Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri has pledged allegiance to new Afghan Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, whose predecessor was killed in a US drone strike.
The pledge came in a 14-minute audio and video message posted online, the US-based monitor Site Intelligence Group said on Saturday.
“We pledge allegiance to you on jihad to liberate every inch of the lands of the Muslims that are invaded and stolen, from Kashgar to Al Andalus, from the Caucasus to Somalia and Central Africa, from Kashmir to Jerusalem, from the Philippines to Kabul, and from Bukhara and Samarkand,” it quoted Al Zawahiri as saying.
The message included images of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US special forces in Pakistan in 2011.
In a swift power transition, Mawlawi Akhundzada was named by the Afghan Taliban as its new leader last month after the group officially confirmed the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike.
Mawlawi Akhundzada, formerly one of Mullah Mansour’s deputies, faces the enormous challenge of unifying an increasingly fragmented militant movement.
The drone attack that killed Mullah Mansour, the first known American assault on a top Afghan Taliban leader on Pakistani soil, sent shock waves through the movement which had seen a resurgence under him.
Mullah Mansour was killed just nine months after being formally appointed leader following a bitter power struggle upon confirmation of founder Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death.
Afghanistan on Saturday hailed Washington’s decision to expand the US military’s remit to tackle the Taliban, saying the support will boost the capacity of struggling local forces.
The decision, which US defence secretary Ashton Carter announced on Friday, will allow American troops to work more closely with local forces in striking the Taliban.
It comes after Afghan forces, beset by record casualties, desertions and troop shortages, suffered a string of setbacks last year at the hands of the Taliban. Since last January, US forces have only been operating in a training and advisory role in Afghanistan.
“We welcome the US announcement of broader involvement in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan,” said defence ministry spokesman Daulat Waziri.
“We may not need more boots on the ground, but we need their advisers and we need them to equip our air force. Their involvement will increase our capacity in operations on the ground.”
But the Taliban are not the only militant threat that Afghan forces are facing.
ISIL fighters stormed a police base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least six officers in a predawn attack. The attack in the Haska Mina district of Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, came months after the government claimed to have defeated the group.
It also came a day after three worshippers were killed and 70 others wounded in a bombing inside a Nangarhar mosque during Friday prayers.
“The district police chief Shah Mahmood was martyred along with five other policemen” in Saturday’s attack, said Ataullah Khogyani, the spokesman for Nangarhar’s governor.
“Eleven Daesh fighters were also killed and seven others were wounded,” he added.
ISIL fighters are making inroads into Afghanistan, winning over sympathisers, recruiting followers and challenging the Taliban on their own turf, primarily in the country’s east.
But in March Afghan president Ashraf Ghani announced that the group had been defeated after local security forces claimed victory in a months-long operation against the extremists.
The group also intermittently airs propaganda through a mobile radio station, which the government claimed to have destroyed in an air strike in February.
Militant strikes have recently increased in Nangarhar. Those killed during Friday prayers in Nangarhar’s Rodat district included the prayer leader and a child.
* Agence France-Presse