The attack on the American University in Kabul on 24 August 2016 was unprecedented in many respects. For the first time, a ‘complex attack’ – often reserved for high-profile and well-guarded targets – hit an educational institution. It also came in the wake of an ideological campaign by circles in the Taleban movement that had demonised the American University Afghanistan (AUAF) as a centre of hostile ‘Western’ efforts. No group – including the Taleban – has officially claimed responsibility for this attack, leaving a lot of ambiguity. AAN’s Borhan Osman looks into the insurgency’s internal dynamics – the rise of new ideologues and young ultra-radicals influenced by them and their influence on Taleban decision-making – for clues about the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of the assault.The complex attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul started around 7 pm on 24 August 2016 with an explosion followed by armed assailants storming the campus. Photo: Tolonews
An earlier dispatch by the AAN Team put together an account of what happened during the attack on AUAF and, in commemoration, gathered biographical details of the students and the lecturer killed.
Why AUAF – and who was the main target?
Previous attacks on educational facilities have been confined to schools in the countryside. They have not always been the act of insurgents; nor have they always been politically motivated. Some school were attacked as government institutions, others as a result of local conflicts about their location, property or similar issues. (1)
Attackers targeting schools in rural areas have long been able to get away with their actions since such assaults, particularly in faraway areas, rarely attract wider public attention or are of a comparatively small scale in a long-lasting war situation. However, in the attack on AUAF in Kabul, the assailants knew well that their actions would make waves.
Eyewitness accounts of the attack suggest the assailants did not look for specific individuals, offices or buildings. Survivors consistently recalled that the attackers went into classrooms where students were trying to barricade or hide themselves and shot at them at random, and this mainly during the initial one to two hours of the attack. When the university guards were joined by the Afghan commando forces to fight the assailants, they seem to have dug in. They appeared to simply want to do as much harm as they could and that the university and whoever they found in it were their general targets.
Additionally, two factors suggests that the university itself and its students were the target of the assault and that the attackers wanted to interrupt or end the AUAF’s activity by doing as much harm as they could to the people. One is the timing of the assault, which occurred during the university’s peak hour. The second is the complexity of the operation, involving a car bomb, possibly a suicide bomber and assailants armed with small arms and hand grenades.
The Wall Street Journal wrote that “the university has long been at high risk of attack from Taliban militants because of its association with foreigners.” But it is not known whether the attack was preceded by concrete threats.
Searching for clues about the perpetrators
No group has officially claimed the attack so far. But some international media and AAN contacts among Afghan authorities suspect the Taleban. (2) The movement emerges as the prime suspect as the assault bore the familiar hallmarks of a complex attack, and that type of attack has been typical of the Taleban’s modus operandi. (3) No other group has a proven capability of mounting such an attack in Kabul. (The bombing of the TUTAP rally on 23 July 2016 claimed by the Afghan chapter of the Islamic State, or Daesh, calling itself Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP, possibly involved suicide bombers but was not a complex attack on a fortified target. The same goes for an ISKP attack on a bank in Jalalabad in April 2015 that was carried out by a single suicide bomber and therefore does not qualify as a complex attack.) More importantly, there is no obvious reason why a small, new insurgent group like ISKP would not claim such an attack, as they are usually much more publicity-thirsty than the Taleban, the dominant insurgent actor.
ISKP has even claimed attacks in the past that it had definitely not carried out and even attacks that never happened, such as the alleged killing of ministerial staff in Kabul in August 2016 or a bomb attack on police in Jalalabad in May 2016. Thus, the Taleban – defined in the broadest sense, to include any network that operates under its brand, no matter how close or loose the connection is – remains the chief suspect.
Attacks by the Taleban against fully civilian targets are also not unprecedented. It has conducted numerous attacks, including on hotels or restaurants frequented by common Afghans (Serena and Spozhmai) or mainly foreign civilians (La Taverna, Park Palace and Le Jardin) and on the audience of a theatre performance (Lycee Istiqlal).
While the Taleban movement has officially remained silent about the incident, its members, on social media and in person, have left little doubt about the attack being an act of the Taleban. Soon after the attack was initiated, a number of Taleban social media activists, including members of its normal media operations, celebrated it in their comments. They applauded the attack as one on the tenets of the ‘Americanisation’ of Afghanistan. A day later, as voices critical of the attack came up from among common Afghans, including Taleban’s sympathisers, Taleban social media activists defended the attack. One person, a mid-level Taleb, who is part of the movement’s media operations, wrote, “The target is the enemy. If its educational centres are against Islamic principles and Afghan culture, there is no justification, from the Sharia point of view, to spare them. In the American University, anti-Islam lessons were taught.”
A more senior member of the movement, who said he personally did not follow who exactly carried out the attack, maintained he would not be surprised if the Taleban carried it out. He also did not respond directly to whether the attack was carried out by the Taleban. However, the background he provided about how the risk of an attack loomed large – combined with comments by Taleban social media activists – suggests the movement was the most plausible perpetrator.
This senior Taleban member added, though, that the feeling towards the AUAF among many Taleban foot soldiers he met in Pakistan during their training and amid commanders was of a hostile organisation: “The American University has been widely seen as a target that should be hit. Given that many Taleban read about the university in books [by ideologues in the movement], the attack looked inevitable.”
In these books, the university is depicted as a key centre of US efforts to stop the emergence of an Islamic government in Afghanistan. They include one by what many young Taleban call “the thinker of the modern jihad,” known by his pen name Abdul Hadi Mujahed. From the years of the anti-Soviet jihad until around 2011, he was a member of Hezb-e Islami and lived in a Gulf country for a considerable time. He is a Taleban theorist of the ‘clash of civilisations’ and believes that the West’s “cultural invasion” is far more dangerous and of longer consequences for Afghanistan than the military invasion. Now based in Peshawar, his views are not mandated officially by the movement, but many Taleban fighters and supporters see him as one of their main ideological sources. They attend his lessons and circulate his books despite the fact that his ideas have considerably varied from the movement’s main lines of thought. Written originally in Pashto, his works have been translated into Dari, Urdu, English and Arabic.
In his first book, Fikri Pohana (“Ideological Knowledge”), published in 2013, he dedicated an entire chapter to the AUAF – under the title of “De Kabul Masihi Pohantun” (“Kabul’s Christian University”). That chapter is full of misinformation, irrelevant comparisons and a distorted reading of history. He describes the AUAF as a “missionary” institution “inspired by Protestantism,” a “centre of US intelligence networks in Afghanistan” providing “a pool of advisors and consultants for the CIA.” He also accuses the university of intending to “produce secularists” who would “promote and rule by Western liberalism and oppose Islamic laws.”
(Those making these statements seem to have had little information about whom they are talking about and who later got caught up in the attack. For example, as profiled in a previous AAN dispatch, among the casualties of the AUAF was a devout religious student whom his classmates called imam since he was leading the prayers at the university mosque. A lecturer, who was killed, was a graduate of the prestigious madrasa, and a Hafiz (a person who had memorized the Holy Quran by heart). This lecturer was teaching an Islamic law class at the time of the attack.)
Scans from that chapter popped up on social media feeds of Taleban activists soon after the attack unfolded. The book was cited widely as a justification of the attack, as if the assault was directly inspired by it. Indeed, as one Taleb put it on his Facebook page: “Whoever conducted this attack has done a great job. They have put the words of our ideological guide, Ustad Abdul Hadi Mujahed, into practice.”
In addition to the themes produced by Mujahid regarding AUAF, specific justifications for attacking AUAF and killing its students also appeared in the Taleban’s social media in the wake of the attack. Two common themes were the following:
– AUAF was a university attended only by children of the political elite, ambassadors, MPs, ministers and commanders. No children of ordinary people can afford studying in AUAF.
This sounds very much similar to the justification a Pakistani Taleban commander who attacked an army school in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in December 2014 where most of those killed were teenage students. There is also an interesting similarity in thinking between this radical segment within the Afghan Taleban and elements of the Pakistani Taleban.
– AUAF promoted moral corruption with its co-education system and was a place for homosexual match-making.
This is a reference to an Afghan lecturer who was dismissed in late 2013 after publicly boasting about his gay sexual orientation.
In the Taleban movement, who decides what to attack?
Given the Taleban’s officially more tolerant position vis-à-vis educational institutions in recent years, (4) the attack on AUAF is hard to explain without taking into account some recent dynamics within the movement. It has, in principle, designated educational facilities as off-limits to attack. Its own rules of engagement have progressively emphasised that ban. During the initial years of the insurgency (2004-2008), Taleban fighters attacked schools more often in the absence of a strong proscription of doing so. Later, the group’s attitudes hugely evolved, as the leadership issued a layha (rulebook) for the fighter that was frequently updated (more in this AAN report). One of its aims was to reign in operations by local field commanders conducted outside of the chain of command – which included attacks on schools.
Just a week before the attack on AUAF, the Taleban released two statements spelling out its policy towards schools, and educational institutions generally, to once again reiterate its principle of an absolute ban of attacks on education. One statement said, “According to the principles of the Islamic Emirate, no mujahed has the permission to destroy a bridge or burn a school. . . . Our countrymen have to be aware that the Islamic Emirate mujahedin never intentionally harm any school or public property. The Emirate’s leadership has repeatedly brought the protection of these institutions to the attention of mujahedin.”
Another statement also talked about the Taleban’s commission for education and higher education which “supports and takes care of madrasas, high schools and higher education institutions.”
Against this background, how could the movement attack AUAF?
Against this background, the attack on AUAF can only be understood in the light of three other concurrent developments deep inside the Taleban movement. The first is a process that allows for the redefinition of attack targets – including taking particular ones out of a protected category and making them a legitimate target again. This is not limited to education, but also encompasses the media, humanitarian organisations and cultural activities. This would result in a policy where the Taleban, for example, would continue to tolerate universities in general, but not one like AUAF, with its US links.
Something similar happened in the media sector in October 2015 when the Taleban singled out two private TV channels – Tolo TV and 1TV – declaring them legitimate targets, after accusing them of operating as “propaganda outlets” in the service of the “infidel invaders” and as “hostile” to the movement. (In the same statement, the Taleban re-assured the rest of the media that it will continue to “cooperate” with them.) The Taleban delivered on that threat when its fighters attacked a shuttle bus carrying staff of a TV production firm that belonged to the media group that owns Tolo on 20 January 2016.
A second, related development has to do with the flow of ideas and how decisions are made within the movement. Even the most fringe elements can influence the movement’s attitude towards a specific issue through lobbying, if they are able to find influential supporters in the movement’s hierarchy. In the case of Tolo and 1TV, foot soldiers from Kunduz acted in tandem with a strand of the movement’s Pakistan-based young fanatics who had developed a strong antipathy against free media. They together persuaded the Taleban’s military commission to take out the two channels from the list of the (protected) media. The Pakistan-based fanatics were, mostly, the same people as had been engaged in a vicious propaganda campaign against AUAF.
The third development (not new, but relevant) is the existence of semi-autonomous networks under the umbrella of the Taleban movement with their own sources of funding and a particular chain of command. The Haqqani network is probably the largest and most powerful of these; another is the former Taleban military chief Qayum Zaker’s network in Helmand, which retains its semi-autonomy despite being partly dependent on resources from the Rahbari Shura (the Leadership Council). There are also smaller networks that serve as direct proxies of Pakistan (these are much more loyal to the Taleban than the Haqqanis are) but that enjoy the freedom to act freely within the insurgency sphere. These are thought to be responsible for a series of assassinations (or assassination attempts) against politicians, tribal elders (especially in the south), ulama and even Afghan Taleban members.
In other cases, powerful local commanders who contribute resources under their tight control to Taleban operations overall are able to keep operational (semi-) autonomy, as long as the money flow continues. Furthermore, where the Taleban rely on existing local networks to establish their presence in new areas, the local networks will tend to have a larger influence on the operations, if not full autonomy, until they are fully integrated into the movement. This has been almost always the case in areas outside the movement’s southern stronghold. A remarkable case in the initial years of the insurgency was Badakhshan, and recently Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.
For these networks, the official policy towards a certain issue does not always matter. They are bound only to the Taleban’s universal red lines – for example, that they cannot engage in sectarian attacks, beheadings and rapes – in order to keep their pledge of allegiance to the movement, and benefit from the name. There is a wide grey area in which these networks can operate in some divergence from official Taleban policies. For the time being, the Taleban leadership seems to heed those networks’ insistence on operational autonomy, in part as a reward for their important military contributions. This also provides the Taleban leadership deniability when it comes to particular ‘operations,’ for example, when the attacks by these networks cause remarkably high numbers of civilian casualties.
How does the AUAF fit into the Taleban’s hit list?
With the Taleban’s official – but not given – stance that universities are protected institutions and the possible influence of semi-autonomous networks and even possibly fringe groups, there are two scenarios regarding how the attack on AUAF might have occurred. In the first scenario, the attack was planned and carried out under the central chain of command after the institution was redefined as a ‘legitimate target’. AUAF, in this case, would be considered not an academic entity, but an institution that was part of a political agenda hostile to the Taleban. Similar disinformation has been used in the above-mentioned cases of attacks on hotels, restaurants, cultural centres and even hospitals.
The second scenario is that one of the semi-autonomous networks carried out the attack bypassing the central chain of command. The Haqqani network comes first in the list, given its proven capability of conducting sophisticated attacks in Kabul. In this case, too, AUAF would have been seen to occupy a grey targeting area, to allow the mainstream Taleban deniability. Indeed, the scenario that one of the most brutal networks in the Taleban movement carried out what their most extreme ideological strand lobbied for makes the most sense. In this case, an explanation of how the attack fits into the Taleban’s targeting pattern is not needed, since these networks are not fully bound by the policies of the mainstream.
The Taleban do not always claim attacks they carry out. Their official position toward attacks varies, ranging from proud claims of responsibility to silence, denial or even condemnation. The type of behaviour is determined by various factors, mainly how the attack will affect the Taleban’s image in the wider public, the Taleban support base and the broader political spectrum. For example, the assassination of Ustad Borhanuddin Rabbani in 2011 obviously resonated well with the Taleban’s support base, but claiming it publicly was too grave for its political image among the political forces of the former mujahedin. The Taleban’s response was silence – although it became clear that the perpetrator had come as an alleged Taleban peace contact. Other possible instances where the Taleban denied responsibility include the huge truck bomb that seems to have exploded prematurely in an August night in 2015 in Kabul, killing dozens, mainly civilians (see here and here). Denial and, more so, occasional condemnation are typical responses when the attack causes utterly unjustifiable damage or casualties, according to the Taleban’s standards, even when they are seen as ‘collateral’ rather than intended outcome.
Examples of Taleban condemnation of attacks carried out by their own fighters include two of the deadliest ones, in Paktika in 2014 and 2015. In July 2014 – and the holy month of Ramadan that year – a truck bomb went off in Urgun killing scores, almost all of them civilians, and turning a huge part of the town into a pile of rubble. Details provided to AAN then by local people left no doubt the attack was carried out by a well-known local Taleban commander, who actually wanted to target a notorious pro-government militia commander in the town, Azizullah Karwan. It was not clear, though, whether the bomb detonated prematurely or intentionally, given that many local Taleban foot soldiers considered the entire population of the town a legitimate target for its collective hostility toward the movement. Another attack targeted a group of people considered similarly hostile when a suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd that included a number of ALP commanders watching or participating in a volleyball tournament in Yahyakhel district in November 2015. The Taleban officially condemned the attack in a statement and promised to hold those responsible to account, while a pro-Taleban website provided apologetic accounts and detailed justification for the attack.
The ideology behind the AUAF attack
The assault on AUAF, however, was the first time the Taleban widely cited specific texts to justify or celebrate an attack. As much as the attack indicates an increased ferocity in the Taleban’s tactics, it also brings to the fore the existence of a new layer of extremists within the movement. These new extremists are taking ideology much more seriously than the movement’s (or its leadership’s) political considerations, which include being flexible on rules so as not to upset the wider population. What makes the rise of the new strand a worrying phenomenon is not the mere obsession with ideology versus political considerations, but the essence of their ideology. Proponents of this ideology, such as Abdul Hadi Mujahed, have elaborately argued that the main enemy is not the West per se, but the ideas it promotes – meaning the “cultural invasion” which spans the fields of education, media, scholarships and humanitarian activities. Mujahed has called on the Taleban to pay more attention to this ‘invasion’ and to stop it. While Mujahed’s ideas might not be that attractive for senior Taleban, they have definitely struck a chord with the internet-savvy young generation. His book and its title have inspired several Facebook pages, which spread its contents. His fans have even made an Android application for his book, the only book on jihadism in local languages customised for smartphones.
Although not endorsed by the movement, according to various senior Taleban sources, articles by Mujahed have been published on the official Taleban website, al-emara, in 2014 and 2015. Taleban media representatives, however, told AAN at that time that they only did so out of personal respect for him, rather than because they agreed with what he wrote. One of his articles was also published in May 2014 in al-Qaeda’s InFight Magazine. Indeed, his ideas more resemble al-Qaeda’s thinking than that of the Taleban.
Rise of the new ultra-radicals?
The rise of strands in the Taleban movement with ideas more radical than its main line of thinking, their followers’ ability to influence decision-making by lobbying and the grey areas provided for semi-autonomous networks clearly illustrate the limits of centralisation of the movement. These limits also offset the success of the Taleban’s institutionalisation and decision-making mechanism based on a defined hierarchy in the form of more than a dozen quasi-ministerial bodies (see this AAN assessment). The ultra-radicals have played a decisive role in legitimising the attack on AUAF.
Both trends – increased centralisation and the radicalisation of certain elements – exist at the same time. While it is too early to say whether the rise of the radicals foreshadows a shift towards a broader extremism, there does seem a strong element of tension in the movement. Much depends on how dangerous the movement’s seniors, especially the new leader (who is more of a classical religious conservative), will perceive this development and what the new leader is willing and able to do about. For the time being he has managed to further consolidate the movement’s unity (even some leaders of dissident factions have returned to the mainstream organisation), and maintaining the current situation provides welcome deniability to ‘operations’ causing high numbers of civilian casualties.
An increase in the number and influence of those driven by more extremist ideas bodes ill for the protection of civilians and could make the insurgency even more lax when it comes to preventing civilian casualties. It sends worrying signals to the humanitarian community, as the movement (and its identification of ‘legitimate’ targets) becomes harder to predict. It could also further complicate an exit from the current wave of violence, a receding hope after the collapse of most initiatives to bring about peace negotiations.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig
(1) In this April 2016 report on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary-General spoke of 132 verified incidents of attacks on schools and protected personnel in Afghanistan in 2015, 82 of which were attributed to the Taleban and 13 to Daesh-affiliated groups.
(2) The Voice of America and this AP report (but only in a photo caption, not the main text) spoke of a “Taliban attack” while the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle wrote that “suspicion is likely to fall on the Taliban.”
(3) Tim Foxley’s blog Afghan Hindsight has a collection of Taleban “complex” or “coordinated attacks,” here.
(4) In recent years, the Taleban have even cooperated with the Ministry of Education (unofficially, on the latter’s side) to keep schools in areas of their control open. This was often on the Taleban’s terms, as they had a say on which teachers were employed and on the curriculum. On this subject, also see AAN’s 2011 report “The Battle for the Schools: The Taleban and State education” and this 2012 dispatch, “The Battle for Schools in Ghazni.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020