What the Taliban’s youngest fighters tell us about the future of the movement

By Sudarsan Raghavan

The Washington Post
November 12, 2021 at 11:36 a.m. EST
Esmatullah Omari, 19, center, guards a checkpoint Oct. 9 near Bagram air base outside Kabul with men from his unit, including an uncle, left. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Born a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Esmatullah Omari grew up to despise America. At 12, he was trained by the Taliban to plant roadside bombs. At 16, he was attacking military convoys near Bagram airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan and the epicenter of America’s longest war.

Now, Omari triumphantly stands guard at one of Bagram’s entrances. The Americans are gone, but the 19-year-old still doesn’t understand why they came in the first place. Once, he saw a video of planes hitting two tall buildings on a date he can’t recall, he said.

“But no one told me the story about what happened.”

Thousands of Americans who were either toddlers, infants or born after 9/11 joined the U.S. military to serve their nation, combat terrorism and foster democracy in Afghanistan. They included 11 of the 13 U.S. service members killed in a bombing by an Islamic State affiliate at Kabul’s airport in August during the last days of America’s two-decade-long conflict.

In Afghanistan, a parallel generation of Taliban fighters battled the Americans, their lives also distinctly shaped by the 9/11 attacks. Many were children when they first tasted war, trading their childhoods for what they were told was their duty as Muslims.

But they grew up in a world where the 9/11 attacks were either obscured or misrepresented in their lives. It was an alternate universe where a lost generation of rural Afghan youths had few opportunities and never benefited from billions of dollars in Western aid money that elevated the lives of countless Afghans. Filling the void were Islamic schools known as madrassas that shaped the minds of future young Taliban fighters, their learning and their childhoods inevitably cut short by the lure of jihad, or holy war.

 The Washington Post interviewed 14 young Taliban fighters from seven parts of the country — all born between 2000 and 2003 — to see what motivated a generation to take up arms against U.S. forces when it had no memory of the 1990s Taliban movement, or its ouster in 2001 after the attacks of Sept. 11. What does their future look like in the new Afghanistan?

Young Taliban fighters inside a mosque last month at a former U.S. military outpost in Ghazni province. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Many joined the Taliban after U.S. forces attacked their villages or killed their relatives. Some despised the corruption of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. Others were urged, even trained, to fight by relatives inside the Taliban. Preachers at their madrassas portrayed Americans as invaders seeking to kill Muslims and encouraged students to wage a religious jihad against the foreigners.

The young fighters were also fed a steady stream of revisionist history about 9/11 and positive imagery of al-Qaeda, especially its founder — the architect of the U.S. attacks, who was given safe harbor in Afghanistan by the Taliban during its previous rule.

“Osama bin Laden was a hero and a mujahid,” said Sharafuddin Shakir, 19, using the Arabic word for those engaged in a holy war. The lean fighter was surrounded by militants inside a former U.S. military outpost in Ghazni province that they now controlled.

His comrades nodded in agreement.

‘Duty of everyone to fight’

Back in Bagram, Omari’s adolescent life seemed on a normal trajectory. He attended school, played every day with his cousins and friends in Nasru, a village close to the American base and about an hour-and-a-half drive from the capital, Kabul. His destiny, though, was already preordained.

His brother, five years older, was a Taliban member and so were his uncles and older cousins. From a young age, they instilled a sense that one day he would join them.

 “This is the duty of everyone to fight against the invaders and infidels who occupied our land,” said his uncle Muhammed Karim, 48, in response to a question about why the Taliban recruited children. “Jihad is mandatory everywhere.”

Many of the previous generation in the Taliban were also child fighters, and in rural Afghanistan, boys are often considered adults when they are capable of wielding a gun or helping the family.

 “I was 14 when I fought against the Soviets,” said Sahijan, a middle-aged fighter with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, referring to the U.S.-funded campaign by Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s to drive out the occupying Soviet forces. Like many Afghans, he uses one name.

Omari, left, at a checkpoint near Bagram air base. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

One day, Karim and other family members decided to educate Omari in war. They taught him to make an improvised explosive device, or IED. Then, they took him out for some real-life experience. Boys were less suspected of being bombers.

“He was 12 then,” recalled Gul Zaman, 42, another uncle, smiling. “He was given explosives to plant on the side of the road. We took him with us whenever we were carrying out any operations.”

When Omari was 16, U.S. and Afghan troops learned about a suicide-bombing mission that his brother was planning. The troops raided Nasru and fatally shot his brother.

“I was in grade eight, but when my brother was martyred, I left school,” said Omari.

He formally joined the Taliban, replacing his brother. His next assault, he said, was an ambush of a military convoy approaching Bagram. He traveled to other provinces, he said, staging roadside bombings. “In every mine blast on an armored vehicle or Humvee, five to six people were killed,” Omari said with no emotion. “I felt happy when I successfully attacked a vehicle.” 

Omari was motivated by what he and many others in his village viewed as the brutal conduct of American forces and their Afghan allies, who conducted airstrikes and counterterrorism raids. Stories of torture and other abuses inside the U.S.-run jail in Bagram reverberated through the village and surrounding areas.

“The foreign troops killed many innocent people in our area on misleading information by their spies,” said Omari, who is tall and wiry and wore a camouflage jacket, black Nike sneakers and a cap with white Islamic markings. In his left hand, he clutched an American M-4 rifle that he found inside Bagram.

A few months after his formal recruitment, Omari’s younger brother joined the Taliban, as did several teenage cousins.

Only Islamic verses

They included Qari Mutawakil, who also had dropped out of school at 14 and joined the insurgency after witnessing abuses by U.S. and local forces, he said.

In Kabul, his peers were listening to Western and Bollywood music, signs of the new freedoms ushered in by the U.S.-backed government and Western funding. The only tunes Mutawakil and his comrades heard were Islamic verses, as ordered by the Taliban.

“I never listened to music, only the jihadi anthems,” said Mutawakil, a hefty fighter with a boyish voice who is now 18. “Music is not good. It is a sin.”

He began fighting in other provinces after he was trained to use a gun and make roadside bombs. His first operation targeted an Afghan national army base, he said.

When asked whether he had heard of 9/11 or of planes hitting the twin towers, Mutawakil said he had not, adding, “I was not in this world 20 years ago.”

His reasons for battling the Americans were more nuanced than those of the other fighters.

“They came here to root out Islam,” said Mutawakil. “They came to establish democratic rule here and wanted to use us for their own interests. They wanted to make us as they are. They wanted to kill our clerics and eliminate our religion.”

Those clerics played an important role in recruiting Gul Muhammed Heymat. In the eastern province of Paktika, he learned about the American forces in his madrassa.

Then, his teachers dictated what was required of him as a good Muslim.

“They told us about the Americans, that they have invaded our country and committed atrocities against the people,” said Heymat, now 18, whose wavy black hair peeked out from his skull cap. “We were told to fight jihad against the invaders.”

The clerics never mentioned the 9/11 attacks in their conversations or the presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, said Heymat. All the students were told, he said, was that the Americans came “to protect their interests” and “to carry war here.”

They were also told that bin Laden was a good Muslim and a mujahid.

A young Taliban member inspects vehicles at a checkpoint in Kabul on Oct. 5. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Two years ago, Heymat and his childhood friend Assadullah Tassal, 21, joined the Taliban, fighting mostly against the government in Paktika.

In other madrassas, the goal was to graduate teenage suicide bombers.

Muhammad Sajid, 21, knows. His brother, Shamsur, detonated his explosive vest as a convoy of American vehicles passed a decade ago, he said. And Sajid was ordered to continue the tradition in his family five years ago. He was sent to a madrassa in northwest Pakistan, operated by the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda-linked group aligned with the Taliban.

“I was myself a would-be suicide bomber,” said Sajid, who looks younger than his years. “I got the training at the Haqqani madrassa.”

He was taught to make explosives, wrap them in a vest and hook them to a detonator. Three years ago, he was ordered to go to Nangarhar province and await orders for his operation. But he was captured by government security forces and jailed, he said. Sajid was released this year from prison after Taliban fighters seized the area. He still regrets that he failed in his mission.

“I was ready to become a martyr,” Sajid said.

Questions over 9/11

In Ghazni, Shakir, too, was ready to die for his beliefs. Like many of the young Taliban fighters, he was ignorant of 9/11. “I don’t know about these 9/11 attacks, and I did not watch the videos of that attack,” he said.

He not only refused to believe that al-Qaeda and bin Laden orchestrated them, but he questioned whether the attacks even happened. “It was not true,” said Shakir. “The Americans invaded Afghanistan on the pretext of 9/11, but the real motive was that they were against the true Islamic rule in Afghanistan.”

Even senior Taliban officials try to whitewash the terrorist act. In August, Zabihullah Mujahid, the top Taliban spokesman and acting information minister, declared there was “no proof” that bin Laden was involved in the attacks.

As he stood sentry at Bagram, Omari finally learned about the 9/11 attacks — the version his older relatives and comrades wanted him to hear, that is.

“I watched the planes crash into the buildings in America in the TV,” explained Sahijan. “That was preplanned by the Americans in order to attack Afghanistan.”

“No al-Qaeda was here,” said Karim, Omari’s uncle. “Where was Osama bin Laden killed? He was killed in Pakistan. What happened on 9/11 was just an excuse to fight al-Qaeda. But, in reality, they had planned to attack Afghanistan.”

As they spoke, Omari nodded, taking in their words.

“Let the Americans show us proof that a single al-Qaeda member was either killed or captured in Afghanistan,” Karim continued.

“We don’t know who did the 9/11 attacks,” Omari said finally.

The U.S. government “only announced it under the name of al-Qaeda,” he added.

 On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, scores of fighters of all ages gathered at an amusement park near Kabul, following the all-important Juma prayers. Some put down their guns and hopped on to a swinging pirate-boat ride. They screamed with delight, seemingly regaining their childhood, if only briefly.

Heymat and Tassal were at the park together. It was their first time in Kabul, and they were enjoying the sights and activities that had eluded them after a lifetime of war. But that’s all they have ever known. Despite the widening of their world, they cling to a sense of importance and belonging that the Taliban provides.

“Even now, when there is no fighting, to keep security and serving the country is also a form of jihad,” said Tassal. “We want to be mujahid.”

Gul Muhammed Heymat and Assadullah Tassal, his childhood friend, visit Qargha lake near Kabul. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Other young Taliban fighters still see enemies everywhere and refuse to put down their weapons. They have no choice. Most have grown up with no education and no skills.

“Now Daesh has come here,” said Mutawakil, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They carried out a bomb attack in Kunduz the other day. I took up arms to fight for the will of God and embrace martyrdom, which is a respectable way to die.”

“I will not find a job,” he added. “We will remain with our guns.”

That raises concerns about whether this generation of young Taliban members, trained in warfare and explosives, will turn to crime or violence, especially at a time when Afghanistan’s economy is in free-fall and the Taliban interim government is unable to pay salaries.

Omari, too, has no plans to leave his perch at Bagram.

“I will not go back to school,” he said. “I want to serve my country with my weapon.”

When asked whether his parents would object, he replied, “The Taliban is my family.”

Fatullah Khaiber, 20, was the only Taliban fighter interviewed who wanted an education. But even this decision is colored by the war: He wants to one day teach at a madrassa.

“I will share with my students the jihad we fought against 20 years of occupation,” said Khaiber, standing near a broken-down U.S. armored personnel carrier at the former U.S. military outpost in Ghazni. “I will tell them about the Americans and their acts, how they carried out night raids and bombings.”

He, too, said that Osama bin Laden was a hero.

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Mohammadullah Aryen in Kabul contributed to this report.

Sudarsan Raghavan is a correspondent at large for the Washington Post. He has reported from more than 65 nations on four continents. He has been based in Baghdad, Kabul, Cairo, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as 17 African wars.
What the Taliban’s youngest fighters tell us about the future of the movement