, the group emphasized their shared Islamic identity. Images were circulated of Mullah Baradar and his colleagues visiting Muslim sites in Bukhara. In Indonesia, Baradar met groups of ulema. The Taliban is portraying itself not as an Afghan movement, but as members of a global Islamic brotherhood.
This could have serious implications in the future. Who is to say that, one day, this newly global Taliban will not try to aid their besieged Muslim brothers overseas? For now, the group is focused on the war in Afghanistan. It is hungry for international recognition, and surely realizes that interference in foreign countries would risk sanctions and isolation.
The Taliban is clearly aware of the need for foreign economic assistance to develop Afghanistan’s paralyzed economy. A Taliban that is more integrated into the international community may eventually become more moderate and accepting of human rights norms, although this is unlikely given its continued adherence to draconian religious practices.
Whatever happens, the old, parochial Taliban has been transformed into a more modern and cosmopolitan movement. We have come a long way from the 1990s.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist focusing on Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.