Sexual repression of Afghan women: a Taliban’s state-building strategy

Sexual Repression of Afghan Women: a Taliban’s State-Building Strategy

“Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe,” Lina Abi Rafeh wrote.  

In just a year, Afghan women have lost most of the rights they had fought for over the last two decades. Women cannot study past primary school, can no longer work unless they are nurses or teachers, and are constrained to the domestic sphere as their support systems collapse. Reports show that most women’s shelters have stopped taking in new women as they are forced to operate in total secrecy or have been shut down completely, including the Ministry for Women’s Affairs

But what do all these restrictions have in common? They are making women “prisoners in their own home,” as Human Rights Watch stated, and are symptomatic of one of the Taliban’s state-building strategies: utilization of sexual capital. 

The Taliban, who rose back to power in August 2021, are rooting their state-building strategy in the private, the intimate, and the goal of destroying and reshaping women’s identities through strict, gendered, and repressive norms.

School curricula have been modified to focus more on religious studies and norms. “They dictate what women must wear, how they should travel, workplace segregation by sex, and even what kind of cell phones women should have. They enforce these rules through intimidation and inspections,” Human Rights Watch said.

The Taliban enforce a collective identity based on common –and imposed– norms and morals (women’s rights but “within Islamic law”). They are institutionalizing repression, or in other words, ideals of feminine purity, through the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which replaced the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. 

The regulations focus on women’s bodies and most importantly relate to the Muslimwoman archetype coined by Fatima Mernissi. Characterized by modesty, chastity, and motherhood, this identity being forced upon women is primordial in creating collective cohesion in a context of local division and conflict. 

“State building is the insurgent’s central goal,” Stathis Kalyvas, author of The Logic of Violence in Civil War, writes. And as a proto-state –in a perpetual power struggle with domestic and international actors– the Taliban ultimately strives for control and will enter people’s homes to exert that control. Controlling sexual capital, or the way women dress, if they’re allowed to wear makeup, and refusing them any support for sexual violence, is merely a reflection of how the Taliban use the intimate to impose its state. 

Over the last year, the Taliban freed more than 3 000 prisoners, many of whom are perpetrators of gender-based violence. For women who were abused by their husbands, members of their families, or their communities, this means further insecurity and a reduction of their allocated space in society. 

“We don’t leave our home much,” a government worker told Human Rights Watch. “When we leave, we leave with a mahram [male guardian]. Some things like sanitary pads must be purchased by women themselves, but it’s hard to do it with a man accompanying us. …Women can’t take transport, they either must go out with a mahram or walk. They should walk with burqa, no heels, no makeup.”

By locking women into roles of mothers and wives, the Taliban seek to use their sexual capital to breed new generations of individuals who belong to a definitive collective identity.  

Furthermore, this increased polarization between the righteous Muslimwoman and the glorious militant man further brings the Taliban culture of political extremism and violence into the home. These norms already have –and will continue– to lead to increased domestic violence and sexual violence. It is a perpetual cycle; locking women in their homes, making them more prone to domestic and sexual violence and patriarchy-rooted masculinity, which serves the Taliban’s collective identity and thus, its state. 

Overall, there should be a greater focus on gendered analyses of Taliban state-building to better understand the group’s motive and strategy, going beyond the sole ideological and religious factors. In doing so, the long-term implications of a forced collective identity will be revealed and provide insight into the future for Afghan women in society.

Emma Beilouny, Counter-Terrorism Fellow

the US had assassinated al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri

US Assassinate Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s Number Two

After months of meticulous planning and geographic calculations, President Joe Biden announced that the US had assassinated al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri, also known as Al-Qaeda number 2 in Osama Bin Laden’s leadership, in a drone strike in Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri, together with the attackers of 9/11, were then labelled as the most wanted after the tragedy back in 2001.

He was assassinated on Sunday during a CIA counterterrorism operation in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The strike was finally called off at 9:48 p.m. ET (0148 GMT) on July 30 by an unmanned aerial strike launching alleged “hellfire” missiles.

The drone reportedly fired two missiles at Zawahiri as he was on the balcony of a safe house, according to officials. Other members of the family were nearby, but they were unharmed, and they added that Zawahiri was the only victim of the incident. “Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Joe Biden added.

A senior administration official told reporters that Zawahiri had been in hiding for years and had not been traced easily due to his remote activities, obviously trying to live his life in the shadows, as the CIA had been eyeing him in the areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The operation to locate and kill him was the result of “careful, patient, and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community.

CIA’s Effort to Trace Zawahiri

The United States government had been cognizant of a network that it believed backed Zawahiri for a number of years, and for the last year, following the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, officials had been on the lookout for signs of Al Qaeda’s presence in that nation.

CIA officials discovered this year that Zawahiri’s family—his wife, his daughter, and her children—had moved to a secure home in Kabul and later traced Zawahiri there.

In early April, intelligence officers began alerting senior government officials after emerging more certain over several months that they had accurately identified Zawahiri inside the Kabul safe house. President Joe Biden was subsequently briefed by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The official said that to guarantee that the United States could cogently carry out an operation to kill Zawahiri without impeding the structural integrity of the building and with the least amount of risk to bystanders and Zawahiri’s family, officials probed the construction and condition of the safe house and closely examined its inhabitants. They have also discussed the potential legal repercussions of this strike, particularly given that it will take place in Afghanistan.

The administration also made sure that the severity of the attacks on civilians was kept to a minimum, if not none. Finally, the attack took place on July 30 and killed Zawahiri.

The Taliban Condemns the Drone Strike

According to a statement from the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, the incident happened on Sunday. The ruling Islamist radicals severely criticized it as a violation of “international values” and the 2020 agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

However, US officials insisted that the operation was legal nevertheless because the killing of Zawahiri comes nearly a year after US troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on the orders of Mr. Biden, bringing an end to a 20-year military presence there.

The Taliban vowed not to permit al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in regions they control as part of a 2020 peace agreement with the US, but the US believes that the Taliban knew all along about Zawahiri’s presence and they have provided shelter. From there, the violation of the Taliban’s peace agreement with the US has been visibly infringed.

Netizens’ Reaction to the US air strike

Many reactions surfaced after the announcement by Biden on the killing of Zawahiri. People have been debating whether the US should no longer intervene in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops because it risks more indiscriminate killings and human rights violations. It seems that other people have also been comparing the US’ proactive efforts to counter terrorism in vulnerable states and yet no actions were taken against Russia; some have remarked that the issue is long overdue and the US has double standards on so-called justice.

Moreover, Canada’s Prime Minister expressed his support for the counterterrorism effort, saying: “The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri is a step toward a safer world. Canada will keep working with our global partners to counter terrorist threats, promote peace and security, and keep people here at home and around the world safe.” Furthermore, we should never underestimate the officers who have gone above and beyond their mission to eliminate the threat not only in America, but globally.

Kristian Rivera, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Maher al-Agal

What the Death of Maher al-Agal Means for the Future of the Islamic State

Maher al-Agal was killed in a U.S. drone strike in northwest Syria on July 12, 2022. Al-Agal was a top leader of the Islamic State, and his absence from the group leaves the Islamic State without another leader to develop the organization’s goals. Having lost leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurashi in the past, the Islamic State has recovered relative to the point of continuing attacks. This then poses the question, how will the death of Maher al-Agal impact the Islamic State?

Background of Maher al-Agal and his Rise to Power

Little is known about the life of Maher al-Agal previous to his involvement with the Islamic State. He was formerly a prominent member of the Islamic State in Raqqa when the organization held control of that territory.  In 2020, al-Agal moved to become a member of Turkish-backed factions and lived in the city of Afrin. Al-Agal eventually became a commander in one of those Turkish backed factions titled Jaysh Al-Sharqiyyah, the final position he held for the remainder of his life. According to the U.S. military, al-Agal aggressively worked to develop the Islamic State’s networks internationally.  By the end of his life, al-Agal was considered to be one of the top five leaders of the organization.

The Airstrike that Killed Maher al-Agal

The drone strike that killed al-Agal occurred in northwest Syria, where he was confirmed to be located.  A close associate of  al-Agal’s was seriously injured in the blast as confirmed by the U.S. government.  The target was confirmed to be al-Agal whilst he and his associate were riding a motorcycle in the town of Khaltan. An unconfirmed report by the U.S. military states that the associate eventually died of his injuries.  It has still yet to be confirmed if any civilians were injured or killed in the attack, but sources thus far have said there have not been any civilian casualties.

How Death and Capture of Past IS Leaders Have Impacted the Organization

Prominent leaders of the Islamic State have been killed in different attacks by the U.S., much like that of Maher al-Agal. The former leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in October of 2019. Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest, ultimately killing himself and three of his children during a pursuit inside a tunnel involving U.S. military canines.  Baghdadi first gained attention in 2014 when he officially declared the Islamic State a caliphate, and it spread throughout Iraq and Syria. Despite the death of Baghdadi, the Islamic State remained and continues to remain a prominent threat throughout the world.

The death of the former leader of the Islamic State, who took leadership after the death of Baghdadi, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, died February 2, 2022. Al-Qurashi had a similar death to Baghdadi; while being chased by U.S. forces, he detonated a suicide vest, resulting in the blast that killed some of his family members and an ISIS deputy.  His death seemed to slow the group in general; however, the organization still held hundreds to thousands of followers by the time Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was chosen as successor.

Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi only remained the leader of the Islamic State for about three months before his capture by Turkish forces in late May.  Turkish officials claim that during the raid to capture him, their forces did not have to shoot a single bullet. The U.S., still has yet to confirm whether or not the man is, in fact, al-Qurashi.  However, Turkish officials allege that it is him without a doubt. The alleged capture of al-Qurashi still did not stop the Islamic State as the group still remains active throughout the world.


Overall, while governments welcome the death of Maher al-Agal throughout the world, it is still unclear how much of an impact this will have on the Islamic State as a whole. The group has suffered thousands of casualties and multiple deaths of its top leaders, yet they continue to push their ideology and grow, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. While this attack will impact the group and could lead to destabilization of the Islamic State as a whole, it is unlikely that the group will continue without a successor for long. It will take a united effort from the international community to help mitigate this crisis. While the death of leaders like al-Agal is a step in the right direction, ultimately, poverty reduction, stabilization of conflict zones, and repatriation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and their families are just some ways to slow the growth of the Islamic State.


Claire Spethman, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Katibat Macina

Katibat Macina: A Growing Threat in Mali

According to a statement by the Malian government, heightened attention is on Katibat Macina, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization, for its massacre of 132 civilians in central Mali.  Mali has not seen a death toll that high from an isolated incident since 2012, leaving the country in a complete state of grief since the attack in late June. Katibat Macina continues to grow throughout Mali and is becoming an increasing security threat in the region.

The Mali War and Current State of the Conflict

In 2012, the Mali War began, and its roots are attributed to the fourth uprising by the Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. This uprising led an Islamist takeover of all northern cities of Mali. It included an improvised military coup against the standing Malian military. This conflict has led to the deaths of over 25,000 people and caused the displacement of over four million. With the severity of this conflict and requests from the Malian president, France, and the UN Peacekeepers became involved in hopes of mitigation. However, French troops are withdrawing due to disagreements between leaders on best practices. This leaves the Malian government with UN Peacekeepers and their military committee that has yet to be able to counter the continued insurgency.

In the past year, the Malian government has heavily relied on Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group to support their fight against jihadists. Efforts to mitigate the growing jihadism in Mali have yet to be stopped and have spread throughout the Sahel, leaving the Malian military without significant progress towards peace.

Background of Katibat Macina

Katibat Macina first found its roots in 2015 from its founder and current leader, Amadou Kouffa, a former member of Ansar al-Din, another terrorist organization in Mali.  Katibat Macina first gained attention for their attack on the Byblos Hotel in Mopti. By 2016, the group’s operations focused more seriously on the Niger Delta, an area known for its rich agriculture, which only exacerbated the number of displaced persons throughout Mali.

After much public rejection for their harsh interpretations of Shar’ia, Katibat Macina was forced to hold a softer approach when aiming to gain more recruits. The group was able to grow and eventually shifted its main focus to attacking UN operations and personnel throughout Mali.

Massacre of 132 Civilians

From June 18, 2022, to June 19, 2022, Katibat Macina attacked the villages of Diallassagou, Diamweli, and Deguessagou in the Bandiagara area of Mali. Katibat Macina arrived armed on motorcycles and executed mostly men throughout the villages and set fire to many of the homes, vehicles, and barns forcing survivors to flee to Bankass.

Local sources have attributed this attack to the people of these villages for their cooperation with the Malian government and Russian mercenaries on counterterrorism efforts in the area. Katibat Macina attacked two additional cities; however, the fighters were ousted by traditional Dozo hunters or armed Dogon militiamen before the attack reached civilians. The Bandiagara area has often experienced jihadist violence, but nothing as severe as this recent massacre of innocent civilians. Some sources have claimed that the actual death count is lower than what has been reported in an effort by Dogon militiamen to gain more weapons; the Malian government has rejected these statements.

Current Mitigation Efforts & Outlook

Efforts to counter Katibat Macina have included ground combat, interviews of victims, and airstrikes. The Malian government has sent airstrikes in an effort to counter Kabitiat Macina in the vicinity of Bankass and Segue, as well as in Djenne and Tenenkou, where some of its members were located. Both the Malian government and Russian mercenaries have ramped up their counterterrorism efforts in these areas following the massacre.

The growth of jihadism in Mali and its presence throughout the entire Sahel has continued to grow without fail. The UN continues its peacekeeping efforts throughout Mali with its operation, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. However, this UN mission is often referred to as the most dangerous mission for peacekeepers due to high attacks targeting UN officials.

Following the withdrawal of French troops from Mali, the Malian government is struggling to properly counter these terrorist groups on their own, even coupled with the help of the UN. The Malian military needs proper funding and support from the international community o mitigate this growing security threat and prevent further massacres.


Claire Spethman, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow



A U.S. Drone Strike Kills an al-Qaeda Linked Commander in Syria

On June 27, another drone strike was successfully completed against the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate group in northern Syria, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, a humanitarian organization. The attack occurred just before midnight when two rockets were fired towards the target.

As claimed by Syrian opposition activists and the U.S. military, the man killed, identified as Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, was a top member of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group.  The drone strike was conducted by a U.S.-led coalition in the northwest province of Idlib.

The U.S. Central Command stated that the attack targeted al Yemeni, a “top leader” of Hurras al-Din, an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, as he was riding a motorcycle by himself at midnight. Furthermore, the body was then transported to the forensic department in Idlib. According to verified reports, there were no civilian casualties. Additionally, the U.S. Central Command stated that “the removal of this senior leader will disrupt al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks against U.S. citizens, our partners and innocent civilians around the world.”

Overview of the Group Hurras al-din

On February 27, 2018, seven ardent Syrian rebel organizations joined together, actualizing their group which is now known as Hurras al-Din (HaD). In the months that followed the group’s founding, ten additional minor rebel organizations with a history of doctrinal and managerial ties to al-Qaeda joined. Reports estimate that at least 50% of the 700 – 2,500 members of the group are foreigners.

HaD is outspokenly committed to al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda veterans from other countries make up the vast majority of HaD’s leadership. These significant ties to al-Qaeda makes HaD part of the watchlists of intelligence agencies, the U.S. government, and think tanks. The leadership of HaD is divided along two differing currents: one that adheres to the ideas of Libyan cleric Jamal Ibrahim Ashityawee al-Musratti and the other that adheres to those of al-Qaeda scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The “defining authority” for both currents is the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Public’s Opinion of the U.S. Drone Strikes

There were mixed comments online as to the recent attack in Syria. Some members of the online community have reiterated that the U.S. is dominating weak countries and committing crimes against humanity due to their Global War on Terror. However, CENTCOM said in its statement that violent extremist organizations, including al-Qaeda-aligned organizations such as Hurras al-Din “continue to present a threat to America and our allies.” It added that al-Qaeda-aligned militants use Syria as a safe haven to coordinate with their external affiliates and plan operations outside of Syria.


Kristian N. Rivera, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Rise to Peace