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Taliban Splinter Groups Add To Election Fears In Afghanistan

There are fears that the emergence of even more ragtag militant groups could disrupt Afghanistan's election in April.
There are fears that the emergence of even more ragtag militant groups could disrupt Afghanistan's election in April.
The deadly reemergence of a little-known militant group in Afghanistan has prompted fears that rogue insurgents could be an added source for concern ahead of a crucial presidential election.

The Feday-e Mahaz, or "Suicide Brigade," announced its return by claiming responsibility for killing Swedish-British journalist Nils Horner in Kabul on March 11. In a brazen attack that has sent shockwaves through the international community in Kabul, Horner was gunned down in broad daylight in the Afghan capital's heavily fortified diplomatic district.

Feday-e Mahaz said in a statement posted on March 12 on its website that it targeted Horner because the Taliban splinter group believed he was a spy for Britain's MI-6 spy agency, and not a journalist.

The mainstream Taliban, meanwhile, denied any involvement in the killing as well as any affiliation with Feday-e Mahaz. Afghan officials consider the crime unsolved and are hunting for two suspects as part of their investigation.

Afghan officials have described Feday-e Mahaz as a small, hardcore offshoot of the mainstream Taliban. The group is believed to be led by Haji Najibullah, a loyalist to radical Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who was killed in a U.S.-led attack in Helmand Province in 2007.

Afghan intelligence officials had described Dadullah as an effective yet brutal militant leader who had close ties to Al-Qaeda and embraced the terrorist organization's extremist tactics, including the use of suicide bombers and the incorporation of foreign fighters.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says Feday-e Mahaz is one of various splinter groups to have emerged amid efforts among moderate Taliban to engage in peace talks with Kabul and Islamabad over the last few years.

"Both the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban are deeply fractured organizations, and rare is the time when either one makes a consequential decision that is supported by the entire ranks," Kugelman says.

"These splinter groups represent the most hardline elements of the Taliban, and therefore any Western target is considered fair game. This could explain why Feday-e Mahaz decided to target a European journalist."

Feday-e Mahaz, which has remained largely out of the headlines in recent years, has a history of targeting foreign journalists. The group was believed to be behind the 2008 abduction of "The New York Times" journalist David Rohde, who was kidnapped as he traveled with several Afghan colleagues to interview a Taliban commander. Rohde and an Afghan colleague managed to escape to safety nine months later near the border with Pakistan.

Other Taliban splinter groups have also appeared in Afghanistan. They include the Mullah Dadullah Front, an extremist offshoot that operates mainly out of southern Afghanistan. That group claimed responsibility for the 2012 killing of Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban official who became a key member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, the government's main avenue for peace talks.

The front is led by Daddi Allah, the brother of Mullah Dadullah. Daddi Allah has previously threatened to kill anyone, including Taliban commanders, who is involved in the peace process. It is unclear how numerically strong the group is.

Some observers leave open the possibility that Feday-e Mahaz and the Mullah Dadullah Front could be the same group and simply use different names.

Another group is the Jihadi Shura of Mujahidin For Unity and Understanding, which operates along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The size of this splinter group is unknown, but it shares a similar policy to the Feday-e Mahaz and Mullah Dadullah Front in its opposition to peace talks. The group has also criticized infighting between various insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan.

David Young, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says the various splinter groups might actually be under the control of the larger Taliban group.

"Whenever the Taliban doesn't want to take credit for an attack, it will frequently create a splinter faction just for the purpose of taking credit for that attack, and it may revive the group for subsequent attacks or have it disappear altogether," says Young.

"Sometimes it can help deflect blame for a particularly gruesome or senseless attack, while other times it's a useful technique to create confusion among the group's pursuers. Either way, it remains unclear whether Feday-e Mahaz is a phantom or a legitimate splinter group of the Taliban."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.