Page last updated at 19:04 GMT, Thursday, 23 October 2008 20:04 UK

Thought of Taleban deal alarms jihadists

By Frank Gardner
BBC Security Correspondent

Taleban fighters in Afghanistan (image from September 2008)
The Taleban have denied making any peace deals with Afganistan

There is a growing fear among some hardline supporters of al-Qaeda that talk of an eventual peace deal between the Taleban and the Afghan government could lead one day to al-Qaeda losing its foothold in the region.

The Taleban's official spokesman Zahidullah Mujahid has denied reports of peace negotiations.

But Saudi officials say a meeting between representatives of the two sides did take place in Saudi Arabia this month, although there is no indication that any actual negotiations were conducted.

In the shadowy world of extremist internet forums, even talks about talks are enough to provoke alarm in some quarters.

Are the Taleban preparing to sell out their old allies, al-Qaeda, as the price for getting back into government?

Absolutely not, says the Taleban's official spokesman, but supporters of violent jihad on the internet are clearly rattled.

They see internal division, known as "fitna" in Arabic, as the greatest threat to the global jihadi project to drive western forces out of the wider Middle East and establish an Islamic state.

'Wicked propaganda'

Over the last few days, jihadi supporters on the internet have been trying hard to smother rumours of any peace talks between the Taleban and President Hamid Karzai's representatives.

The Taleban are not the kind of people who would sell out al-Qaeda in exchange for political power
Online comment
"Mullah Omar and the Taleban," they say, "would never abandon the jihad in the way the Iraqis did."

"The mujahidin must watch out," says another, "an important Gulf state is hatching a plan to transfer the Awakening project to Pakistan and Afghanistan."

The Awakening project is Iraq's successful tribal rebellion against al-Qaeda, backed by US and Iraqi government money and troops, while the "important Gulf state" is Saudi Arabia, which hosted the recent Afghan talks.

"Saudi Arabia," say the online jihadis, "is working to preserve the interests of its US protector, trying in vain to divide the militants and lure them into the political process."

This, they insist, will not succeed.

A member of the Awakening Council guards a public park in Baghdad, Iraq (01/10/08)
The Awakening project is seen as a success story in Iraq
"This is just a wicked propaganda campaign to smear the Taleban's image," says an online contributor in Arabic. "Don't be afraid brothers," he adds, "the Taleban are not the kind of people who would sell out al-Qaeda in exchange for political power."

Another suggests that if the Taleban were ever going to surrender Osama Bin Laden to America they would have done it long ago.

In practice, al-Qaeda abandoned its Afghan bases when the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2001 and the Taleban were driven from power.

Since then, both the Taleban and al-Qaeda have successfully established a number of havens in Pakistan's tribal territories where the Pakistani authorities have been fighting an intermittent but costly campaign to suppress them.

Any deal between the Afghan Taleban and the Afghan government - if it were ever concluded - could potentially have a major negative impact on al-Qaeda's fortunes.

But there is little to indicate this is about to happen, nor that al-Qaeda is in any immediate danger of losing its Pakistani bases.

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