KABUL, Afghanistan – As I sipped tea in a garden on an unassuming Friday morning in September, a mammoth explosion detonated blocks away, followed by gunshots and police sirens. A pillar of black smoke ascended into the warm air.
Nobody in proximity flinched. Nobody strained their neck to find out what was under attack. Nobody even whispered among themselves. Bombings are all too synonymous in Afghanistan, even during its fragile post-war period.
On this occasion, a car bomb detonated as worshippers exited the high-profile Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque. Although no group has claimed responsibility for this attack, which left at least seven dead and 41 wounded, it bears the hallmarks of the ISIS insurgency reigning terror throughout the country.
Attacks like these, mostly led by ISIS, are why the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (AKA the Taliban) have adopted suicide bombings as a defense strategy in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban transformed from insurgency network to government body over a year ago, the group makes no secret that suicide bombings are institutionalized within its military arms.
“They will not blow themselves up on us,” Akif Mohajer, a longtime Taliban member and spokesperson told me with a sly smile, referring to the group’s cadre of suicide bombers. “They are part of the Special Forces. If anyone or any country tries to move against our interests, they will be used.”
This fall, as ISIS attacked a military hospital, Taliban-flown helicopters were dispatched to contain the violence. Although no official would confirm it, the rumor was that the Taliban dropped a suicide bomber on the roof to kill the ISIS attackers instigating the siege.
“None of these groups controls a single inch of Afghan land,” one Talib representative reminds me.
A few days after September’s Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque attack, I visited a remote, dust-swept home in a small village inside the Baraki District of Logar province. A group of Taliban fighters mourned the loss of their Taliban brother Rashid, 29, who died in that Kabul bombing I witnessed. Rashid himself was a trained suicide bomber, killed by another suicide bomber— the irony not lost on anyone.
“He belonged to the Zero-Ten Directorate of intelligence and was there for prayers,” one brother, Misbah, 26, says softly, his thick black beard angled toward the cement floor.
They were a family of seven brothers. Another brother, Muqadas, assures me that “Jihad is the obligation of every Muslim,” and they all remain firmly committed to doing whatever is asked of them. I learn that Rashid did one year of suicide training at what the men call “a center” in the Afghanistan hinterland, followed by “two to three years more training in Pakistan.”
“Until you are a teen, you don’t understand anything. But once you get to your teen years, you understand – and then is when we get the love of Jihad,” he explains. “Even if all the brothers die [in suicide bombings], we have no regrets.”
They proudly tell me that their village was the “first village in the whole country where Jihad started against the government” during the two-decade war.
From the Taliban’s purview, suicide bombing serves as something of a great equalizer in the war theater. Whereas the U.S. brought billions worth of aircraft, artillery and heavy weaponry to the battlefield, the Taliban perfected the suicide blueprint, knowing such a brutal stratagem would never be replicated by its enemies.
Even after effectively winning the war in the late summer of 2021, as the U.S.-backed government crumbled, the new Emirate exalted the continued practice. Just a day after the final American plane departed the Kabul skies, the Taliban flashed their Istish-haadi (“seeking martyrdom”) suicide squadron across national television, complete with the parading of suicide vests, car bombs and plastic jerry cans typically used for the creation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
On another morning, the Emirate’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani honored suicide bombers at a prestigious gathering inside Kabul’s InterContinental Hotel, promising their families cash and land in gratitude for the sacrifice made by a loved one. The Haqqani Network leader stressed that “without fighters seeking martyrdom, we will not be able to finish the infidels.”
Just a few weeks after the fall last year, I visited a kindergarten on the fringes of the capital, had been transformed into a suicide training center for carefully selected students under the umbrella of the “Badri Command.”
“One has to have already done special actions,” Hafiz Badry, a 29-year-old commander and native of Helmand Province, said of the selection process.
His fellow fighter, a 26-year-old unit leader assured me that the Command continues to be deluged with young fighters desperately vying for the chance to blow themselves to bits in the name of Islam and fighting for their country.
After selection, bombers undergo training that typically lasts roughly two months: Fighters are taught the intricacies of explosives, movement, and religion to ensure they are committed to pulling off the life-ending mission.
An array of suicide bombing/martyrdom brigades have different names and are attached to different armed units. The suicide operations may vary, but the mission is essentially the same: Neutralize anyone deemed a threat and remind foreign powers who is in charge.
On another twilight afternoon in late September, I meet a Taliban fighter named Ibrahim, 28, at his extended family home in Kabul. He serves me tea and wants to know why I am not staying for dinner as he talks about his brother, who blew himself up at a campaign rally in Parwan, north of Kabul, in September 2014, killing at least 26 civilians and wounding more than 42. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the onslaught, referring to the gathering as a “military target.”
It was a “proud moment,” Ibrahim observes without hesitation, as they had to make sacrifices to “fight the foreigners invading the country.” Ibrahim says he spent several years “taking part in the Jihad against the foreigners that were here.” He notes that several of his brothers went to a martyrdom training “center” in Pakistan but does not know whether they will be called for their final mission.
Maiwand Naweed contributed to this report