“The Most Risky … Job Ever.” Reporting on “ISIS in Afghanistan”
The viciousness with which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has treated journalists is, sadly, well ingrained. In August 2014, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for last Friday’s horrific attack on Paris posted a video online showing the beheading of kidnapped American reporter James Foley. Less than a month later, another video was released of a second beheading, this time of freelance journalist Steven Sotloff.
It’s against this backdrop that Najibullah Quraishi returned home to Afghanistan this past summer to report on the recent emergence there of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“I’ve been embedded with the Taliban many, many times,” Quraishi says in his new FRONTLINE documentary, ISIS in Afghanistan. “But when I first heard about ISIS in Afghanistan, I was shocked. I was thinking, ‘Why ISIS in Afghanistan? What are they doing in my country?'”
What he witnessed was as disturbing for him as it was confounding — former members of the Taliban joining ranks with militants waiving the black flag of ISIS in multiple districts across eastern Afghanistan and training a new generation of jihadis.
In the district of Shaigal, Quraishi found ISIS fighters living among the locals, who told him local children are educated by the Islamic State from the age of three. At one school he visited, he filmed an instructor showing children how to shoot a Kalashnikov, how to throw hand grenades and preaching to them about the ways of jihad. In Chapa Dara district, a commander introduced him to two teenagers who he said were trained to be ISIS suicide bombers.
The work was dangerous, and as Quraishi admits in the film, “I was remembering my wife, my sons … I was thinking, ‘Maybe you won’t come back again. They might kill you. They might kidnap you. They might do something wrong.'”
Just as frightening, he says, is what ISIS’ emergence in Afghanistan — though still nascent — will mean for the future of a country that has already been besieged by war for decades.
“When I saw these young children, I was really, really upset, really sad. I was thinking about Afghanistan’s future, Afghanistan’s next generation, what we have next. These children who learn how to kill people, how to do jihad, how to behead, how to fire, this would be Afghanistan.”
We sat down with Quraishi on Nov. 12, 2015 to talk about his reporting on ISIS in Afghanistan. This is an edited transcript of that conversation:
You’ve embedded with the Taliban many times before. How stark was the difference between them and the militants you met who are now aligning with ISIS?
Being with the Taliban, it’s completely different than being with ISIS. ISIS is more dangerous, and worse than any other terrorist network in the world … and they do whatever they want to. It was the most risky and dangerous job ever I’ve done in my life.
When did you first start hearing about ISIS in Afghanistan?
I heard first sometime in June 2014, but at first I didn’t believe that. Why should ISIS be in Afghanistan? We have the Taliban and other terrorist networks in Afghanistan, so I thought maybe it’s just propaganda, and maybe it’s not true.
But later after they [killed and hanged] 12 Taliban leaders in eastern Afghanistan, then everyone in Afghanistan was thinking and saying, who are these masked men? And later we found out that these masked men who killed 12 Taliban were no one else except ISIS, so then they began to have some space in Afghanistan.
Until last month they were fighting only against the Taliban, and their aim was only to get more territory out of the Taliban, but from last month they started fighting against the Afghan government. They are powerful. They have lots of money, they are wealthy, and they’re trying to capture more areas in Afghanistan and try to make a kind of base inside Afghanistan.
You should remember one thing — geographically, Afghanistan is a good place for the terrorists, because it’s surrounded by mountains, and there are lots of villages inside mountains, so it’s easy for them to hide themselves, or to recruit the people. Whatever they want to do they will do.
What do we know about where they are in Afghanistan and what their aims are?
They’re mainly on the border of Pakistan in eastern Afghanistan, and also they’ve moved into south Afghanistan as well, in Helmand province and Urozgan province. We have six borders with six countries, and that’s why I think one of the reasons why they’re in Afghanistan is because of our location. Because we have six borders, with China, with Pakistan, Iran, and with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
What they are saying, they are mentioning [an historical region] Khorasan. When we say Khorasan, that is the name of countries, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, so they’re aim is to go over to these countries from Afghanistan. This is their aim.
Are the fighters you met mainly from Afghanistan? Did you meet fighters from foreign countries as well?
I saw mainly Pakistani fighters and Afghans, but they told me that they have lots of foreigners too, from Chechnya, from Syria, Iraq, but they didn’t want to show me.
We see in the film an ISIS commander saying that they are recruiting fighters by offering them $700 a month. Is that the main draw or are there other factors at play?
This is something everyone in the rural areas knows about. Afghanistan is a poor country. They have farming, these things, so when ISIS goes through their contacts, they approach village elders, saying: “Here we are. We are Muslim. There is no Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, he has died, so now we have only Islamic State all over the world. You will go to heaven, and also you can earn money.” So the people are uneducated, as well as poor, so when ISIS is explaining like this, saying: “This is Islam. This is how you will go to heaven,” as well as $700 per month, then they say yes, it’s a good deal, let’s go ahead. They recruit like this.
Where is the Afghan government and the West in all of this?
While NATO was in Afghanistan, or American troops were in Afghanistan, we hoped we would [build] a really educated generation in Afghanistan. Then these fighters [who are with ISIS or the Taliban today] might be something else. These people were growing up in the last decade while Afghanistan was receiving billions of dollars in aid, but unfortunately, the government was corrupt, and they didn’t build a country, they didn’t build schools, they didn’t invest in the rural areas of Afghanistan.
Our main problem is education. Over 90 percent of our population is uneducated. So what can you expect? The terrorists come from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, saying the Quran says this, Quran says that, and the Afghans believe that because they speak Arabic, they think they know the language of Quran, and they know Islam better than us, let’s follow them. So they simply follow them.
The children who are in the film, some of them were eight or nine. I was shocked to see such a madrassa and such teachers, and the poor children who are learning weapons. Instead of grammar or math or something else, they were learning what is jihad, how to do jihad, how to kill, weapons, how you kill people. It was shocking for me to see inside Afghanistan, inside my country, such things going on even though we have spent billions of dollars investing in Afghanistan. Nothing has been changed in a positive way. So to be honest, I can’t see any bright future for the country.
James Foley, Steven Sotloff: It goes without saying that reporting on ISIS is one of the most dangerous assignments there is for a journalist. How worried were you about your safety?
To be honest, when you go inside something, then you are not with you. You are in the hands of somebody else, and you don’t know what they will do with you. Sometimes it seemed exciting that I was going to meet the most dangerous group ever, but sometimes when I was thinking about what they have done with other journalists in other countries, and how they are behaving with other people around the world, then I was thinking about my safety, and I had no hopes to come back again. I was saying this would be end of my life … They can do whatever they want to. And this was my worry. I was wearing proper Afghani clothes with a white hat on my head to show them I’m an ordinary person, but still, there was lots of risk. But as a journalist, if you want to explore the world, you have to take a risk.
Was there a particular moment where you were most concerned?
Yes. When I was following the two [teenage] suicide bombers, they went inside the mosque, and I didn’t know it was forbidden to film them inside the mosque. One of the fighters was shouting at me, basically not shouting, swearing on me. My fixer came to me and took my hand and told me to come out of the mosque. So when we came out, he said, “You didn’t hear the shout?” I said yes, I heard something, but I didn’t know it was for me. So when I heard this, we left the area. I told to my driver, just leave the area. We wanted to spend the night with them, then when I heard that from my fixer, I said no, it’s going to be dangerous for us. If we stayed during the night, he might do something. Safety was my priority. Not only my safety, my team’s safety. So I decided to leave. It was a dangerous moment for me.
You say that what we’re witnessing in Afghanistan now is really just ISIS in its infancy. What’s the potential for their growth there? And what needs to happen to stop it?
According to the local journalists and some experts who I was talking with, in the long term what they believe, either the Taliban would control some territory, ISIS would control some territory, as well as the government would control some territory. So Afghanistan would be split into three parts. Some think that in some years, we will not see any Taliban — they will all join ISIS because the Taliban don’t have a proper leader anymore.
But one thing you should remember, the Afghan population, especially after what happened a couple of days ago — they beheaded seven people, including two women and one child — the Taliban never did this before, so now all the Afghans are standing against them.
If they get no support from Afghan people, especially from the rural areas, then it’s hard for them to sustain in Afghanistan. They have to leave Afghanistan. If they get some support — again they have money. If you have money in Afghanistan, then you are able to do whatever you want to do. So I think that time will prove everything. Right now I cannot say anything, but all I can say, if they continue like this, like what I saw, they would capture all Afghanistan, and there would be no Taliban, no other insurgency. They would all join them.