Afghanistan remains an attractive place for international jihadists to come and fight, despite the competing appeal of Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Since the post-2001 insurgency broke out, foreign fighters have come from Pakistan, Central Asia and the Arab world, some bringing their families. An unknown number have ended up in Afghan detention. More information about these detainees, says AAN’s Kate Clark, would help give a better idea about the foreign contingent fighting in the insurgency. She also looks into what the Afghan government is doing with them.Claims of the capture of foreign militants by government forces come fairly often, but what then to do with them? (Photo: Tolo News 2015)
The research for this dispatch is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. This is the latest report in a series by the author on the detention of foreigners on Afghan soil (for earlier reporting, see AAN’s Detentions Dossier.
Who are Afghanistan’s foreign security detainees?
Trying to get information on security detainees in Afghanistan is always tricky, particularly so when they are foreign. There is no publicly available detail on numbers or nationalities, so information for this piece has been pulled together from several off-the-record interviews with government and non-government sources, as well some public documentation and press reporting.
One source of information is the claims made by government officials to the media that foreign fighters have been captured. Such reports need to be treated with some caution. Research by AAN last year (“How to identify a Chechen”) questioned the evidential basis of many of the claimed sightings of Chechens, both alive and dead, for example. (1) The Afghan authorities may also be no better at identifying suspects than the United States was. Many of those it held at Bagram and Guantanamo, both foreign and Afghan, turned out to be non-combatants. The ‘Pakistani militants’ at Bagram, according to details provided by their lawyers, included minors, old men and even a Shia accused of belonging to the Sunni-sectarian group, Lashkar-e Tayba.
With these caveats in mind, news reports of the capture of foreign fighters mainly concern Central Asians (often mixed groups of men, women and children) and Pakistanis (men only). (2) Most of the reported arrests occurred in Nangarhar, which makes sense. The province has a porous border with Pakistan’s tribal areas, where there has been a concentration of foreign and Pakistani militant groups, and ‘hosts’ the one stronghold of Daesh (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) in Afghanistan (see AAN reporting here and here), making it attractive to some international jihadists. Military operations by the Pakistan army in North Waziristan – the Zarb-e Azb operation and its successors – launched on 15 June 2015 and continuing since, have also driven many foreign militants across the border into Afghanistan. The other ‘hot-spot’ for reports of foreign detentions is the north (AAN has a forthcoming dispatch touching on foreigners fighting with militant groups there) with occasional reports from the south-east.
This pattern of reporting matches information from the team which monitors al Qaeda, Daesh and individuals and groups ‘associated’ with al Qaeda for the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee. In its January 2017 report, the team said fighters loyal to “Al-Qaida-affiliated groups, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan” who had fled the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Pakistan “continue to fight within Taliban groups,” and that “Al-Qaida fighters acted as specialized instructors for Taliban groups, in particular where the design of improvised explosive devices was concerned.” Despite dwindling resources, the team said that al Qaeda “remains hopeful that the Taliban will be successful and that it can ‘piggyback’ on that success.”
The UN monitoring team also reported, in January, that about 700 foreigners were fighting for Daesh (ISKP) alongside about 900 Afghans in Nangarhar. Although the group had sustained heavy losses, it reported, recruitment was still high from the “Afghanistan/Pakistan border region.” In the north, the monitoring team said fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan continued to fight… as a distinctly identifiable group.”
The significance of the foreign fighters – and a plea for information
Afghan officials often highlight the foreign element in the Afghan insurgency in claims that look designed to attract central government or international resources or explain territorial losses. Such claims are not just found at the local level, but also at the most senior. On 6 March 2017, for instance, National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar told the Asian Security Conference in Delhi that a quarter of the insurgents – he estimated 10,000 men – were foreign. The statistic seems scarcely credible.
More information about the foreign detainees could help firm up government claims. It could also undermine them, which might be why officials are so unforthcoming on detail. During ISAF’s tenure in Afghanistan, for example, a former senior officer who served in the later years of the mission, told AAN, they found that most of the insurgents they detained were Afghan and Taleban, and were picked up fighting very near to where they lived. He said that even though there was reporting bias (most detentions resulted from night raids which would emphasise the local character of those captured), the findings still undercut claims then of the significance of foreign fighters in the war.
Atmar’s claim that a quarter of the militants are foreign appears far-fetched. However, lower numbers are still significant, says Taleban specialist Michael Semple of Queen’s University, Belfast:
To judge their significance, you do not just count them. [The foreign fighters] include some of the most experienced military functionaries. In particular, they have a reputation for supplying the most competent attack planners… particularly for urban terrorist attacks. They are not numerous in blowing themselves up – they probably do not want to deplete their numbers – but they are certainly involved in preparation, including rigging up vehicles as IEDs, and also in training.
In terms of their impact on the civilian population, foreign fighters may also loom large. They tend to be more abusive than Afghan fighters because of the absence of any restraining local or tribal ties. One researcher in Paktia described foreign fighters there as “independently powerful” and beyond Taleban discipline. (3) Some foreigners may come under direct Taleban command, says Semple, fighting as ‘embeds’, but many are partially or fully autonomous. Al Qaeda fighters, for example, should act in coordination with the Taleban’s military command structure, given that their leader Aiman al-Zawahiri has formally sworn loyalty to successive Taleban leaders, but even that is not always the case. Foreigners fighting with Daesh tend to be completely free-floating. (4)
Whether foreign jihadists act as free agents or ‘force multipliers’ for the Taleban, it is clear that Afghanistan still has attractions for them: it is the place where mujahedin defeated a superpower, where the Taleban created an ‘Islamic state’ in the 1990s, where the 9/11 attacks were conceived, and one of the few places where jihadists can still try to kill American soldiers. From an analyst’s point of view, it would be useful to have more accurate, publically-available information about the foreigners now in Afghan detention – their names, number, nationalities, who they were fighting with, when and why they come to Afghanistan, and so on. The make-up of the security detainee population says a lot about the make-up of the insurgency, including the role and likely strength of the foreign contingent.
What to do with foreign detainees?
While the number of foreign security detainees is unknown, some are creating dilemmas for the Afghan government in ways that will be familiar to the United States. The US ran its own detention facilities in Afghanistan until December 2014 and opted to hold both Afghan and foreign detainees without trial (also called administrative detention and internment). In 2005, it introduced a system where review boards assessed cases periodically and could decide to release detainees. After such decisions, Afghan detainees would be released quickly, but foreigners could find themselves languishing in limbo in the US detention facility at the Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, for years. The US was loath to release them in Afghanistan where they might join or re-join the insurgency. Instead, it sought guarantees from the detainees’ home countries that they would be both monitored and not be tortured, or it tried to find third countries willing to give the same guarantees.
The US was dilatory about finding places for such men until 2014, its final year in charge of Bagram, when it suddenly managed to transfer more than 50 detainees out of Afghanistan (for more detail, see here). In the end, it had just six foreigners left in its custody when its detention programme ended. These six were handed over to the Afghan authorities on 12 December 2014 (read about them here). Two of them were soon repatriated. (5)
Internment or trial – and then what?
President Hamed Karzai was unwilling to use administrative detention, despite US pressure to do so and moved swiftly to stop its use in 2012 when he discovered that Afghan officials, following the US example, were using it at Bagram (see here and here). President Ashraf Ghani, however, decided to introduce the measure, issuing a decree on 9 October 2015. Parliament, however, rejected it. (6) So, currently, the only way to detain someone legally in Afghanistan is through the courts: prosecution and conviction. In this regard, AAN has been told, foreign security detainees are treated the same as Afghans. “If they committed crimes in Afghanistan,” said the then commander of Bagram, General Faruq Barakzai, in 2015, “[they] will be prosecuted like Afghans, according to Afghan law. An Afghan court will decide whether it views their cases and finds them guilty, or finds there is no evidence against them.” (7)
However, if a foreign security detainee has been tried and convicted and has served his or her sentence, the Afghan government finds itself facing the same problem that confronted the US military after it decided a detainee no longer needed to be detained: what to do with him? Some foreign detainees can be repatriated, but not all. Some countries, AAN was told by a senior government official, do not want their nationals back. For other detainees, it is the risk of torture which makes repatriation tricky and potentially illegal. Under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) (signed by Afghanistan in 1984 and coming into force in 1987), an individual may not be transferred if there is “substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture” (the principle of non-refoulement codified in article 3 of the Convention).
Details on transfers of prisoners and instances where the government has not been able to transfer third country nationals can be found in a government submission, received on 1 April 2016, outlining Afghanistan’s record on torture (see paragraphs 148 and 157 to 161 here). The submission was made for the CAT committee ahead of hearings, held on 24 and 25 April 2017, to review Afghanistan’s adherence to the Convention (see AAN reporting here).
The CAT committee had asked Afghanistan to outline procedures, safeguards and records on the transfer of prisoners and extradition of suspects and convicts, bearing in mind the non-refoulement principle. The submission said that all extraditions and transfers “shall be based on the mutual agreements considering the international conventions.” The requesting state must be a party to the CAT, not be accused of torturing those accused or convicted of crimes, and provide “a letter guaranteeing that torture and inhuman treatments will not be inflicted on the extradited criminal or prisoner.”
The submission says that in 2013, in accordance with ‘mutual extradition and judicial cooperation treaties’ with Iran and Tajikistan, 31 Iranians and nine citizens of Tajikistan, “arrested following various reasons were transferred to their country.” (It is noticeable that such treaties do not exist for Pakistan and other Central Asian countries where foreign security detainees are likely to come from.) One citizen each from Bangladesh, Nepal, South Africa, Iraq, and Turkey were also repatriated that year, with the prisoners’ written consent. The government did not give more up-to-date figures or detail as to whether these individuals were ordinary or security prisoners. However, the submission also said that seven Iranians, three citizens of Kyrgyzstan, one from Tajikistan, and one Iraqi had ‘disagreed’ with being repatriated and had instead asked to seek asylum in other countries. The Afghan government has introduced them to the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) to seek help in this.
Dealing with the American legacy
Since this submission, at least four more foreign detainees are believed to have asked not to be repatriated, following the end of their prison sentences or after having been found not guilty. They were all previously detained by the US and were handed over to the Afghan government on 12 December 2014. We have detail on them after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in America led to the release of some of their files (see also AAN reporting on the detainees). After transfer to Afghan custody, AAN was told that prosecutors began to prepare cases against them (read about that here).
Two of the detainees are brothers from Tajikistan, Said Jamaluddin and Abdul Fatah, born respectively in 1990 and 1983 in Dehgalman. (8) They are the sons of a well-known and longstanding jihadist leader, Mullah Amruddin (also known as Amriddin Tabarov), a 60 year old Tajikistani militant who is reported to have come to Afghanistan in 1993 and who fought with different Central Asian and Pakistani jihadi groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The brothers were captured on 22 March 2009 during a raid on a house in Imam Sheh [as written, probably Imam Saheb] in Kunduz and admitted, their files say, to being members of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan. It is one of the constellation of splinter groups and re-brandings around the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). (9) The US decided, more than seven years ago, on 23 February 2010, that their continued detention was no longer necessary to “mitigate the threat” it said they posed, and they could be transferred.
No suitable place was found for them, however, and, in 2014, they found themselves transferred into Afghan hands. Soon after, in February 2015, they were put on trial not for a terrorism-related offense, but for illegal entry into Afghanistan (see this Washington Post piece which quotes their lawyer). The judge found them guilty and gave them a three year jail sentence, but he ruled that their years already spent in detention cancelled the sentence out. Nevertheless, AAN was told, the pair are still in custody in Bagram. They fear being tortured if deported to Tajikistan and have requested asylum in a third country.
The third ‘inherited’ detainee is an Uzbek, Musa/Muso Akhmadjanov/Ahmedjanov, son of Anwar Ahmedjanov. He was born in Tashkent in 1980, and according to his US file, was captured on 23 May 2010 as he crossed into Afghanistan from Mashhad, Iran. He has told his lawyer (quoted in the same Washington Post article) that he had left Uzbekistan because the authorities were harassing him over growing a beard and “looking like a Muslim.” His lawyer said he went to Turkey where he married a local woman, but was then expelled, in 2010, for not having a visa. His US case file says he admitted to being a member of the Islamic Jihad Union (see footnote 9) and alleged he had been facilitating the movement of foreign fighters across Afghanistan. According to the Post, however, the Afghan courts have repeatedly ruled that there is insufficient evidence of his having done anything illegal in the country. “We have concluded to [sic] hand over the accused person to the officials of his country,” the newspaper reported a three-judge appellate panel as ruling in May 2015. “[If] the individual would feel threatened from [a] safety perspective, then we request application of international law for his safety and security.” Ahmedjanov told his lawyer he would like to go back to Turkey, but according to the Post, the Turkish authorities can find no record of his marriage. He is also, AAN was told, still in Bagram.
Finally, the Egyptian Abu Ikhlas al-Masri was born on 31 December 1963 in Dimiat in the Nile Delta and came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation in 1988. He never returned home, but married a woman from Kunar province and settled there. As a young man, he had joined the Egyptian militant group, Islamic Jihad, members of which would go on to form the ‘Egyptian’ element of al-Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahri. By 2006, Abu Iklhas was appearing regularly in media and academic reporting as ‘a’ or ‘the’ senior al-Qaida commander in Kunar. (10) He was reported captured in December 2010 during an attack on Jalalabad airport. A leaked ISAF report from 2012, State of the Taliban, reported him as telling his interrogators, “Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can’t (expletive) on a tree in Konar (Province) without them watching. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad.” It is not known how the trial of Abu Ikhlas went, but AAN was told he is also still in custody in Bagram, despite having finished his sentences.
The particular problem of women prisoners
Foreign detainees include women and their children, as well as men. AAN was told that some have been put on trial and convicted of security offences, but not all. For example, we were told of five “Daesh widows” (from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) who were picked up, along with three children, on the road from Nangarhar to Kabul last year, fleeing the fighting in that province. An official told AAN they were questioned, but no charges were brought. Despite the lack of charges, the women and children have remained in custody and here, there seems to be a conflation of two thorny issues: what to do with foreigners with no place to go and also what to do with women who have no mahram (guardian). It is a “weird legal black hole,” one official told AAN.
The Afghan government finds itself in the same quandary as the US, unable to repatriate some of its foreign detainees, but also unwilling to release them for fear they will join or re-join the insurgency. For now, the Afghan government has opted to continue to hold them. (11) This is essentially illegal, as Afghan law has no provision for administrative detention. As the US discovered, finding third countries willing to host such men is difficult and Afghanistan has far less clout than America. It may be, therefore, that those deemed suitable for release but who fear torture if repatriated could find themselves in custody for many years to come.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert
(1) The piece quoted an ISAF officer with years of experience in northern Afghanistan who wrote in 2011:
We see it here [Mazar-e Sharif] in the provincial hospital, where dead bodies of insurgent KIAs are brought to. When the bodies are not claimed by family members, they are automatically labeled Foreign Fighters and depending on their faces: Asiatic = Uzbeks; dark-skinned = Pakistani; and Caucasian = Chechens. This is done by doctors as well as police and everybody takes it at face value.
(2) A search on the internet looking for news reports of foreigners detained in the last three years produced the following items, all of which quote Afghan government officials as their source:
Two ethnic Uzbeks, both Tajik nationals, were detained in Kunduz on 9 June 2014. A third man, reported to be Pakistani who had accompanied them, was said to have blown himself up after refusing to surrender.
27 “armed Pakistani citizens” were arrested in Paktia on 26 August 2014, while travelling in a four-vehicle convoy that also included a military vehicle, said the Ministry of Interior.
Five alleged members of the Pakistani Taleban suspected of perpetrating the 16 December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, which left 150 people (mainly children) dead, were detained on 14 January 2015 in eastern Afghanistan.
“[N]ine Russian-speaking militants,” five men, a woman and three children (sic), the Nangarhari governor’s spokesman said, had been arrested on 10 December 2015. Most likely, said The New York Times, they were Central Asians coming from Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal areas to join Daesh in Achin and Kot districts of Nangarhar. The woman blew herself up, killing herself, the three children and a security official.
Fifteen foreigners were reported detained in Nangarhar on 13 December 2015 – twelve Uzbeks and Tajiks, a mixed group of men, women and children, in Rodat district, and, separately, three Pakistanis, residents of Kuramm, Tirah and Swat, in Ghani Khel districts.
Five “Russian-speakers”, were detained on 18 March 2016 by the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, the agency announced: three women and two men during a house search in Khiwa district of Nangarhar.
Two citizens of Tajikistan were captured, again by the NDS, on 13 July 2016 in Bati Kot in Nangarhar, together with two Afghans from Parwan; all four, the NDS said, had been intent on travelling to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh.
Two Pakistanis from Khyber Agency suspected of belonging to Lashkar-e-Islam were reported arrested in Achin district on 6 November 2016.
Seven Pakistani Taleban were reported arrested, along with two Afghan Taleban, in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar, reportedly with arms, on 9 January 2017.
(3) The local researcher blamed Pakistani Waziris and other foreigners who had crossed into Paktia in 2010 in large part for the deterioration of security in the province. He said:
If there is a problem between local people and local Taleban, there is a chance it can be sorted out. With Taleban from further afield, it is less easy. There is no comeback against the foreign fighters… People have gone to Waziristan to complain [to the then shura in Miram Shah] but there they just shrug their shoulders. It is like when NATO commits a crime, what can Karzai or the ANA do?
(4) Semple points out that foreigners can never be completely autonomous in Afghanistan. They need locals “to vouch for them in dealings with the civilian population and with other fighters.” Foreign militants therefore recruit Afghan helpers, known as ‘ansar’, after the title given to the people of Medina who helped the Prophet Muhammad in his exile from Mecca. The US military would call them ‘facilitators’.
(5) The two men who were repatriated had been ‘rendered’ from Pakistan to Afghanistan by the CIA in 2002 and badly tortured at one of the agency’s black sites (read about their experiences here).
(6) MPs rejected detention without trial, but, on 11 May 2016, did pass other controversial parts of the decree, including authorising the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, to hold and interrogate individuals without judicial oversight or possibility of legal challenge for 60 days. The normal limit under the 2014 Criminal Procedural Code is 72 hours.
(7) See also the government’s submission to the Convention Against Torture Committee (see AAN reporting here which said:
During military operations against terrorist groups – in which foreign citizens are too [sic] – they resist the security forces at the time of their arrest. The security forces in that situation resort to use of force and tough treatment. But, after the arrest, during prosecution, they shall not be tortured and shall be treated based on the laws of Afghanistan. After being assessed by the relevant prosecutor, the courts will decide on their extradition to other states. (p23)
(8) The US gives all detainees a unique Internment Serial Number or ISN. These are crucial for tracking detainees through US files because spellings of names vary or sometimes are not given at all. The numbers of the four men detailed here are: Said Jamaluddin (ISN 4057), Abdul Fatah (ISN 4058), Musa/Muso Akhmadjanov/Ahmedjanov, (ISN 20370) and Abu Ikhlas al-Masri (ISN 21064).
(9) Central Asian jihadi groups are fissiparous and confusing. The oldest, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), emerged in the early 1990s after the Karimov government cracked down on all legal opposition groups in the country and some Islamist activists went underground. It is also the best known in Afghanistan because of its presence during the Taleban era, fighting alongside the Taleban against the Northern Alliance in exchange for a safe haven. In 2001, IMU fighters fled to the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, but particularly since the Pakistani Zarb-e Azb offensive in North Waziristan, have been fighting on this side of the border.
The Islamic Jihad Union split from the IMU in 2002. Originally founded by Uzbeks, it seems to have concentrated on recruiting Turkish and German-Turkish fighters (see a detailed paper on IJU here). The Islamic Movement of Turkestan was another split/rebranding of the IMU, which however never amounted to much.
(10) See mentions of Abu Ikhlas here, here, here, here, here and here.
(11) In the course of the research for this piece, AAN was told by both a senior government and a non-government source that some foreign detainees have more recently been transferred to their home countries despite a substantial risk of torture. AAN was told of a Kazakh Islamic State commander deported to Kazakhstan, and a group of Uighurs to China. This information has not been verified, but we were told the government was motivated by the foreign policy imperative of maintaining good relations with countries in the region. If true, this would represent a possible breach of the Convention against Torture and thus, is an issue that needs watching.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020