Tuesday, May 29, 2007

1:19 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban, the fanatical Islamist movement that seized power in the 1990s as an ethnic-based jihad in southern Afghanistan, has in recent months merged its propaganda and field operations with those of al Qaeda, which flourishes across the border in Pakistan, say senior Afghan officials and the groups former leaders.

The transformation of the Taliban provides a study in how a local, once xenophobic and home-grown Islamist insurgency has re-emerged as a force for al Qaedas global interests, say Afghan security officials.

Fighting against the violent backdrop of the well-publicized U.S.-led global war on terror, the Taliban movement is feeding off the larger global jihad to hone previously nonexistent media skills and new fighting tactics.

“The Taliban have changed immensely in the last year due to the mentoring they are getting from leading Arab jihadists in Pakistan with al Qaeda, both in the realm of battlefield tactics and media operations,” said Lutfullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistans National Security Council,

“They are doing what works in Iraq and often succeeding,” said Mr. Mashal, who as director of strategic communications designs media operations to oppose the Taliban.

A former leading Taliban official who recently spent four years in the U.S. governments Guantanamo detention center and is living under house arrest in Kabul agreed that the movement is increasingly media savvy.

“When the Taliban were in power, they were not focused on this important thing, but they have learned from al Qaeda the importance of media in their operations,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the groups once outspoken ambassador to Pakistan.

Afghan and Western analysts familiar with the changing face of the Taliban say the local movement is gaining sustenance through recruiting, propaganda and tactics such as suicide bombing. The strategy is gleaned from the godfathers of the global jihad, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri and from battlefield skills honed in Iraq.

Before his violent death this month at the hands of Afghan and U.S. Special Forces, the Taliban’s military commander, Mullah Dadullah, claimed that the Taliban’s planning and operations are one and the same with those of al Qaeda.

Afghan officials also said the Talibans suicide bombing attacks in Kabul and other large cities are approved in advance by senior al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.

“The Taliban is now an integral part of an internationalized jihad,” said Waheed Mujda, an Afghan writer who served as a deputy minister in the Talibans government between 1997 and 2001.

“The Talibans war has now moved outside the boundaries of Afghanistan and is part of a global struggle.”

Pakistan denies that al Qaeda is running its global terrorist network from its side of the border.

The transformation is best exemplified through the Talibans changing battle tactics and slick videotapes depicting training exercises and attacks on NATO, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces.

A cameraman travels with Taliban fighters on most major operations, a major step for a group that once banned television.

The videos also show how al Qaedas trusted Arabs have resumed their venerated roles as military trainers and media advisers for the Taliban, which is mainly an ethnic Pashtun-based movement. Pashtun tribes straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The al Qaeda trainers also facilitate travel for Afghan militants who move between Afghanistan and Iraq and regularly “wave” to each other over the Internet.

In one recent video, Abu Laith al Libi, a senior Libyan trainer for the Taliban in Afghanistan, sends a message of encouragement to Iraqi insurgents from an al Qaeda and Taliban training base inside Afghanistan.

In a video posted on the Internet this week, Al-Qaeda No. 2, al-Zawahiri, praised the slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah and called his death a “good omen for victory” against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

The Taliban announced this week that Mullah Dadullahs younger brother, Mullah Bakht Mohammad, was replacing him as their leading field commander.

The Taliban, a movement that once mangled its own media operations, is regularly featured in the independent Afghan media for its press statements and military gains — so much so that officials from the government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai are threatening to muzzle the free press in their country for being too sympathetic toward “the enemy.”

The Taliban insurgents, mimicking Al Qaedas own Web sites and video production wing, Al Sahab, are producing daily news articles covering events in Afghanistan and the Muslim world and slick videotapes that depict Iraq-style beheadings and the lives of young militants in schools and al-Qaeda training camps.

But Mullah Zaeef denied that the Taliban “in their hearts” had global jihadist intentions. He said Afghans would not attack the U.S. soil as long as the U.S. military abandons Afghanistan.

He insisted that Taliban fighters and leaders, isolated and hiding in Pakistan, have been forced into the arms of al Qaeda, with which they do not agree in full.

“If I am the Taliban, I must try to find something to help me fight with America to defend myself — if this [is] possible from al Qaeda, or if it is possible from Pakistan or from Iraq — because with empty hands it is not possible to fight.”

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