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Analysis: The UN Afghan Kidnappers And Their Motives

Unidentified gunmen in Kabul on 28 October abducted three foreign nationals working for the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB). The abductees included two women from Northern Ireland and Kosova and one Filipino. JEMB spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin told Hindukosh News Agency on the same day that the kidnappers have not contacted the election body. Reports indicated that five kidnappers, dressed in military uniforms, stopped the UN vehicle carrying the workers at mid-day and, after beating the driver, took the three with them.

Sayyed Mohammad Akbar Agha, claming to be the head of a group called Jaysh al-Muslimin (Army of the Muslims), said on 28 October that his fighters kidnapped the three foreign election workers because of their participation in organizing Afghanistan's 9 October presidential election. Akbar Agha initially did not make any demands for releasing the three workers.

Relations With Neo-Taliban

Ishaq Manzur, claiming to speak on behalf of Jami'at Jaish-e Mujahedin (Society of Mujahedin Army), told AP on 28 October that the kidnapped workers were transferred to a "safe place," adding that the group was "checking their identities and we will demand that if their countries have forces in Afghanistan they should withdraw them."

Information about the breakaway faction of the neo-Taliban called Taliban Jami'at Jaish-e Muslemin (Muslim Army of the Taliban Society), which is led by Mullah Sayyed Mohammad Akbar Agha, emerged in August (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 August 2004). Another group, using the Arabic name Jaysh al-Muslimin al-Afghani (Afghan Army of the Muslims), in September claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of Afghan Transitional Administration Deputy Chairman Ne'amatullah Shahrani in northern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 24 September 2004).

Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) on 28 October that while his group had no information regarding the kidnapping in Kabul, it admired the action. When asked by AIP what the neo-Taliban would have done had they kidnapped the workers, Hakimi said that possibly they "would have demanded that their supporters be released from [the U.S. detention center in] Guantanamo [Bay, Cuba]...and would possibly have killed them [the hostages] once their demands had not been met."
The current incident is Afghanistan's first case of an Iraq-style kidnapping of foreign hostages that includes displaying the hostages on video, albeit thus far without violence.

In another twist, Abdul Latif Hakimi, also claiming to speak for the neo-Taliban, told AFP on 28 October that he doubted that the Army of the Muslims was responsible for the kidnapping "because they are a very limited number of people and they don't have access to Kabul to carry out operations."

Further complicating the links between Army of the Muslims and the neo-Taliban and intra-neo-Taliban relations, Hamid Agha, also purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, told Reuters on 31 October that the group was not involved in the abduction of the UN employees. "We have no comments about the issue. It is their [Army of the Muslims'] work and we are not involved in it," Hamid Agha claimed.

Commenting in August about Akbar Agha's group, Hamid Agha had indicated that the organization was not "the Taliban" as all "Taliban commanders are united under the leadership" of Mullah Mohammad Omar (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 August 2004). Confirming Hamid Agha's views, Abdullah Laghmani, the intelligence chief in the southern city of Kandahar told AFP on 28 October that there is a split in the ranks of the Taliban, "one is the group of Mullah Omar and one group is the group of Sayyed Akbar Agha, the chief of the Army of the Muslims." According to Laghmani, Akbar Agha's men have been operating in southern Afghanistan in cells of two or three individuals, a statement that corresponds to Abdul Latif Hakimi's views regarding the Army of the Muslims composition and areas of operations.

Changing Demands

On 31 October Mullah Mohammad Ishaq -- most likely the same individual as Ishaq Manzur -- claiming to speak for the Army of the Muslims, told AFP, "Our demand is [that] the invader countries that these people belong to should withdraw their troops from Afghanistan and rethink their policies towards Afghanistan." Otherwise, "we will kill the hostages," he added. When Mohammad Ishaq was informed that neither Serbia and Montenegro nor the Philippines had any troops in Afghanistan, he said that those "countries should condemn the invasion [of Afghanistan] by other countries." The same day, a video released by Al-Jazeera television showed the three UN employees kidnapped in Kabul. According to Al-Jazeera, the kidnappers have demanded that the United Kingdom pull its forces out of Afghanistan, that all of the Afghan detainees in U.S. custody be released from Guantanamo Bay, and that the UN should leave Afghanistan and it should declare "Britain and America's meddling in Afghanistan illegal."

The issue regarding suspected Taliban prisoners in U.S. custody was made by Latifullah Hakimi on 28 October when he had said that if the neo-Taliban had been involved in the kidnapping, they would have asked for the release of their supporters. The fact that the Army of the Muslims eventually included the release of the Taliban prisoners in its list of demands may indicate a link between the Army of the Muslims and some members of the neo-Taliban. Another possibility is that the Army of the Muslims was not sure what to demand for the hostages and was inspired by Latifullah Hakimi's comments.

But on 7 November, Saber Mo'min, identified as a military commander of the group, cast doubt on relations between the Army of the Muslims and the neo-Taliban when he told AIP that for the hostage crisis to be "solved quickly" the group has given up on its "previous demands concerning the release of prisoners from Guantanamo [Bay] and the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan" -- two of the main demands of the neo-Taliban. Instead, Mo'min claimed that his group has given the Afghan authorities a list containing the names of 25 individuals whom he refused to identify. "In addition to this we have made three other demands that will be announced by Kabul," Mo'min added, leaving his group's complete package of demands a mystery.

The same day, Sayyed Khaled Agha, also purporting to speak on behalf of the Army of the Muslims, told Reuters that the group had presented the Afghan government a list of 26 people.

Afghan authorities have not confirmed meeting members of the Army of the Muslims.

Shifting Deadline

Akbar Agha initially said that the deadline for his group to make its final decision on the fate the hostages was 3 November. But Mo'min rejected reports that the group set a deadline of 3 November. "We have Friday [5 November] as the final deadline for our demands to be met. If our demands are not met by then we will kill these three people," AIP quoted him as saying on 1 November. However Mo'min qualified the deadline by adding, "If the Americans for the Afghan government start talking to us then the deadline set by us could be extended."

Mo'min also told AIP on 1 November that the Army of the Muslims has formed a four-man delegation to negotiate the fate of the hostages. "If the Americans for the [Afghan] government want our delegation [to contact them]" the delegation "can go anywhere for talks," he added. The same day, Ishaq Manzur told AP that the group had separated the three hostages to thwart any potential rescue attempt, threatening that if a rescue attempt is made to release one of the hostages, the other two will be killed in reaction.

On 2 November Mullah Ishaq Manzur reconfirmed 3 November as the group's deadline for killing their hostages if its demands are not met. The Army of the Muslims' leader, Akbar Agha, on 3 November told AIP that the deadline remained 3 November, confirming Manzur's warning. Neither Akbar Agha nor Manzur commented on Mo'min's claim that the deadline was 5 November. Akbar Agha said that his group does "not regard the hostages as UN workers but the citizens of their respective countries." Adding, "Britain has committed aggression in our country and one of the hostages is a citizen of that country, which we regard as an aggressor. Our final deadline is midnight tonight [3 November] and there will not be any change to it," Akbar Agha told AIP. According to Akbar Agha the group has received a call from unspecified "authorities," AP reported on 3 November. "We want the Afghan government and the UN to officially declare that they are in contact with us," Akbar Agha demanded.

With the announcements on 7 November by two people claming to speak for the Army of the Muslims regarding the change in the group's demands, no mention was made of a deadline in case the people named in the list were not freed.

Khaled Agha did say that his group had given Afghan authorities two days -- 8 and 9 November -- to find the people on the list and "to let us know whether they will be released." Thereafter, "the second round of negotiations will start," he claimed, without any confirmation from the government.

On 8 November, Mo'min told AIP that he was optimistic that the "the issue of the United Nations staff and our prisoners will be concluded soon." He also indicated that the Army of the Muslims had allowed its hostages to contact their employers and could also contact their loved ones, which begs the question of why these calls are not being traced.

The current incident is Afghanistan's first case of an Iraq-style kidnapping of foreign hostages that includes displaying the hostages on video, albeit thus far without violence. In light of recent reports that some former members of the Taliban regime may be seeking reconciliation with Kabul, it is very likely that the incident may be an outcome of struggles within the fragmented groups formerly belonging to the Taliban regime. Alternatively, the initial uncertainty about the demands made by the Army of the Muslims for freeing their hostages and their ever-shifting deadline indicates that the group may not be politically motivated and have taken the hostages in hope of receiving a ransom. As seen from the most recent behavior of the hostage takers, reducing their demands to manageable levels and showing care for their hostages, the second scenario seems more plausible.

It could be that the three mysterious demands hinted at by Mo'min involve the exchange of cash for the hostages.