Yes, the Taliban has terrorists in its government (but that’s not unusual)

The Taliban announced the makeup of an interim government the other day, and what should have been to no-one’s surprise, it is made up of figures notable for their close ties to the movement’s late founder, holdovers from the last time the Taliban held power, and a host of hardliners who made their reputations during the last 20 years of insurgency.

In that mix are terrorists.

For example, Sirajuddin Haqqani is the new interim interior minister. He is the head of the Haqqani network (a US-designated terrorist organization), which has been carrying out brutal terrorist attacks across Afghanistan for the last two decades, including a 2017 truck bomb in Kabul that killed and injured hundreds of Afghan civilians. The FBI has a $10 million bounty on his head for information leading to his arrest.

Khalil Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s uncle, is acting minister for refugees. Another leader of the Haqqani network, the FBI has a $5 million bounty on him because of his past ties to al Qaeda. Four former Guantanamo Bay detainees have landed senior government positions as well. These all had been mid- to high-level officials in the old Taliban regime who were captured early in the US war. They were released in a 2014 prisoner exchange.

Interim Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund is under United Nations and European Union sanctions for his close ties to the Taliban’s founders and his role as a military commander. Interim Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, in addition to serving as a key diplomat, was also a senior military leader coordinating attacks on US and coalition forces during the war.

So yes, the Taliban’s new acting government includes terrorists. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow unprecedented. Let’s look at some examples.

Israel is perhaps the quintessential example of terrorists turned government leaders, at the highest levels. Menachem Begin, who became Israel’s sixth prime minister in 1977, assumed leadership of the Zionist terrorist organization Irgun in 1944 and was the architect of its violent campaign against British occupation of Palestine. Under Begin’s leadership, Irgun was responsible for an escalating series of attacks on government offices and police stations. The most infamous of those attacks was a direct strike against Britain’s administrative and military establishment which was based at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Begin ordered the bombing of the King David, which resulted in the destruction of a wing of the building and the killing of 91 people, mostly British, Arabs, and Jews.

In 1983 Begin was succeeded as prime minister by Yitzhak Shamir, who was himself a former terrorist, a leader of Lehi, also called the Stern Gang, a more militant offshoot of Irgun. Under Shamir’s leadership, Lehi carried out a series of assassinations including that of Lord Moyne, the British Minister for Middle East Affairs. Shamir also ordered the assassination of one of his fellow terrorist leaders, Eliyahu Giladi, the culmination of an internal dispute over strategy.

In January 1947, members of Lehi drove a truck loaded with explosives into a British police station in Haifa, killing four and wounding 140. It is thought to be the first truck bomb in the history of terrorism. A little more than a year later, in a combined operation, Irgun and Lehi terrorists staged an attack on the Palestinian Arab village of Deir Yassin. The resulting massacre left more than 100 Palestinian civilians dead, including women and children.

Northern Ireland provides yet another example of terrorists moving into the halls of government, and at the highest levels. Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorist Martin McGuinness, served from 2007 to 2017 as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. But before he moved into politics, in the 1970s he led the PIRA in his home city of Derry, later rising to head the PIRA’s Northern Command in the 1980s and a seat on the organization’s seven-member Army Council. And in another piece of delicious irony, former PIRA member Alex Maskey, having moved into electoral politics in the early 1980s, found himself some 20 years later with a seat on Northern Ireland’s Policing Board. A former terrorist overseeing the police.

And let’s not exclude ourselves from this discussion. By today’s definitions, the violent revolutionary movement that we remember as the Sons of Liberty was an anti-British terrorist organization that in the 1760s and 1770s carried out attacks against representatives of the Crown, destroyed Crown property, and assaulted and assassinated prominent loyalists in the American colonies. Many of its most notable members went on to play prominent roles in the American War of Independence and the subsequent government of the new United States.

Our patriots of the founding era, familiar names such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Chase, Christopher Gadsden, and Patrick Henry, got their start as members of or leaders in a terrorist group.

So yes, the new government of Afghanistan is loaded with terrorists. But the Taliban are far from the first to make the leap from terrorist to politician to government. As history shows, they’re just a recent example of a pattern in which we ourselves are a part.

The Afghan debacle

Taliban in the presidential palace, Kabul (AP photo)

I certainly didn’t think that this would be the topic that got me back to the blog, but here we are.

Let me caveat this by acknowledging that I’m no expert on Afghanistan, and looking back over the archives here, I see I’ve not written much about it, beyond noting some of the more recent absurdities, like dropping a $16 million “mother of all bombs” on a cave to target a few dozen ISIS-affiliated fighters, or mercenary Erik Prince’s proposal to privatize the war and pay for it by stealing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Almost exactly three years ago, in August 2017, I noted that President Trump, with his first policy speech on Afghanistan, was taking ownership of a foreign policy failure that was at that point three presidencies in the making. A year later, his administration entered into peace negotiations with the Taliban (tellingly, the actual Afghan government was not included in the talks), which culminated in a Feb. 2020 agreement in which Trump pledged to remove all US troops by the end of May 2021. In return the Taliban agreed to play nice.

This April President Biden announced that the withdrawal would be carried out in full, but pushed the timeline to the end of this month. We know the rest of the story.

Unlike me, actual experts have had some smart things to say. For example, my friend and fellow academic Steve Saideman, who has written books about the NATO mission in Afghanistan and Canada’s experience there, has two new posts over at his blog where he looks at some of the big questions emerging from the Taliban’s victory.

Another academic blogger, Dan Drezner, is well worth reading on the international relations and US foreign policy implications of the fall of Afghanistan. His big takeaways, that the damage to the US here is not in terms of raising doubts about American resolve but rather policy competence, are ones that fully agree with.

I was on the radio less than a week ago repeating what was then the conventional wisdom, that the Afghan government would likely only be able to hold off the Taliban for 90 days or so once the US withdrawal was complete. Turns out it only took six days, with our withdrawal still in process.

What has perhaps been the most shocking to observers, pundits, and policymakers alike is the stunning collapse of the Afghan National Army, one we spent 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars training and equipping.

The explanation for the largely bloodless conquest of the country over the last several days may lie less in American or Western failures of training or equipping than in a collective failure to understand Afghan society. As Anatol Lieven writes in Politico, the pattern witnessed over the last several weeks, in which Afghan government security forces surrender to Taliban units, often without firing a shot, is one that has persisted since the Soviet occupation and the decades of civil war that followed:

I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.

This dense web of relationships and negotiated arrangements between forces on opposite sides is often opaque to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, U.S. military and intelligence services have generally either not understood or chosen to ignore this dynamic as they sought to paint an optimistic picture of American efforts to build a strong, loyal Afghan army. Hence the Biden administration’s expectation that there would be what during the Vietnam War was called a “decent interval” between U.S. departure and the state’s collapse. 

While the coming months and years will reveal what the U.S. government did and didn’t know about the state of Afghan security forces prior to U.S. withdrawal, the speed of the collapse was predictable. That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years.

A lot of smart (and not so smart) people are now going to pivot to the “lessons learned” portion of the American adventure in Afghanistan. Lieven, I think, has the most important part figured out:

The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.

We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.

This week in terrorism history: April 6-12

Ahmed Jibril, left, formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on April 11, 1968. (Credit: Jerusalem Post)

When this whole coronavirus thing stated to blow up, I led off my this-week-in-terrorism post with a quick look at how some terrorist groups were responding to the pandemic. Here we are, only two weeks later, and it’s time for an update.

Noted terrorism scholar Mia Bloom has an insightful essay at the website Just Security where she shows how the wide spectrum of violent extremist groups, from the American far right to jihadists like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban are either seeking to take advantage of the pandemic or working it into their existing worldview:

Into this public health crisis step extremist groups, which may even take credit for events for which they are not responsible. Their instinct to capitalize on people’s misery and suffering is consistent across the ideological spectrum, from right-wing extremists to violent jihadists. That instinct is on full display right now, as the world reels from COVID-19’s rapid spread and the accompanying disinformation. White supremacist groups are touting crackpot accelerationist, siege, and Great Replacement theories during the COVID-19 pandemic to motivate individuals to take action against the New World Order, Agenda 21, George Soros, the Chinese government, and others they perceive as seeking to eliminate the white race.

Amidst a global pandemic, the country’s leading ISIS propaganda analyst, Laith al-Khouri, says the jihadists’ main objective is to sow the seeds of mistrust of government—including by spreading disinformation and malign information —while simultaneously using unfolding events to substantiate their view of the world and validate their predictions. Jihadists will showcase governments as having lied to the public about infection numbers. In further undermining the credibility of governments, who are knowingly suppressing information about the virus (such as Iran, Egypt, and Turkey), jihadists can use this opportunity to recruit new followers who perceive the terrorist groups as more capable or more honest than their own governments.

The virus has been a source of renewed inspiration for terrorist groups who see it as a sign from God and repudiation of secular States that have mismanaged the crisis. Al-Qaeda released a statement on March 31, in which they accused Western governments of ignoring their citizens’ health “instead of ensuring the provision of health facilities and medical supplies they [remain] obsessed with the tools of war and human eradication.” Several jihadist groups, such as the Taliban, declared that coronavirus “is a disease ordained by the Almighty Allah which has perhaps been sent by Allah because of the disobedience and sins of mankind or other reasons.”

The whole article is well worth your time. Meanwhile, The Guardian yesterday had a story about how one particular slice of the American neo-Nazi far right, so-called “accelerationists,” is hoping to exploit the coronavirus crisis to speed the collapse of society:

The watchdog group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) raised the alarm last week about opportunism from far-right so-called “accelerationist” groups who believe sowing chaos and violence will hasten the collapse of society, allowing them to build a white supremacist one in its place.

Late last month, the FBI warned such extremist groups were encouraging members to deliberately spread the virus to Jewish people and police officers. Similarly, British hate monitors Hope Not Hate warned these groups are expressing “gleeful expectation of social turmoil”.

With few public-facing social media services allowing white supremacists to have a reliable platform for their views, the propaganda effort to use the coronavirus crisis as a recruiting tool is mainly visible on laissez-faire social media platforms like Telegram.

There neo-Nazi groups have been affirming and welcoming the pandemic as a threat to liberal democracy and seeing it as an opportunity to grow their movement and realize their goals with acts of violence.

The deeper this crisis goes, the more I expect we’ll see further signs that such groups will seek to leverage the pandemic to advance their political, social, or religious agendas. Now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • April 6, 2001 — Los Angeles: Algerian citizen Ahmed Ressam is convicted of a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Years Eve 1999. Ressam, an al-Qadea operative who had received instruction at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was arrested on Dec. 14, 1999 as he attempted to enter the United States from British Columbia driving a rented car in which he had hidden explosives and bomb components.
  • April 10, 2003 — Noonday, Texas: The FBI raids the home of William Krar and storage facilities that Krar rented in the area, discovering an arsenal that includes more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 65 pipe bombs and remote-control briefcase bombs, and almost two pounds of deadly sodium cyanide. Also found are components to convert the cyanide into a bomb capable of killing thousands, along with white supremacist and antigovernment material. 
  • April 10, 2015 — Signal Mountain, TN: Robert Doggart, 63, is arrested in connection with a plot to kill residents and destroy the school and mosque of Islamberg, a predominantly African-American Muslim hamlet in Hancock, N.Y. Doggart, who claims to be an ordained Christian minister in the Christian National Church, was also a 2014 congressional candidate who ran and lost as an independent in east Tennessee.
  • April 11, 1968 — Syria: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, is formed. The PFLP-GC was created after a faction led by Ahmed Jibril split from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claiming the parent organization was insufficiently militant and was drifting too far in the direction of revolutionary Marxism.

This week in terrorism history: March 2-8

Taliban fighter with captured US equipment, shown in a 2017 propaganda film. (Credit: Military Times)

Two days ago, the leaders of the Taliban signed an agreement with the United States designed to end bring to an end a war that the US has been fighting for nearly two decades.

But that was Saturday. Now it’s Monday, and there’s this:

A deadly blast shattered a period of relative calm in Afghanistan on Monday and the Taliban ordered fighters to resume operations against Afghan forces just two days after signing a deal with Washington aimed at ushering in peace.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack at a football ground in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, where three brothers were killed, officials told AFP.

The blast occurred around the same time the Taliban ordered fighters to recommence attacks against Afghan army and police forces, apparently ending an official “reduction in violence” that had seen a dramatic drop in bloodshed and given Afghans a welcome taste of peace.

Whether this will scuttle the agreement, which lays out a timetable for the final withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan, or not remains to be seen. But the pact, negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government itself, had already suffered one substantial blow.

Part of the deal calls for the Afghan government to release as many as 5,000 Taliban fighters as part of a prisoner swap in exchange for 1,000 captive members of the Afghan security forces. But on Sunday

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, that a prisoner release was not a promise the United States could make, according to The Associated Press. “The request has been made by the United States for the release of prisoners and it can be part of the negotiations but it cannot be a precondition,” said Ghani.

More than 2,400 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, toppling the Taliban from power and hounding al Qaeda from its camps and hideouts. If the peace deal holds, we could see all 12,000 US troops currently deployed there, and the nearly 7,000 NATO forces, leave once and for all. What happens after that remains anyone’s guess.

Now for this week’s look back.

  • March 2, 2001 — Corbett, OR: Federal and local law enforcement agents, as part of an ongoing probe into a white supremacist group, raid a home, seizing weapons, racist literature, and marijuana growing equipment. They also recover a binder notebook entitled “Army of God, Yahweh’s Warriors” containing what officials call a list of targets that include a local federal building and the FBI’s Oregon offices. 
  • March 3, 1991 — Cappagh, Northern Ireland: The Ulster Volunteer Force carries out a gun attack on a pub in County Tyrone, killing four Catholic men. Some time later the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announces that three of its members had been killed in the attack. The fourth person killed was a Catholic civilian. 
  • March 3, 2003 — Davao City, Philippines: A bomb attributed to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, hidden in a backpack, detonates inside an airport terminal, killing 22 and wounding 148. The organization denies responsibility.
  • March 5, 2018 — Beaver Dam, WI: A 28-year-old food company technician is killed in an explosion at his apartment. Bomb-making materials were subsequently found throughout his home, including a 40 gallons of acetone, a highly volatile substance that is commonly used as a component of terrorist bombs worldwide. Police recover white supremacist materials from the apartment.
  • March 8, 1995 — Karachi, Pakistan: Gunmen kill two US diplomats and wound another. The attack took place as the diplomats were being driven to work at the US embassy. No claim of responsibility was made and suspects were never identified.