The Swedish newspaper Expressen has published CCTV footage of the two men who allegedly killed the Swedish-British journalist, Nils Horner, in Kabul on 11 March. The pair can clearly be seen: they are young, clean-shaven and with short hair. Yet who they might be and why they killed the award-winning journalist still remains a mystery. The Taleban denied carrying out the attack, telling The New York Times, they did not kill the “independent journalists”. However, the murder was claimed by a small self-proclaiming splinter group, the Islami Tahrik Fedai Mahaz. AAN’s Borhan Osman and Kate Clark have been looking into who might have killed Nils Horner and assessing the Fedai Mahaz claim, a group Osman had already been researching.
The newspaper, Expressen, which published the footage of the murderers, described the CCTV footage they were taken from (translated by AAN):
A few cars drive slowly upward along Street 15 in the embassy area of Wazir Akbar Khan in central Kabul. One of the cars stops at a guard booth and an armed guard goes out to talk to the driver. After a minute, the car drives on and the guard returns to his guard booth. It is just like any Tuesday morning anywhere in Kabul. A lot of guns, barbed wire and concrete roads, but quite sleepy. Suddenly, the picture changes. Two people come rushing down the same road. The first, a powerfully built man, appearing to wear a uniform of the Afghan secret police NDS. The other man is wearing traditional Afghan clothes made of thick, grey winter-weight cloth and a thick, dark jacket.
One of the men – who are pictured running away on four different CCTV films – is seen carrying a gun. Eventually, they disappear to who knows where. The police and private security guards near where Horner was killed react only very slowly, but eventually his body is picked up and taken to the nearby Emergency Hospital.
How Nils Horner was killed
Horner was one of Sweden’s best known foreign correspondents, the award-winning Asia Correspondent of Swedish National Radio. Normally based in Hong Kong, he had only been in Kabul for a few days (during which time he visited AAN), but had visited Afghanistan previously. Wazir Akbar Khan, the neighbourhood where he was killed, is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the city, with roads blocked off, concrete barriers, private security guards and police, all guarding the many embassies and homes of senior Afghans. There are also several media bureaux here. On the day of the murder, there was the highest-level security because of Vice President Qasim Fahim’s funeral. Horner was killed as he spoke to people outside a restaurant where he hoped to interview the chef who survived a Taleban attack in January on the Taverna du Liban restaurant (see AAN reporting here). According to the police, the killers used a pistol fitted with a silencer, although, as people in the neighbourhood heard the shot, the silencer detail looks like a possible attempt to explain the police’s slow response. The daylight attack was the first time in years that a Westerner appeared to have been specifically targeted and shot in Kabul.
Claims and Denials
The Taleban swiftly denied the killing, telling The New York Times they did not attack those they considered legitimate journalists. The Times said the Taleban spokesman “left open a loophole for supposed ‘spies’,” but added that “Mr Horner certainly fell into the category of reporters that the Taliban had no interest in targeting.” One group did claim the killing, however, the Islami Tahrik Fedai Mahaz (the Islamic Movement’s Front of ‘those who seek sacrifice in battle’ – their website is here (https://www.alfida.org/)). The Fedai Mahaz gave no details of its alleged operation – and indeed, only claimed the attack after details of the journalist’s identity had been widely circulated. It also provided no details of the murder beyond those already known. It unconvincingly accused Horner of having been not a journalist, but “an MI6 spy”. There is nothing beyond the fact of the Mahaz’ claim itself to support its claim to have carried out the attack.
However, there is, unfortunately, very little to go on as to who might have killed Horner or why. His interview with AAN, with questions on the elections, the death of Marshal Fahim, women’s rights and the legacy of the 2001 intervention were the sort of routine questions to be expected of a visiting reporter gathering material for a series of radio packages. There has been nothing to suggest he was, for example, investigating something sensitive enough to warrant someone wanting to murder him – that includes asking about the Taverna attack which many other journalists have looked into. He could, possibly, have been targeted for some unknown personal reason, because of mistaken identity or by criminals (although the latter looks unlikely as no attempt was made to kidnap him nor was anything stolen) or simply because these two men – either acting individually or as part of a group – wanted to kill a foreigner, any foreigner, and Horner happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It appeared to have been a pre-meditated killing, but one that, if the killers were just looking for any foreigner to kill, did not involve particularly complex planning.
The way Horner was killed is not consistent with the way the Taleban usually carry out attacks in Kabul, so, although Taleban claims and denials always have to be taken with a pinch of salt (see reporting here), this denial feels credible.
We then return to the Fedai Mahaz. In looking at why their claim is not especially credible, we would like to present more details about the group’s background and activities. The Fedai Mahaz portrays itself as more radical than the Taleban, opponents of peace talks and believers in permanent global jihad “against the Satanic rule of democracy”. However, our conclusion is that the group can be best described as ‘jihadi entrepreneurs’ or, as the Taleban spokesman described them to Expressen, “PR warriors”. In other words, it is the media landscape it is interested in and publicity, rather than the battlefield. Indeed, looking into its background, it is questionable whether the group actually carries out operations at all, which is why we think its claim on Horner was most likely opportunitistic.
Fedai Mahaz’s background
Fedai Mahaz appears to have emerged out of, or split off from, the Mullah Dadullah Front (see AAN’s report about this front) in May 2012, after the assassination of High Peace Council member, senator and ex-Taleban deputy higher education minister Arsala Rahmani. The murder of Rahmani was claimed in the name of the Dadullah Front, but two informed sources told AAN, the leaders of the Dadullah Front had actually quietly disowned those members who claimed credit for the killing because it considered Rahmani a former ‘mujahed brother’ and therefore deemed his killing unwarranted and too extreme. The ‘renegade’ members subsequently launched Islami Tahrik Fedai Mahaz. (Rahmani’s assassination was also the only incident claimed by the Dadullah Front which the Taleban denied their involvement in.) Mysteriously, the Mullah Dadullah Front disappeared after Arsala Rahmani’s killing (1) and no more attacks have been claimed in its name since.
The only other ‘big’ incidents claimed by Fedai Mahaz which it managed to receive publicity in the media for are the September 2013 murder in Paktika of an Indian author, Sushmita Banerjee, who had been married to an Afghan man and the assassination of Logar governor Arsala Jamal in October 2013. According to local sources who spoke to AAN, however, the killing of Banerjee was the act of a local Taleban commander who is known to be affiliated with the mainstream Taleban, not to any splinter group. It also seems doubtful that a group with no proven presence of the ground could have managed the complex, sophisticated plotting required to kill of Arsala Jamal; he was killed by an explosive device hidden possibly in a microphone or Quran in the mosque where he was giving a speech to mark Eid al-Adha. What sets the Fedai Mahaz’ brief and vague claims of responsibility apart from the Taleban and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami’s is that both the latter usually provide convincing details when they claim major operations.
Other unverifiable incidents attributed to the Fedai Mahaz usually originate from a man calling himself Qari Hamza who acts as the group’s spokesman and is one of only two names publically connected with Fedai Mahaz. Three journalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan who regularly receive his messages told AAN he uses a Pakistani number and has threatened at least one of them with death if he did not publish his statements. According to Pakistani journalists covering Afghanistan, Qari Hamza is based in Karachi and is the same person who used to speak for the Dadullah Front.
Fedai Mahaz’s name was only heard publicly for the first time in May 2012, one week after the killing of Rahmani, when it sent text messages with its signature to mobiles of two parliament members from Zabul province. The MPs were threatened not to sign a strategic agreement with the United States (see here and here). The group’s leader, Najibullah, according to multiple sources, including Taleban who have dealt with the man, have confirmed to AAN that he is from Zabul province. Wardaki by origin, they said, his family had migrated to Zabul long ago. They also said Najibullah, also known as Najib or Haji Najibullah, as having been an aide to the notorious Taleban commander, Mullah Dadullah, in 2006 and 2007. (Dadullah was killed in a coalition operation in Helmand in 2007.) There is no verifiable information about Najibullah’s background from the earlier past but he is thought to be in his late 30s now.
The one major incident the group’s leader, Najibullah, is confirmed as having perpetrated was prior to his setting up of the Fedai Mahaz: the kidnapping of New York Times journalist David Rohde, his driver and translator, in Logar province in 2008. They were captured after Najibullah tricked Rohde with the promise of a high-level interview with a Taleban commander and held for seven months across the border in Pakistan with the help of the Haqqani Network before, as Rohde described it, they managed to escape. When speaking to his captives, Najib called himself Abu Tayyeb, and as the Mahaz Fedai leader, he uses another pseudonym, Omar Khetab. Najibullah finally revealed his real name and his involvement in the Rohde kidnapping in 2013 to Newsweek magazine. In the same article, the number of his fighters is given as 8,000 which seems highly exaggerated, given their lack of any battlefield profile.
A western journalist, who asked not to be named, who met Nabjibullah in the field before the Rohde kidnapping, said he was then accompanied by 25 to 30 fighters but was not sure if his group was in full coordination with other Taleban groups present in the area. This journalist, as well as Rohde in his account of the kidnapping, said the group referred to themselves as fedayin – the plural of fedai, a religious term denoting those who fight recklessly or seek sacrifice in battle, used by members of many militant groups in the Muslim world. Neither journalist felt they were referring to themselves as a separate group from the mainstream Taleban, however. According to other sources consulted by AAN, including a Wardak resident familiar with insurgent groupings in the province and a police officer who has served in Wardak for seven years, Najib’s operational hub used to be in Wardak – Chak and Jaghato districts. “He did not lead a big group, but was known as a low level commander on the provincial level,” the police official confirmed.
While there is little in battlefield events that can convincingly be traced to Fedai Mahaz, the group presents itself on the internet as if it were a sizeable organisation and with a distinct ideological position more radical than the insurgency’s mainstream groups. It identifies itself as a global jihadist ‘movement’ strictly opposed to any peace talks in Afghanistan. The Taleban negotiators who set up the movement’s ill-fated Qatar office, including Tayyeb Agha, Shahabuddin Delawar and Sohail Shahin (see biographies here), are on its kill list. The group denounces Qatar as a hub of western spy agencies plotting against the Muslims, calls the country’s leaders murtads (apostates) and sees jihad against those who negotiate with the Americans as inescapable an obligation as jihad against the Americans themselves. (2) In its only printed publication, a 49-page booklet in Pashto, it portrays post-2001 Afghanistan as a country where conversion to Christianity is rampant. It describes democracy as inherently against monotheism and therefore leading to kufr (infidelity). In its manifesto, Fedai Mahaz vows to continue waging jihad as long as Muslims across the world are under persecution from the kufar (infidels). Both the manifesto and the publication were printed in Pakistan in 2012 and scanned versions uploaded to the group’s Facebook page.
A relatively lengthy statement posted on its homepage also positions Fedai Mahaz as strictly anti-Indian. The statement lambasts India’s assistance to Afghanistan as “evil plots” by a country that has “always supported enemies of Afghanistan and Islam.” It warns India (in Pashto): “Our Mujahedin will soon… attack India’s centres [institutions] not only in Afghanistan, but would launch operation against them in their own home [india] as well. We tell these polytheists to give up on Afghanistan; otherwise they will face serious reaction from the Mujahedin.” In brief, the group sounds very much like al-Qaida, although its discourse is less sophisticated. Some of the Pashto used on the website does not read like it has been written by a native: there are badly wrong vocabulary choices, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Indeed, the group’s name, except in its logo, is grammatically incorrect: it should be De Islami Tahrik Fedai Mahaz.
What is the current status of Fedai Mahaz?
When writing about his experience with Abu Tayyeb (aka Najibullah) in October 2009, Rohde wrote that he was believed to have subsequently fled to Karachi in southern Pakistan. A Taleban official told AAN Najibullah had lost any following on the ground after the kidnap debacle and was hiding from the Taleban. A dispute over a ‘ransom’ which the Haqqani Network believed had been paid and stolen from them was reported in The Nation and strengthens the impression that Najibullah has needed to lie low.
Sources both in the Taleban and independent of them say it is difficult to believe Fedai Mahaz is currently a sizeable insurgent group. According to them, it is more likely a small or even bogus outfit intent on keeping a public profile through false claims but with no or only a weak presence on the ground. Officially, too, the Taleban have expressed doubts about Fedai Mahaz’s very existence. The New York Times piece on the Horner murder quoted Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying: “We don’t know them, and we don’t know if they have a physical existence.” Additionally, the sources AAN spoke to in Wardak mentioned Najibullah and his group in the past tense, denoting cession of his presence. (A brother of Najibullah, Timor Shah, was reported as fighting until his death in an airstrike about two years ago.)
Given the lack of convincing signs of its actual presence on the ground and not withstanding its heavy media propaganda, Fedai Mahaz could best be described as a group which mainly seeks to exploit the ‘jihad’ for publicity, ie it is the publicity – which could bring in funding – not any acts of violence as such which interests it. Such ‘jihadi entrepreneurs’, seeking material benefit or publicity by carrying out acts of violence in the name of jihad have been seen before. Fedai Mahaz is somewhat reminiscent of another Taleban ‘splinter group’ set up by Sayed Akbar Agha under the name Jaish ul-Muslimin (Army of the Muslims) in 2004. He chose to launch his new group with a spectacular event, the kidnap – with the threat of beheading – of three United Nations workers in 2004. The aim, it seemed, was the hope of getting an immediate return (the ransom) and attracting money out of potential funders and supporters. Unfortunately for Akbar Agha, the three hostages were rescued and he was extradited from Pakistan, found guilty of kidnap and sentenced to 16 years in jail. He has managed to rehabilitate his reputation, however, after President Karzai pardoned him, ordering his release from jail just three years into his sentence (for details, see here and here).
Assessing the Mahaz claim
Targeting and killing Horner specifically, as a person known to his assassins, would have required time (Nils had only been in the country for a few days) and expertise in surveillance and planning and would surely have been beyond the Fedai Mahaz’ capabilities. Killing a random foreigner in Kabul, however, may have been possible, given the lack of sophistication needed: just wait in an area where foreigners are found and have an escape route ready. If the group had killed Horner without knowing who he was, it would only have been able to claim the attack after the media had supplied the details of his identity. This then is a possible scenario for Horner’s murder. However, given the group’s track record, its statement looks more likely to have been another of its usual unverifiable, opportunistic, publicity-seeking claims. It is impossible to say more at this stage.
Unfortunately, there is as yet almost nothing to go on in trying to determine who did kill Horner or for what reason. If it was another insurgent group, it has not come forward with a claim. At the same time, there is also no evidence pointing to individuals who killed because of a grudge against foreigners. Whoever did kill this softly-spoken, serious-minded journalist might have been motivated by the same ideological reasons invoked by the jihadi group or by another, more specific agenda. Unless the Afghan police succeed in their attempts to identify and locate the two fleeing assassins, claims such as the one by Fedai Mahaz will only add to the confusion and contribute to raising suspicions.
(1) Actually, the claim of Arsala Rahmani’s assassination that caused the birth/split of Fedai Mahaz from Dadullah Front remains as unprovable as these other claims just mentioned. Fingers have been pointed in Rahmani’s assassination to various possible directions, all of them with a more plausible stake than Fedai Mahaz’s.
(2) The group describes itself and its objectives as follows (https://alfida.org/About.aspx) (English, as original):
Fedai front believe in the eternity of jihad. Jihad is an obligation upon every able Muslim men and women. Without jihad Islam can neither dominate nor survive in the world. The pride of the Muslims lies in jihad. In the traditions of the beloved prophet (PBUH), jihad has been called as the peak of Islam. The Mujahiddeen of the Fedai front are not against any specific nation, country, or race but our resistance is against the satanic ruling system of democracy. We call the current crusade war a war of monotheism against polytheism, [ie] a war of Tawheed against Shirk. Fedai front of the Islamic movement strongly condemns the nationalization of jihad. Jihad is a global phenomenon and any Muslim can practice jihad where ever he wants, if it is obligatory in that region. Muslims are brothers irrespective of their race, ethnicity, colour and geographic locations. A Muslim in the west should feel pain and grief if another Muslim is tortured or dishonoured in east and vice versa
This article was last updated on 9 Jun 2020