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We Still Have More Questions Than Answers on Russian Bounties
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We Still Have More Questions Than Answers on Russian Bounties

U.S. officials have identified two possible attacks. Let’s take a closer look.

On June 26, the New York Times reported that American intelligence officials “have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan—including targeting American troops—amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there.” The article set off yet another storm of controversy, as President Trump allegedly took no action to counter Russia’s nefarious scheme even after it became known within his administration. Trump himself took to Twitter Wednesday morning to declare the whole affair a “Fake News Media Hoax” that was “started to slander me & the Republican Party.”

It isn’t a hoax. In the days following the Times story, several additional media outlets confirmed the basic gist of the account—namely, there is intelligence showing the Russians placed bounties on the Americans’ heads. But despite this steady stream of reporting, we are still left with many more questions than answers. 

On the one hand, the Russian bounty story isn’t surprising. The U.S. military has previously pointed to some Russian support for the Taliban. The Kremlin has also openly embraced the Taliban, hosting the jihadists in Moscow for so-called “peace talks.” Those diplomatic sessions weren’t really intended to foster peace—the Afghan government didn’t even attend, because the Taliban wouldn’t talk to Kabul’s representatives. Instead, the talks were part of Moscow’s counterprogramming. The events helped to undermine the Afghan government’s legitimacy and America’s own feckless diplomacy, as other Afghan politicians and the Taliban were held up as the responsible stakeholders. The Russians have easy-to-see motivations for killing Americans, ranging from revenge for the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s to retribution for the killing of Russian mercenaries during a battle in eastern Syria in 2018. 

Put it all together—including Vladimir Putin’s anti-American outlook—and no one should be surprised by the Times’s reporting.

On the other hand, none of that proves that Russian bounties actually led to any violence. Specific intelligence is required to make that assessment. And that chain of causality could be especially difficult to prove—especially in Afghanistan where violence is the norm. The Taliban certainly hasn’t needed any extra incentive to attack Americans, coalition forces, or the Afghan government. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Taliban and other insurgents launched more attacks in the fourth quarter of 2019 than during any comparable time frame since 2010. In all, the jihadists carried out 8,204 attacks during the final three months of 2019. 

Meanwhile, according to the recent reporting, U.S. officials think that Russia’s bounties may be linked to two attacks. 

One of the two is the April 8, 2019, bombing outside of the Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan. Three U.S. Marines were killed and several other people were wounded. According to the Associated Press and New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that the Russians may have played a role in that operation. Let’s take a closer look. 

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the April 2019 bombing.

Within hours of the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted a picture of the aftermath on his Twitter account. (“Zabihullah Mujahid” is an alias that is likely used by multiple Taliban media figures.) In his tweet (which can be seen below), Zabihullah bragged that a U.S. convoy had been “targeted” with a “VBIED” (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) by a “martyrdom seeker” known as Nasibullah Ilyas. Taliban-linked media accounts subsequently shared photos of Ilyas, celebrating him as a “martyr” for the cause.

Zabihullah’s tweet also indicated that the suicide bombing had been carried out as part of the Taliban’s “Al Khandaq” operations, a name that is intended to pay homage to one of the earliest conflicts in Islamic history—the “Battle of the Trench.” Therefore, as far as the Taliban is concerned, the April 2019 suicide bombing outside of Bagram was simply part of its latest offensive campaign.

While we can’t rule out the possibility that the Russians paid for the suicide bombing, there was nothing unusual about it. It was completely consistent with the Taliban’s pattern of behavior. The Taliban frequently glorifies its “martyrs” in its propaganda. Suicide bombings are a key part of the Taliban’s offensive capabilities. And there’s no reason to think the Russians had to convince the Taliban or other affiliated elements to dispatch one more in April 2019. According to an American source cited by the Times, “the focus” of the investigation into Russian bounties has been “on criminals closely associated with the Taliban.”

Maybe Nasibullah Ilyas or his handlers were criminals. But his actions, and the Taliban’s public presentation of him, are entirely consistent with an ideologue hellbent on killing the “infidels.” 

The Taliban regularly attacks American forces at Bagram.

The April 2019 bombing looks even less unusual when you realize the Taliban targets Bagram all the time. The group has dispatched its “martyrs” to the gates of Bagram on multiple other occasions. For example, one such terrorist blew himself up outside the air base during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney in February 2007. At least 23 people were killed in the blast, which the Taliban quickly claimed, saying Cheney was the target. 

At least some of the Taliban’s suicide assaults on Bagram have been jointly conducted with al-Qaeda. On May 19, 2010, for instance, a team of jihadists conducted a suicide raid on the air base. A German-Moroccan al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Talha al-Almani (also known as Bekkay Harrach) led the attack. While the assault was successfully repelled, at least one American contractor was killed and a dozen U.S. service members were wounded. According to a memo authored by one of Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenants, al-Qaeda cooperated with Sirajuddin Haqqani—now the Taliban’s deputy emir—in this and other “special operations.”  

The Taliban has carried out still other suicidebombings in or near the Bagram Air Base through the years. The most recent of these occurred on December 11, 2019, when the jihadists struck a medical facility that was under construction at Bagram. The Taliban’s “martyrs” detonated two car bombs and then engaged in a firefight for nearly ten hours. The U.S. and its coalition partners did not suffer any casualties in that suicide raid, but the Afghans weren’t as fortunate. Two people were killed and dozens of others wounded. 

This leads to obvious questions: Are any of the other bombings in and around Bagram considered suspect in light of the Russian bounty story? Or just the April 2019 attack? And if it is only that operation, then why? What specific intelligence indicates a Russian angle? Why is different from all of the other Taliban suicide bombings at Bagram and elsewhere?

The Taliban doesn’t only throw its suicide bombers at Bagram. The base is a frequent target for the jihadists’ projectiles. The Taliban regularly reports that its men have fired missiles at the airfield. A quick search on Voice of Jihad, the Taliban’s website, returns at least one dozen reports of missile strikes on Bagram since 2017. Two of the most recent reports were published in January of this year. Most of these attacks produce few, or zero, casualties. But the Taliban likes to harass the American personnel at Bagram, hoping that its projectiles will at least cause some discomfort. 

All of which means that the targets and the modes of attack are entirely consistent with the Taliban’s behavior. This isn’t the type of operation the Russians or anyone else has to convince the Taliban to carry out. And, in my opinion, it is doubtful that mere criminals would have the capacity for such a well-timed suicide VBIED.

The Taliban doesn’t need Russian bounties. 

The Times reports that $500,000 was discovered at the home of a businessman in Afghanistan who is suspected of belonging to a “ring of middlemen who operated between the Russian intelligence agency, known as the G.R.U., and Taliban-linked militants.” The implication is that the money came from the Russians with the intent of funding anti-American operations. That is a lot of cash by Afghan standards, but it is only a small amount of money when compared to the Taliban’s overall budget.

In reality, the Taliban doesn’t need Russia’s cash. Afghanistan is home to a well-funded narco-insurgency. A decade ago, the U.S. military estimated that the Taliban was taking in between $60 million and $80 million per year from the drug trade, mainly opium. By 2017, that estimate had grown to $200 million or more per annum. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. military renewed efforts to target Taliban drug facilities, but there’s no indication this has eradicated the problem. And the drug trade is just one source of income for the Taliban. The jihadists tax locals in the areas under their control, receive donations from sympathetic businessmen in the Gulf, and carry out other petty crimes to fund their operations. 

Could the cash have motivated some bad actors to target Americans, when they otherwise wouldn’t have? Certainly. That’s possible. But it’s not as if the Taliban, overall, is desperate for money.  

The Taliban has other friends in Pakistan and Iran.

Finally, everyone knows that the Taliban has received substantial assistance from both Pakistan and Iran. Russia has dabbled as well, but the intelligence services in both of those countries are far bigger players in the war. 

The Taliban’s main safe haven is in Pakistan. For instance, the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, which was released in June, noted that Pakistan “remained a safe harbor for” various “regionally focused terrorist groups.”  Throughout 2019, Pakistan “allowed groups targeting Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban and affiliated HQN [Haqqani Network], as well as groups targeting India … to operate from its territory.” When the history of America’s failed war effort is written, Pakistani duplicity will play a large role for precisely this reason. Senior Taliban leaders have directed the insurgency from inside Pakistan for the better part of twenty years. These leaders include members of the Haqqani Network, which remains closely allied with al-Qaeda and specializes in suicide operations—just like the April 8, 2019, bombing outside of Bagram. 

Iran has provided assistance to the Taliban since 2001 as well. In October 2018, the U.S. and six partner nations levied financial sanctions against nine men working for the Iran-Taliban axis. Two of the nine are officers in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). They’ve helped run training camps for Taliban jihadists inside Iran—just across the border from western Afghanistan. As the U.S. and its partners made clear, this same network is involved in the Taliban’s profitable narcotics trafficking. And the IRGC has provided safe haven, training, weapons and funds for the jihadists, including Taliban officials serving as “shadow governors” in western Afghanistan. 

None of this is intended to dismiss the reports concerning Russia’s bounties. The Taliban is a potent force in its own right.

Photograph of Bagram Air Base after the December 2019 attacy by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.