Assassination of top commanders paves the way for Taliban to advance

Famous Afghan commander killed in Northern Afghanistan

Hours into September 1st, a mine detonated and killed General Nazir Mohammad Niazi as he made his way to watch a soccer match in Faizabad; the capital of Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. General Niazi was a well-known Jamiati commander and the former mayor of Badakhshan.

The incident occurred at the same time of other violent events and shifts in the Afghan political landscape. Kunduz province was attacked for the third time in the past 18 years yesterday. Said Husain Sarwari, Kundoz Police spoke-person — a father of four — was killed. Taliban forces were defeated after 24 hours of counter operations, but they retaliated with an attack on Baghlan soon after. They remain in an active conflict with Afghan security forces.

Further, General Niazi’s death is controversial because he met his end only hours after Hizbi Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, landed in Faizabad as part of his presidential campaign. Hizbi Islami is a major political party in Afghanistan and remained in fervent dispute with Mohammad’s Jamiati party, the largest in Afghanistan, since the 1990s. 

It is prudent to mention that Hekmaytar recently returned from Pakistan and received name clearance from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s blacklist. The political implications of General Niazi’s death will consequently raise concerns. 

All of this is concurrent with the completed talks between the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. These talks seek to achieve a pathway to intra-Afghan dialogue and solutions for peace.

Mass Taliban attacks such as these reveal important points:

1. Certain Taliban demands are not being met and they are increasing their use of military tactics to demonstrate their power.

  1. The Taliban lack unified leadership and simply does not have control over all its factions

The assassination of important Afghan figures is not a new phenomenon. Contemporary applications of targeted suicide bombings as a tactic became commonplace when two Arab journalists killed the leader of the Afghan Mujahidin, Ahmad Shah Masoud — a national hero two days before 9/11 incident. Most of Masoud’s influential people and commanders were subsequently assassinated as well in the past 18 years. 

A clear picture regarding the perpetrators behind these attacks begins to take shape. Osama bin Laden ‘hated’ Massoud because he was against al-qaeda and terrorism and his presence made it hard for Osama to operate successfully in Afghanistan with Taliban. According to evidence and criminal investigation biometrics, Pakistani intelligence and their proxies — the Taliban — can be linked to such instability.

Pakistan is typically pinpointed as the key strategic planner behind these deadly attacks in Afghanistan due to historic facts and the evidence found at the scene of suicide bombings and on arrested soldiers. 

At a closer look, all of the targeted leaders and commanders expressed critical sentiments against Pakistan as well as the role of Pakistani intelligence’s role in facilitating violent acts, especially in Afghanistan.

As an example, the former president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, who criticized Pakistan for interfering in Afghan politics and supporting rebel factions, was publicly executed by hanging by the Taliban. Further, in 2018, General Abdul Raziq was assassinated in Kandahar province for his strong stance on Pakistan and terrorism. After his death, some units of the Pakistani military cheered and celebrated his death. 

The loss of experienced commanders is detrimental to Afghanistan’s future. Knowledgeable commanders are in dire need as the country seeks to gain the upper hand of a critical situation in which extremist groups gain vast swaths of territory.

The ongoing Afghan war is typical of guerilla warfare in that it is difficult to understand who remains engaged in the fighting and who is exactly responsible for key assassinations. Many suspects emerge: it could be the Taliban who killed General Mohammad or it could have been Hizbi Islami or ISIL. Only intelligence collection and further investigation will reveal the truth.

 

Lessons From the Past: From Feminism to Women Joining Terrorist Organizations

Women have always demonstrated capabilities of exerting powerful influence in the world. Undoubtedly, the Nineteenth Century provides a glorious example of what women can do: in this era, feminism gave birth to the Suffragette movement in England and France, gathering a whole gender in a fight against that patriarchal society which was meant to end once and for all.

Despite the examples of courage and devotion left by the Suffragettes, the role of women has somehow taken a step back due to the creation of those stereotypes that gravitate around the idea that they are the weak gender. Meanwhile, with the arrival of the modern era, the world had to face new challenges related to new security issues; among the most remarkable examples, the terrorist threat. In few years, and with greater emphasis after the 9/11 tragic events, terrorism has adopted different facets that required higher attention from the counter-terrorism field. Among these, the role of women. Mindful of the lessons from the past mentioned above, it is necessary to be aware of the strong influence that women may exert not only in relation to morally-respectable causes, but also to all those terrorist organizations that occupy different areas of the world and constitute a serious threat to societies.

Specifically, it is vital to forget the idea that women are merely victims and start considering the numerous and most diverse motivations that they may have when joining a terrorist organization. The reason for posing this question comes from the need for establishing gender perspectives in counter terrorist actions, allowing to cover a broader area of research.

Why do women join terrorist organizations?

The misconception that women are linked to terrorist for their sole role of “brides or wives for fighters” is nothing more than wrong. Surely, love can be a push factor, but it is hard to think that the eight hundred women who are believed to have travelled abroad to join ISIL were only driven by love. Therefore, to what extent are women tied to political matters? How much are they influenced by men?

The second most stereotyped reason to justify women joining terrorist organizations refers to brainwashing. With this regard, it is worth mentioning a recent study that has refuted the hypothesis that radicalization is the result of psychological illnesses and mental disorders. On the contrary, it can be pushed by social conditions, feelings of alienation and loneliness, which are highly common among women, especially in young ages. In fact, there is a surprisingly high number of women who have been raped and/or subject to violence; feelings of hate and grievance, if coupled with wrong contacts made for example on social media, may result in the decision of flying away and radically change one’s life.

Why do terrorist organizations rely on women?

As a matter of fact, once discarded the idea of brainwashing, terrorist organizations may appear attracting to women under different circumstances (e.g. financial benefits, powerful roles, protection). Indeed, there have been numerous cases of women who left countries such as the United Kingdom or Belgium to join ISIL in a fight they thought they belonged to; some of them claimed how easy their life would be under the protection of a man – for example they would not need to stay in the educational system anymore, given that their role would be limited to being housewives. Some others had political reasons and claimed they would be treated differently if ever caught by governments – receiving a less tough penalty and treatment, although there is no evidence this would be true.

Above all, there is still very little evidence on the subject, especially because it is highly underestimated. Nevertheless, research needs to be implemented both on female and male perspectives.

As far as women are concerned, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between women who support terrorism and extremist beliefs and women who join terrorist organizations. The two categories need different levels of analysis and attention: while the former necessitates greater education and support, focused on the risks that the involvement in terrorist activities may cause, the latter needs a proper intervention and eventually forms of rehabilitation into the society as part of de-radicalization missions. Furthermore, it is also necessary to consider that women may also be found in the front line as well as men; Atran (2003) provides an interesting analysis on the role of suicide bombers, considering both men and women and the increasing in the presence of the latter in the past few years.

It is imperative to understand and detect the reasons behind choices of radicalization in order to be able to spot any sign of alarm in our society, always while taking into account that female involvement in terrorist activities is not always driven by ideological concerns.

However, it is not necessarily a matter of punishment, but of providing education and support to vulnerable women that may be targeted and recruited. With this in mind, direct witnesses from women involved in terrorist-related actions should be collected to build up a correct analysis on the motivations behind the choice of joining a terrorist organization and therefore counter the threat from its origins.

proudboys

Extremism Assessment Series: The Proud Boys

  • The Proud Boys participate in semi-organized violence, typically associated with political protests
  • The group has been directly and indirectly linked to several other alt-right, neo-Nazi, and white nationalist groups
  • As the 2020 election cycle ramps up, anticipate further street-level violence in furtherance of fringe political groups, including The Proud Boys

 

Summary of Extremist Narrative

The Proud Boys are a western chauvinist group that believes that white males are being unfairly targeted in an age of political correctness. The group is openly anti-Islamic, stating that western society and the values of Islam are incompatible. Members of the group speak out against what they call a society based around political correctness. While the group states that any male, regardless of race or sexual orientation can join, their apparent participation alongside far-right, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups at political protests leads to questions as to how genuine such a rule is. Fighting is considered a normal life occurrence for a Proud Boy. Going back to their anti-political correctness rhetoric, The Proud Boys believe that fighting is a necessary activity in which males should engage to avoid becoming less of a man. The group has declared on their website that they are anti-Drug War, Pro-Free Speech, Pro-Gun Rights, and even anti-Racist.

History of The Proud Boys

The Proud Boys were founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes. The group originally formed during the political turmoil surrounding the 2016 presidential election and was viewed by some on the right as a conservative response to far-left organizations such as ANTIFA. Regardless of exactly how the idea to form the group had come to fruition, The Proud Boys have been engaged in violent political protests across the United States since the 2016 election cycle.

According to the rules and regulations of the group, any man – regardless of race or sexual orientation – can become a member, as long as they do not view the while male as the problem for the issues of modern society. The group believes that women should return to more traditional roles within society, bringing about claims that the group is misogynistic. There does exist a Proud Boys’ Girls, but this is a secondary organization that falls below the male section of the group.

While the group has often shown support for Republican political figures, the group believes in more libertarian ideals. As the group identifies a western chauvinist movement, it views itself inherently at odds with Islam and its leaders have openly expressed criticism of the faith since the groups’ inception.

The Proud Boys have been willing participants in violence at a number of prominent and controversial sites across the United States from Charlottesville to Portland. These sites have observed extremist violence, with The Proud Boys contributing to the chaos.

Current State of The Proud Boys

The group has been ripe with controversy, often related to alt-right members and their association with alt-right groups, neo-Nazi groups, and white nationalist groups. Despite their attempt to label themselves along libertarian political ideals, the group is often now associated with neo-Fascism. This has created a bit of an identity crisis amongst less hardened members and will likely impact their ability to draw followers to protests in the next election cycle.

Social media metrics of the group online represent a significant online following. At the end of 2017, the Facebook and Twitter pages for the group both had over 20,000 followers. It is important to note that this does not necessarily represent figures who actually engage in political protests, nor those who may or may not carry out an act of violence in furtherance of the group.

The Proud Boys have often rejected claims that they are ‘extremist’ in nature, despite their participation in violence during political protests. Some reports have indicated that the FBI is considering the organization as an extremist group, one that has direct ties to white nationalism. In its current state, The Proud Boys are relatively organized, with an apparent organizational structure and chapters. Those members who travel to protests likely represent small cells within the overall organization that have their own hierarchy.

Prominent Sites of Operation

As a national organization, The Proud Boys can be found anywhere a large political protest is anticipated. From major cities to college campuses, physical altercations between The Proud Boys, far-right groups, far-left groups, and ANTIFA will remain commonplace throughout the 2020 election cycle.

Recruitment Methods

 There are several steps to joining the Proud Boys. As a first degree member, a would be Proud Boy must declare “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world”. This is usually via video on a social media account linked to The Proud Boys. The second degree entails the individual enduring a physical beating until they are can state the name of five breakfast cereals. An odd initiation that is similar to the ‘jumping in’ phase of joining many street gangs. The third degree can only be completed after the individual completes the first two, and has demonstrated their commitment to the group. The third and final degree is completed with a Proud Boys Tattoo.

The recruitment methods employed by The Proud Boys are not limited to a specific area, however have been known to recruit individuals that are in areas of ongoing protests, such as the Pacific Northwest.

Image Credit: Proud Boys logo as found on their website.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

What in the World Is Going On in Afghanistan?

The Afghan Peace Talks on the Eve of Their Presidential Election

Mullah Khairullah Khaikhwah, a senior member of the Taliban, stated that a peace deal between the US and the Taliban negotiators would likely end in an awaited peace deal by the end of this week. After eight peace talks in Moscow, Qatar, Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan, a hope for a permanent ceasefire appears elusive. Afghan political parties, including Jamiat Islami, are optimistic and supportive of a peace agreement. The Afghan government is skeptical and does not accept any agreement but the resolution to hold fair and free elections.

According to a senior Afghan official, intra-Afghan dialogues are agreeable on three main issues: 

  1. Ceasefire
  2. Dismissal of election
  3. Interim government, but the Taliban calling it a “New Government”

Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh, calls the political leaders behind this agreement, “useful idiots/self-named leaders…” on his Twitter and states that “…elections will take place. Allow no poisonous propaganda to disturb your patriotism. The link between elections and peace process is very direct & crucial. No one without a mandate from the people can negotiate a settlement.”

The Afghan government want an election. The Taliban does not want the Afghan government to hold elections because they believe the incumbent authorities are illegitimate, and they do not want the regime to maintain power. Other Afghan political leaders such as Ata Mohammad Noor, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Muhamad Mohaqeq and other influential leaders who fought both the Soviets and the Taliban, are willing to accept an interim government and to make a deal with the Taliban. This all comes down to election vs. interim government and Afghan government vs. Taliban.

Afghanistan Election History

The Bonn Agreement of 2001 created a timeline for presidential and parliamentary elections to commence in 2004.  The United States backed the successful presidential campaign of Hamid Karzai, but parliamentary elections were not successfully held until September 2005. Elections at this level were hampered by accusations of electoral discrepancies and voter fraud. It is speculated that these two factors tarnished the elections as illegitimate and accordingly led to a low voter turnout.

In August 2009, presidential and local elections were held. Accusations of fraud, such as ballot stuffing, emerged yet again. A low turnout and acts of intimidation presented challenges. Months later, in October, the US pressured Afghan President Karzai to authorize a runoff vote to rectify complaints of the original election. Karzai ran against Abdullah Abdullah; the latter dropped out of the race due to a lack of transparency. Thus, Karzai remained president for the next five years, as the country vowed to overcome any future fraud and corruption through the implementation of a better electoral system.

Parliamentary elections in 2010 did not differ much. Twenty-one candidates were disqualified by the Independent Election Commission because of fraud and illegal activities. Further, the Taliban used terrorist attacks and threats to incite voter suppression. These particular acts of fear mongering dissuaded women and progressive candidates from becoming elected.

The 2014 elections marked Karzai’s term limits and a new president would be elected to office. Ashraf Ghani won against Abdullah Abdullah, but charges of fraud remained.

2019 Election Issues

The Electoral Commission postponed the 2019 elections twice in efforts to curb fraud. As a consequence, the presidential elections are slated to take place on September 28, 2019.

Voter suppression and intimidation remain typical obstacles of elections in Afghanistan. It is a nationwide problem as the Taliban and other terrorist groups target civilians in major cities like Kabul and in remote countryside villages.

The US, Afghan representatives, and the Taliban concluded the Doha peace talks, but it seems that no agreement has been reached, especially regarding election processes. It is the Taliban that seems to be the unwilling actor as they continually refuse to speak with the Ghani regime; authorities they deem illegitimate. In the post-peace talk period, the Taliban continue to engage in acts that strike fear in ordinary Afghan civilians.

The US, UN, and the Afghan government state their commitment to ensuring that the Independent Election Commission can thwart voter suppression and election fraud. Nevertheless, the commission is faced with managing the troubling union of terrorism and corruption.

Terrorism and corruption go hand in hand and play off each other. They create instability in government systems, which in turn create anxiety within the people, who are left to consider their electoral system as illegitimate. Elections are not perceived as free and fair.

Here is a breakdown of what peace talks means to each side and what needs to be done. 

 The United States

Interests of all peace brokers matter. The Trump administration wants to end the Afghan War and fulfill perennial campaign promises ahead of the 2020 elections. President Trump would tactically boast of such a major achievement. Since 2001, the US has used hard power methods to create stability and to end terrorism. Trump stood firm in the early years of his presidency as he used additional options for delivering strong military strikes in Afghanistan. He increased the number of troops on the ground from 10,000 to 14,000, dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on ISIL headquarters and suspended military aid to Pakistan.

The US has since amended its stance in favor of diplomatic measures and seeks to give the peace process a chance. Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the Special Envoy for Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation to take the lead on all US efforts. Recently, there has been an excellent amount of progress, mainly the Taliban’s willingness to discuss their grievances and explain how they want their country to be operated.

Opposition parties

A negotiated settlement is in the best interest of opposition political parties for numerous reasons. First, President Ashraf Ghani has ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist, from centralizing power and isolating powerful political leaders like Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor.

Abdul Rashid Dostum a.k.a General Dosutm — the leader of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan or simply known as Junbush and the current vice president — was exiled under the direction of President Ghani. Dostum’s role in the Afghan government is viewed as symbolic since he was used twice by both Ghani and Karzai to tactically augment their coalition of supporters. He represents Uzbeks; one of the four major ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Dostum’s relationship with the Afghan political elite has been complicated as both administrations exiled him to Turkey for numerous reasons. These include rape, torture of a local commander and being powerful enough to initiate a revolt.

Ghani lost an influential leader, Ata Mohammad Noor; the Chief Executive of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan and a governor with thirteen years experience. According to our research, an announcement from the Afghan government office, and an exclusive interview with TOLOnews, it was revealed that Noor resigned over a condition-based agreement a year prior to the actual acceptance date of his resignation. His resignation was accepted by Ghani without the acceptance or approval of any of the stated conditions. As president, Ghani had the constitutional right to replace him or anyone else, but this aggressive action was viewed as an “ethno-nationalist” move and faced with nationwide criticism, including the famous Afghan commander, General Raziq, who later was assassinated by the Taliban.

Bad decisions such as these further damaged the integrity of the government and created mistrust between political actors. In Afghanistan, political leaders from different ethnicities are influential, powerful and necessary for cooperation to combat terrorism and build a democratic Afghanistan. Ghani’s decision to simply dismiss two influential leaders of two major political parties jeopardized his regime and ill-effects of these actions are felt to this day.

The Afghan government

The Ghani administration wants to continue its rule and does not want to relinquish power. They understand well that if the US and the Taliban accept an interim government with the support and agreement of political leaders, their regime will end. Further, they do not have the political capital to win an interim government leadership position, nor will the Taliban and other Afghan leaders will allow them to gain power in such a framework.

This is the chief reason why the Afghan government is skeptical of the peace process and an interim government. The election provides an avenue for Ghani to retain power and he wants a legacy like his predecessor Hamid Karzai; to rule for a long time to implement his policies as he continuously promises the people.

Both Ashraf Ghani and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh are in favor of elections mainly for the above reasoning. In a recent TOLOnews exclusive interview with running mate Amrullah Saleh, Saleh’s definition of peace requires the Taliban compete in an election so that they can express their policies, if they are capable of such politicking. Saleh criticizes the Taliban for not having basic literature and accuses them of being a “puppet” to Pakistan.

Taliban

The Taliban wants to make peace with the US because they are the root of the current Afghan government. Without US intervention, contemporary interpretation of the Afghan government or democracy would be alien. The Taliban occupied approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan by 2000 and could have stayed in power had they not been toppled.

Over the past 18 years, the Taliban continuously fought and outlasted sophisticated military operations under the guidance of two US presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama), NATO and ISAF forces. These struggles compelled the US negotiate with the Taliban.

The Taliban view Afghanistan’s president as a “puppet of the West” in the same vein that the Afghan government considers the Taliban as a “puppet” of Pakistan. They have stated on multiple occasions that they would negotiate with past enemies — Mujahidin rather than the current “non-Islamic” government of Afghanistan. This stance remained unchanged since the former president Hamid Karzai called the Taliban in 2006 to join a peace process or the first time.

The Taliban gained a worldwide reputation after the US government appointed Khalilzad as the special envoy. They perceived this as a recognition of their status as a political party rather than an insurgent group. The US’ soft approach provided the Taliban with additional power to reject the Afghan government as illegitimate, as they always claimed over the past 18 years. They saw this as an opportunity to deal with the master and real ruler behind the scenes — the United States.

Transnational Terrorism

The Taliban are a major insurgency group that have operated in Afghanistan since 1996. Since that time, they have harbored Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as well as numerous foreign fighters from diverse parts of the world. Insurgents primarily from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and the Russian republic of Chechnya traveled to Afghanistan for Taliban instruction and education.

If a negotiated settlement is reached, the likelihood that factions of the Taliban, along with over two dozen other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, will continue to be obstacles to the peace process. One particular organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have a foothold in the Khorasan province of Afghanistan, Pakistan and infiltrating Central Asia.

Conclusion

History reveals that elections in Afghanistan struggle with illegitimacy and corruption. The 2019 edition appears to be stymied by similar complaints despite efforts of the US and Afghan governments to ensure free and fair elections.

The Taliban and opposition parties consider this round of presidential elections as fraudulent due to corruption inherent in the current Afghan government. Since the Taliban have additional motives and do not want elections to be held, integrity of the electoral process is used as a factor in the peace talks.

A peace deal will come with a big cost — dismissal of elections and creation of an interim government, or the “New Government,” as labelled by the Taliban.

If all parties truly want peace, they must appreciate the United States efforts in brokering this deal. To this date, the current Afghan government has been skeptical of the peace talks mainly to remain in power and win another mandate to govern through elections. Gaining power is the most important aspect of some political actors and rejection of a peace offer from the Taliban insurgency is demonstrative of their stance on peace and democracy.


Ahmad Mohibi, a writer and is the founder of Rise to Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadsmohibi

Nick Webb, a Research Analyst at Rise to Peace.