Taliban Graduation Ceremony Demonstrates Change of Tactics

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 21

Video Image from the Graduation Ceremony

Earlier this month, a Pakistani journalist filmed a Taliban “graduation ceremony” for would-be Western suicide bombers. The video, which can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwwiGXIhnKo, shows a “graduating class of suicide bombers” ready to travel to the United States and Western Europe to carry out suicide attacks. The video deviates from usual suicide bomber propaganda. Usually, suicide bomber propaganda appears post-mortem, after a suicide attack has taken place, and is congratulatory in nature. It normally takes the form of a eulogy to salute the “martyrdom” of the bomber and is accompanied by a message celebrating the bomber’s service to the cause of Allah and Islam. The videos are designed to celebrate the ultimate sacrifice of the fighter and entice others to follow in his footsteps. Whereas traditional propaganda focuses on a single individual or a small group (such as the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks), this video shows a large number of candidates ready for suicide operations. In another divergence, the video shows future suicide bombers displaying their enthusiasm for the task ahead. Whereas typical videos attempt to inspire others to become “martyrs,” this one is also designed to intimidate and threaten Western officials, promising to unleash an “armada” of suicide bombers striving to strike Western interests in their native countries—unless the occupiers of Afghanistan depart.

The video appears to specifically target Anglo-Saxon audiences because the ceremony emulates an Anglo-Saxon graduation ceremony. The video displays groups of “students” dressed in white and seated on the ground, while they hear the new Taliban commander Mansur Dadullah deliver a fiery “commencement address.” During his address, the crowd listens intently as Dadullah exhorts them to avenge NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan. Dadullah says, “Listen, all you Westerners and Americans. You came from thousands of kilometers away to fight us. Now we will get back to you in your countries and attack you.” According to a June 18 BBC report on the video, the “students,” organized in six national “brigades” (British, American, Canadian, German, French and Afghan), then take turns pledging future action. The film ends with one student speaking in English, with a heavy South Asian accent, announcing that his team plans to travel to Britain to carry out attacks there.

Although the message in itself is familiar, the new packaging demonstrates the Taliban’s changing tactics. During the past two years, rather than launching frontal offensives against NATO, the Taliban have increasingly relied on tactics used by insurgents in Iraq in order to divide the NATO alliance and weaken its commitment to assisting and supporting the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. To that end, the Taliban have increased their attacks on coalition and Afghan security forces significantly. They also have emulated several of the egregious tactics of Iraq’s Sunni insurgents (such as suicide bombings, Improvised Explosive Devices and kidnappings).

In March, for example, the Taliban captured an Italian journalist and demanded the release of a selected group of Afghan prisoners in exchange for his life and that of his Afghan driver and interpreter. The kidnapping stirred great emotion in Italy. Again in April, the Taliban kidnapped two French NGO workers along with their Afghan assistants. This time, the Taliban demanded that France withdraw its forces and pressure the Karzai government to release more Taliban prisoners in exchange for the French hostage. The attack was cleverly timed to take advantage of France’s misgivings regarding the Afghan mission amidst a presidential campaign when candidates are especially sensitive to public demands (Le Monde, May 12; Le Monde, April 28). In May, the Taliban killed three German soldiers and wounded 12 civilians in a crowded market in Kunduz (Deutsche Welle, May 19). In June, the Taliban planned to attack the German minister of defense when he visited German troops in Afghanistan, but the plot was thwarted successfully (Deutsche Welle, June 24).

This new Taliban tactic of dividing its enemies threatens to strain the NATO alliance. Both Italy and France, for example, negotiated the release of their citizens held by the Taliban. According to press accounts, the Italian government paid a ransom and pressured the central Afghan government to release the prisoners demanded by the Taliban. The move prompted the U.S. and UK governments to publicly criticize the release. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “We don’t negotiate with the terrorists and we don’t advise others to do it either” (CBS News, March 22). From the State Department’s point of view, the release, in effect, rewarded the Taliban for blackmail.

In the French case, it appears that the Taliban did not make precise demands for the release of prisoners, and the Karzai government announced at the outset that it would not consider any releases. The negotiation process was complicated and involved several intermediaries. Apparently, two different negotiations took place, one for each hostage. The woman, Céline, was released on humanitarian grounds, to show, according to the Taliban, that they hold women in high regard. The man, Eric, was freed after then-presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France “had no vocation to stay in Afghanistan” (Le Monde, May 12). According to French press accounts, Sarkozy’s stance helped convince the Taliban that the French would soon leave Afghanistan. The Taliban announced that they expected Sarkozy to carry out his end of the bargain. The Taliban statement read, “The mujahideen released the French worker because the new president of France, Sarkozy, said that if he was elected the president of France he would withdraw all his forces from Afghanistan. Now we believe him and we believe he will withdraw his soldiers from Afghanistan after officially being sworn in as president.”

As for the German case, soon after the attack in Kunduz, a debate flared regarding the purpose of Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan. The Left Party, the Green Party and some members of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) called for a withdrawal of German forces from Afghanistan. The SPD chairman has called for a review, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has voiced her support for such an endeavor (Der Spiegel, May 28).

Thus far, however, the alliance has held steady. Although Italy and France negotiated the release of their hostages, they have maintained their troop commitment to Afghanistan. At the G8 summit in Germany, Sarkozy reiterated that France “would not break the allies’ solidarity” and announced that the French government has agreed to reinforce its military presence to train the Afghan army and to increase its reconstruction assistance to consolidate the Afghan government. As for Germany, the issue of renewing the mandate of German forces in Afghanistan will not ensue until September. Considering the slim margin of the governing CDU/CSU party, a renewal of the mandate is by no means guaranteed.

The “graduation video” appears to complement the Taliban’s new tactics and is designed to greatly raise the cost of staying in Afghanistan for Western governments. If attacking their citizens in Afghanistan is not enough to make Western countries withdraw, then threatening to attack their homelands is the next logical step. By disturbing the peace in Western countries, the Taliban may be hoping to provoke a stern public reaction against the NATO presence in Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban are actually capable of dispatching an armada of suicide bombers to Western Europe and North America remains to be seen. Regardless, the video makes their intent clear, and the recent terrorist incidents in the United Kingdom should incite us to take their threat seriously.