War & Peace

The Attack on the American University in Kabul (1): What happened and who the victims were


The campus of the American University in Afghanistan, which opened in 2006, came under attack in the evening hours of 24 August 2016. (Photo Source: American University Afghanistan (AUAF) Facebook Page)

The campus of the American University in Afghanistan, which opened in 2006, came under attack in the evening hours of 24 August 2016. (Photo Source: American University Afghanistan (AUAF) Facebook Page)

By the time the attack on the American University in Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul on 24 August 2016 ended, 13 people had been killed and 49 wounded, most of them students. Families looking forward to bright futures for their children have been left to bury them or are now waiting anxiously at hospital bedsides. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The AAN team has spoken to over a dozen people who survived the attack and put together an account of what happened during the attack and, in commemoration, gathered biographical details of the students and the lecturer killed.

In a second dispatch, 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 on AUAF.

The attack

When two or three militants (1) attacked the university on the evening of 24 August 2016, an estimated 700 students – out of a total of 1700 – and staff were on campus. It was the first week of the 2016 fall semester and, for some – students and lecturers – the first week of their academic career. The evening hours are the busiest at AUAF, as the university – a non-profit organisation financed out of the Afghan government’s budget but also with funds from USAID and the World Bank – offers a number of evening courses for students who are already professionals and who work during the day. Although the sons and daughters of Afghanistan’s elite study at the university, there are also many students there on scholarship. Between 7 and 8 pm is a peak hour at AUAF, and this is when the gunmen struck.

A vehicle packed with explosives was detonated outside the university’s gates, next to the Noor School for the Blind, Afghanistan’s only vocational high school for people with visual impairments. Some students reported hearing gunshots before the explosion, which, as it later turned out, were the shots that killed the guard at the school before the vehicle with the explosives was moved into position, blasting a hole into the AUAF compound wall. This then enabled the attackers to enter the campus. Apart from the wall, there was limited structural damage to the AUAF from the initial explosion.

A container near the wall facing the Noor School took the brunt of the explosion, which seems to have protected what is known as the Faculty Building inside the university compound, which houses lecturers’ offices. Shortly after the explosion, the electricity supply to the campus was cut off, plunging it into darkness, with the exception of a few emergency lights. This also took out all surveillance cameras, as well as the internet connection.

Within five minutes of the initial explosion, as students tried to flee, two attackers entered one of university’s main buildings, the Saleha Bayat Building, where classes were taking place. The Bayat Building – named after one of the university’s Afghan private sector sponsors (2) – is a two-winged, three-story structure, divided by a central entrance and staircase, containing offices and classrooms. The administrative offices on the first floor deal with registration, IT, students and financial affairs. There is also a student common room. The second floor is mostly made up of classrooms. The third floor houses more classrooms as well as administrative offices.

Map of AUAF Campus indicating the location of the various buildings (Source: Google Maps with labels added by AAN)

Map of AUAF Campus indicating the location of the various buildings (Source: Google Maps with labels added by AAN)

The attackers seem to have gone to the top floor first. There, according to AUAF students, Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak, a young Afghan lecturer, was killed (see more in the bios further down in this text). While the building had several exit routes and escape ladders outside windows, students remained inside in the confusion and panic. As the attackers apparently moved from room to room and floor to floor, many did not want to risk escaping and barricaded themselves in various classrooms on the second and third floors of the Bayat building.

One attacker appears to have moved relatively quickly to the smaller Azizi building, a one-story structure used both for classes and for the administrative staff of the Professional Development Institution (PDI), an AUAF branch that offers English language and other professional courses. One of this building’s two gates was blocked, according to a survivor’s report. While a group of at least three students and a guard attempted to head towards the second gate, they ran into the attacker, who opened fire on them. At least one student in the group died, while another, in spite of critical injuries, managed to escape. (3)

Most of the students who had been in the library and the so-called C Building – another building with many classrooms – were able to escape through emergency gates leading to an adjacent UN compound. They reported that the layout of the university was well designed and helped them escape, as did the security training they had received, provided by the university.

The students trapped in the Bayat Building heard grenade explosions and sporadic gunfire during the ten hours it took the various security forces – including the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) guarding the university, an armed security team hired by the AUAF and the Ministry of Interior’s Crisis Response Unit (also known as 222s) supported by the Norwegian and US special forces – to search the campus and to locate and kill the attackers. According to some reports, they were wearing ANSF uniforms. (4)

At various points during the night, fighting stopped as injured security forces were evacuated. Remaining staff and students were only evacuated from the Bayat Building in the early hours of 25 August. Then the search mission began for the injured who were unable to get themselves out, and for the dead. At around 8 am, the bodies of many of those who had been killed were found. Within hours, the first reports in the media appeared with their names. Security forces handed the campus back to the AUAF’s administrative staff on the same day. The clean up began immediately and students were notified that the undergraduate program would restart around 20 September 2016. Other programs, such as the MBA programme and the university’s administrative offices, have continued to function in less affected parts of the main AUAF campus, as well as the international campus located across the street.

The victims of the attack

Even a week after the attack, the exact number of casualties remains unclear – reported figures continue to vary, in particular regarding the number of affected civilians. On 1 September 2016, UNAMA, in correspondence to AAN, confirmed 61 civilian casualties:

– 13 deaths: six male and two female students, two professors, two university security guards and one from the Noor School for the Blind;

– 48 injured: 43 students and two professors, a Ugandan national and another foreign citizen, and three university security guards.

Apart from civilians, three members of the ANSF were killed; including Lieutenant Muhammed Akbar Andarabi, who was in charge of the Afghan National Police’s special forces, the so-called Crisis Response Unit, that conducted the operation in the university. He was shot by one of the attackers hiding in the building. Ten members of the security forces were injured: nine members of the Ministry of Interior’s CRU and one member of the National Directorate of Security. UNAMA reported that three assailants, referring to them as “suicide attackers“ were also killed.

A statement released by the Ministry of Interior to the media on 25 August 2016 said that 12 people had died in the AUAF attack (seven students, three policemen, one AUAF guard and one guard from the School for the Blind). The statement also cites 45 wounded individuals (36 students and AUAF staff, and nine policemen). In an editorial published on 27 August 2016, Ministry of Public Health officials are quoted as “confirming on Thursday afternoon [25 August 2016] that among those killed were eight students, including two females, three Crisis Response Unit (CRU) members, two security guards, two university professors and one civilian from the adjoining school where the initial car bomb was detonated.”

AUAF has yet to release the names of the casualties, as the verification process is still ongoing. Based on the accounts of various sources, AAN, at the time of writing, has been able to confirm 12 deaths: five male and two female students, one Afghan professor (find their biographical details below), as well as three university security guards and one guard from the School for the Blind. The exact figure of civilians injured in the attack has been difficult to determine, as some individuals who were treated and discharged with minor injuries have not been reported by hospitals. Furthermore, the large number of different medical facilities where the injured were treated has also made it difficult to collect and verify a total count for all those injured in the attack.

On 31 August 2016, the program coordinator at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul, which appears to have received the majority of those injured, told AAN that the facility had received 24 wounded adults, of which 19 were admitted: five female and 14 male patients. Three of these patients were in serious condition; one has since died at the hospital. The other two patients are still undergoing treatment.

Killed AUAF students and faculty staff

(In alphabetical order)

Alina Jamal (registered at AUAF under the name Alnaz, but called Alina by friends and family), 18, was the oldest child of a street-vendor and a scholarship student studying for a BA in Political Science and Public Administration. Alina had spent most of her life in Karachi, Pakistan, as a refugee. Her dream, as a relative told AAN, had been to study in a prestigious university such as the AUAF and then to get a job to help support her family. When the attackers broke into the campus, Alina had been in an English class. She called her mother, telling her they were being attacked. When the insurgents got into her building and reached the floor below her, she jumped out of the window in a bid to escape. It is believed she was shot while she was on the ground. Alina’s father was in Pakistan at the time of the attack, her relative said; he had gone to pick up her high school transcripts. Her mother was at home, “fainting with grief.”

Abdul Walid Karimzada, 26, was from Kabul from Serahi Alawudi, not far from AUAF. After graduating from Ghazi High School, located close to Dehmazang Square, and obtaining a dental degree from Guetta Institute, he began a business administration course at the AUAF. Walid was the Director of the NGO Afghanistan Libre, a position he had held since 2010. The NGO focuses on education. According to a tribute on the ACBAR website, “Walid had been working for Afghanistan Libre for more than 10 years. He had met the founder, Mrs. Shekeba Hashemi as a young adult and committed to the NGO since then… He chose to commit entirely to Education, let it be women education, young girls’ or his own.” Before joining Afghanistan Libre, he was the designer and manager of the publication Mujaleh Roze (Day Magazine).

Jamila Ismailzada, in her mid-twenties, was in her final year of studying business administration.  Originally from in Mazar-e Sharif, she moved to Pakistan during the Taleban regime. She completed her primary education in Pakistan and upon returning to Afghanistan attended Rokhshana High School in Kabul from which she graduated in 2009. Having already completed a degree in computer science at Kabul University, she had joined AUAF to study management. According to information she had provided on a webpage in 2013, Jamila wanted to help women to set up small businesses to improve their lives and have a positive effect on economy of the country.

Jamshed Zafar, 23, was in the final semester of his last year at the university, studying law. Originally from Ishkashim in Badakhshan province, he grew up in Kabul. Before enrolling at AUAF he had attended high school in the United States through the YES Program (the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program). He was the nephew of Barry Salam, a well-known journalist and civil society activist. A relative told AAN that Jamshed was also an activist and a member of the advisory board of a newly established national civil society organization called Roshna (Dari for Brightness). According to his classmate Safia Jamal, Jamshed “wanted to be a good politician and help the people of our country.” He worked as the marketing manager of Seven TV channel, Sobh Bakhair Afghanistan Radio program and Awanama Production (a group of media production companies owned by his uncle).

Mujtaba Aksir, 22, was a third year student of Business Administration. Originally from Panjsher, he had spent his childhood in Pakistan and later attended Naderia High School in Kabul. He lost his mother in childhood and an elder brother had drowned in the Panjsher River two years ago. He was the son of a well-known doctor and professor at the Medical University of Kabul, Nader Aksir. A friend told AAN that Mujtaba was a calm person, friendly and hard working. His ambition had been to become a pilot.

Last year, AAN was told that Mujtaba raised 4,000 US dollars for the victims of the avalanches that had struck his home province. On another occasion, his university friends had launched a campaign to collect clothes as an Eid gift (Eidi) for street children, and he suggested they should give them books as well. The campaign to collect books was halted after the attack on the protestors of Jombesh-e Roshnayi, during which Aksir and his friends lost many friends. “We will continue Aksir’s way,” said one friend, “and provide street children with books.”

Samiullah Sarwari, 18, had just begun his studies. He was in his first week at AUAF. “I’m in,” he wrote on his Facebook page, the two days before the attack (22 August 2016). “Looking forward to a beautiful and bright future.”

From a poor family, Sami had attended Afghanistan’s only music institute, Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), but, according to The New York Times, had given up music after the 2014 attack on the French Cultural Centre in Kabul. “His family is so poor, and his mother tried to support her children to achieve their goals.” Sami had won a scholarship to study at the AUAF, but he and his family had expected him to work while he studied. ANIM director, Ahmad Sarmast, told the Times, he had wanted to support them and “be with them like a mountain.” Sarmast wrote on his facebook page that Sami represented Afghan Music as a cultural ambassador in various cultural festivals outside of Afghanistan. 

Zubair Zakir, 28, from Kabul, was studying for a Political Science and Public Administration degree, and was attending a class on State Building and Political Development in Afghanistan when the attack began. Zubair was working at the Etisalat communications company during the day to support his family and going to class at night, a friend told AAN. With an untrimmed beard, a trimmed moustache and white prayer cap, Zubair looked and was a deeply religious student. He frequently led students as imam in communal prayers at the university and was described by friends as humble, well respected and well liked. His grief-stricken father, Abdul Zahir, said in an interview with Tolo News that the insurgents were nothing but criminals and must be brought to justice.

Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak, 32, from Behsud district in Nangarhar province, was the only lecturer among those killed. He was teaching an Introduction to Islamic law class on the third floor of the Bayat Building when the attack happened. He had also been teaching other law classes at the AUAF. A graduate from Nangarhar University and holder of a Master’s degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Khpulwak was also a visiting scholar at Stanford University Law School in California and had just gained a place at Oxford University in England to study for a PhD.

During the day, he had been working as the programme manager of the rule of law portfolio at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) in Kabul. He also worked on rule of law projects with the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, the Ministry of Justice, the Afghan Parliament and the Afghan Independent Bar Association. He had also been working with Afghan communities on consultations regarding a proposed conciliation law, linking informal and formal justice mechanisms.

One of his friends told AAN that when they heard about the attack, “We called Khpulwak a few times, with no answer… Eventually, his phone was off.” She and another friend went to the Emergency Hospital to look, fruitlessly, for Khpulwak, and then spoke to AUAF who assured them he must be in the safe room. The following morning, he said, “We found out he was on his way to the safe room when he was shot… What bothers me most is that his body was not found until this morning and it was in front of the safe room.” Some sources also stated that he died alongside some of his students.

There has been much praise for Khpulwak. “It’s a devastating loss,” USIP’s vice-president, Andrew Wilder, told AAN. “He really was a remarkable individual – someone who really lit up the room when he entered with his infectious smile and enthusiasm.” USIP wrote on its website in memoriam of him:

He was a leader in the Afghan legal community, and deeply dedicated to his students at the American University of Afghanistan. A voracious reader and lover of knowledge… a passionate builder of peace in Afghanistan. He thought tirelessly about how to rebuild his country after decades of war, and never ceased in his efforts to heal the many wounds that war has inflicted.

Erik G Jansen of Stanford University said Khpulwak’s former colleagues there were heartbroken. “He believed strongly in the power of education, and the need for legal education in Afghanistan. He was always emphatic that we — Afghans who care about the future of the country — cannot back down to insurgents and criminals who threaten a future of possibility.”

One of Khpulwak’s friend, describing how he used to collect books for his old university in Jalalabad, said that everything he did in life, “was with a peaceful, better Afghanistan in mind. He was a brilliant man, one of the smartest people I have met in my life.” Another friend and fellow Fulbright Scholar, Sediq Amin, told AAN: “I have lost a friend, and Afghanistan lost one of her true sons… He was… a man with a pure heart, sharp mind and a very clear vision for the future of Afghanistan.”

Khpulwak loved reading, cricket and spending time with his family.

Here is more biographical background on him, as given by AUAF and by his LinkedIn profile:

Since 2013, Naqib Ahmad Khpulwak has been an Assistant Professor of Law at AUAF teaching courses on Introduction to Afghan Law, Introduction to Islamic Law, Public International Law, Family Law, Property Law, and Traditional Justice & Dispute Resolution; he was also the faculty advisor for a law students association. Naqib has previously worked as Legal Counsellor and Team Leader for NRC Afghanistan. Naqib has also worked as a volunteer lecturer for Nangarhar Law and Political Science Faculty. His other works include: Senior Political Analyst for WSC- Kabul, intern/consultant at Afghan Embassy in Washington DC-US, and Afghanistan Desk Assistant for Civil Military Fusion Center, NATO- Norfolk, VA. Sponsored by PJRA-LLM Scholarship Program, Naqib studied at Stanford Law School and worked as Visiting Student Research Scholar for the Afghanistan Legal Education Program at SLS. A Fulbright Scholar, Naqib received an M.A. in Comparative Politics, and Security Studies from Old Dominion University (GPIS). Naqib has a Bachelor of Law & Political Science from Nangarhar University, where he graduated first in his class.

 

 

 

(1) The number of the attackers is unclear to date. Available information indicates there may have been two or three, depending on whether one of them blew himself up in the car bomb used to breach the university’s compound wall or whether he had time to park the car and participate in the assault. Our information seems to suggest the second version, as the guard of the neighbouring Noor School was been shot dead which would have allowed the driver to leave the bomb-rigged car. See more detail in the text above.

UNAMA speaks of a “suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device“ – this would indicate a third assailant who could have blown himself up in the car. The two assailants who shot at students and staff apparently did not blow themselves up, but were killed by security forces. (They may have been called “suicide attackers” as they probably knew they would not leave the AUAF compound alive.)

(2) See the list of AUAF’s main sponsors on the university’s website here.

(3) See also survivors’ accounts in the following news reports: The Guardian, Associated Press, Radio Liberty, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.

(4) There was also one report quoting an eye-witness talking about attackers being “in normal clothes.”

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Thematic Category: War & Peace