New details have emerged about the tense relationship between Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, and Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, in the days before 9/11. In Afghanistan, the US aims to exploit that divide.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In a bid to weaken the two forces that led US troops to invade Afghanistan eight years ago and expand their presence today, Washington and its Afghan allies have been seeking to exploit the fissures between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

With the Afghan surge ordered by President Obama under way, those sorts of efforts are likely to be redoubled in the coming months. New data points, such as a recent translation of a memoir by a former ally of both Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, could indicate differences to exploit.

That there are ideological and personality differences between Al Qaeda and the Taliban has long been understood. The Taliban is an indigenous movement composed mostly of ethnic Pashtuns who are generally focused on power in their home base in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda’s leadership, by contrast, is almost entirely Arab, and its members believe they are fighting a global struggle for the supremacy and security of Islam. Afghanistan is just one of many battle fronts.

The United States and its Afghan allies have been seeking to exploit the fissures between the two groups in recent years.

“We are trying to exploit the natural tensions that exist between Al Qaeda and those under Mullah Omar,” a senior foreign intelligence officer in Afghanistan told the Monitor in 2008.

Now comes Vahid Brown, a research fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, with an amazingly detailed account of an episode that demonstrates that tension and reveals just how reluctant Mr. bin Laden was to work with Mullah Omar.

In the latest issue of the center’s newsletter, the CTC Sentinel, Mr. Brown has translated and analyzed the story of how bin Laden refused to give an oath of allegiance to Omar, despite the Taliban leader’s hospitality to Al Qaeda.

The story was written by an Egyptian named Mustafa Hamid, who is also known as Abu’l-Walid al-Masri. He was close to both bin Laden and Omar in the days prior to 9/11. Now believed to be living in Iran, Mr. Masri has his own blog and he posted there his account of the oath episode, titling it: The Story of the Arabs’ Pledge to the Commander of the Faithful Mullah Muhammad Omar.

“It’s long been known that that period was one of strife between the two movements, and I thought this particular detail [about the oath] was emblematic of that,” Brown said in a brief phone interview. As far as he knows, Brown adds, no one else has translated Masri’s account of the episode.

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