The Afghan Taliban have urged Muslims to avoid extremism and remain united, a message apparently aimed at the Islamic State (ISIL), which recently declared an Islamic caliphate in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
The Arabic message, posted on the Afghan Taliban’s website on Thursday and translated by SITE intelligence group, addressed fighters in Iraq and Syria whose announcement of a caliphate last month poses a direct challenge to al Qaeda’s dominance of global Islamist militancy.
“It is worthy for a shurah (consultation) council to be formed from the leaders of all the jihadi factions and the distinguished people among the experts and the scholars in Sham (Syria) in order to solve their conflicts,” the message said.
“Muslims also should avoid extremism in religion, and judging others without evidence, and distrusting one another,” it said. “They should avoid conflict and dispute, and not think their opinions are better than others. Mercy and compassion should prevail.”
On June 29, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant announced that it had renamed itself Islamic State and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “Caliph” – the head of the state.
The group had fallen out with al Qaeda over its expansion into Syria, where it has carried out beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.
In recent weeks, fighters from the Islamic State have overrun the Iraqi city of Mosul and advanced towards the capital of Baghdad. In Syria they have captured territory in the north and east, along the border with Iraq.
Taliban spokesmen in both Pakistan and Afghanistan declined to comment on al-Baghdadi’s claim to be the global leader of all Muslims. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are separate but allied.
Privately, some commanders said that they did not want to anger al Qaeda, who they considered a long-time ally in the fight against NATO troops in the region.
Some Taliban, including some of the younger commanders, were enthusiastic about ISIS. In small mud homes in Pakistan’s Waziristan, men eagerly debated the new movement.
Pakistan’s own insurgency is on the back foot after the military launched an offensive against the Taliban’s key stronghold last month.
Most senior commanders are in hiding. Drone strikes have depleted many of the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s most experienced and charismatic commanders.
“We are happy with the great efforts of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Dozens of my colleagues from here are with them. Soon Sham and Iraq will be Islamic states,” said one militant in his thirties who commanded 60 men.
“I like the way of fighting … it is a very effective,” he said, wearing a vest with ammunition and hand grenades. “We need that here in Pakistan. Many of our fighters have gone there,” he added.
Younger fighters sitting on the muddy carpet around him nodded and jostled to get closer. Many had video clips from ISIL burnt on to discs that they played on a computer.
“We like the modern way of there fighting, it is really a holy war, God send us there,” said one.
But another Pakistani commander interviewed by Reuters said he doubted that many fighters considered al-Baghdadi to be their global leader.
“No militants see (al-Baghdadi) as their leader,” he said, speaking to Reuters on the phone. “But no one will talk against him.”
In the northwestern region of Bannu, where hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by the military’s latest offensive have fled, graffiti praising ISIL has appeared.
“Congratulations to the chief of Syrian organization Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said one message on a hospital wall in front of the military’s heavily guarded cantonment area.
Two previously unknown Pakistani militant groups have also sent out messages pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, but their strength and existence could not be verified.