In April 2011, a series of violent protests erupted in Afghanistan that reflected public anger over news of an American preacher burning a Qur’an. The United Nations compound in normally peaceful Mazar-i-Sharif, north of Kabul, was attacked, and seven foreigners were killed.[1] Riots also struck Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, with more than 100 protesters shot and at least a dozen killed.[2] While many demonstrators were reportedly just expressing dismay at the Qur’an burning, Afghan officials stressed that Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami played a role as well; in their view, these radical groups “misus[ed]” the emotions of locals to spark the violence.[3] Regardless, the riots surprised many Afghan observers and international officials, and raised significant questions about the general state of the Afghan people. Were societal tensions and malcontent, which normally simmered just under the surface, starting to bubble over? Were these riots an early indication that radicalization was becoming widespread in Afghan civil society?

Although mass radicalization does not currently appear to be a pervasive threat in Afghanistan, the key drivers of radicalization—namely, common grievances, extremist ideology, and mechanisms for mobilization[4]—are prevalent. This, in and of itself, is cause for concern. An environment prone to enabling radicalization means that the Taliban and other militant groups remain capable of recruiting supporters, and that widening fissures within the Afghan political landscape could more easily lead to future violence. It also raises concerns for U.S. and NATO transition plans, which could be undermined by spreading radicalization, and highlights future threats to stability within Afghan civil society.

While there is insufficient evidence to indicate that widespread radicalization is occurring in Afghanistan, large segments of Afghan society remain frustrated by physical insecurity, government corruption, poverty and growing social inequality. These frustrations are easily manipulated by radical groups and make many Afghans susceptible to recruitment and radicalization, particularly when their discontent is aggravated by mistrust of the government or the international community.

Insecurity remains the core grievance across the country. Although nearly half of the Afghans surveyed in the 2011 Asia Foundation poll felt the country was moving in the right direction, 56% of respondents still feared for their personal safety. Nearly 40% identified insecurity—to include “attacks, violence, and terrorism”—as the country’s biggest problem.[5] Unemployment, corruption, and poverty were likewise cited as serious concerns. Recent studies by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan entities echo these findings but stress that corruption—ranging from bribery and nepotism to the misuse of aid money and the abuse of government positions—was another overwhelming source of anger and frustration.[6] Corruption was described as the identifying feature of government services in multiple provinces, leading to widespread mistrust in the Afghan government and its approach to the rule of law. Lack of access to social services and higher education, growing social inequality, civilian casualties caused by international military forces, and the destabilizing influence of Pakistan were also highlighted as the most serious, unaddressed grievances of many Afghans.

These frustrations, in and of themselves, may not directly lead to violent extremism. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that they often provide the foundation for radicalization in Afghanistan, particularly for segments of society still under the Taliban’s influence. Stories of young Afghans joining the insurgency are peppered with references to unaddressed grievances. Their narratives include a combination of anger at real or perceived violations of their rights by international forces (for example, civilian casualties from military operations, night raids, and U.S. or ISAF detention operations), the failure of the Afghan government to tackle corruption or provide security, justice and jobs, or those in combination with national pride and a desire for revenge. In one example, Abdul Haqim, a 25-year-old Afghan Taliban sub-district commander, described joining the insurgency as a process that started with resentment of coalition forces and the Afghan government, and culminated when American soldiers killed his cousin.[7] Another story illustrates how an Afghan prisoner in Pol-e-Charki prison, the large prison just east of Kabul where the Taliban have long maintained a strong influence, was radicalized after fellow inmates helped him translate personal frustration at the government’s corrupt justice system into pro-Taliban sentiments.[8]

Left unaddressed, these frustrations create the framework within which transnational terrorist groups, the Taliban, and other domestic political actors manipulate radical ideologies and ethnonational divisions to gain popular support. Insurgent propaganda is effectively tailored toward this purpose, with a focus on misgivings toward the Afghan government and its perceived failure to provide governance and security. In this context, arguments about the benefits of Taliban governance and justice find greater appeal. Insurgent groups are thus able to rationalize violence in pursuit of their goals while also undermining public support for the government or international community.

Furthermore, decades of conflict and divisive domestic politics have left Afghan society polarized and ethnically fractured. Aforementioned grievances exacerbate these problems of factionalized politics and provide the basis for further entrenchment of ethnic and political divisions within Afghan civil society. Ultimately, this raises concerns for potential future political violence or, in the bleakest outlook, foreshadows post-transition civil war.

Although individual stories of motivation and recruitment in Afghanistan vary, religious narrative is considered “the key that unlocks the ability to use radical tactics.”[9] As a result, religious rhetoric is critically important to the radicalization process. It is threaded throughout Taliban messaging and recruitment campaigns, framing aforementioned central grievances within the context of Islamic law and manipulating local frustrations and religious beliefs to support violent action.

Since there is no singular path for radicalization, questions remain about the degree to which ideology is a primary motivational factor in Taliban or insurgent recruitment, or a secondary tool used to justify violence after becoming a combatant. Senator Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, the Taliban’s former minister of education, considers it a core premise of today’s insurgent radicalization. As he explained in a recent interview, more than ever “it’s a war [based on] one ideology.”[10] In his view, religious rhetoric has become the starting point for joining Afghan-oriented radical groups. A slightly different perspective is offered by a 2009 Department of International Development (DFID) study, which found that the religious radicalization of many young combatants occurred once they joined the insurgency; training and indoctrination included religious messaging to frame their cause in terms of Islam.[11] Other insurgents discussed their actions—and the process that led them to join the Taliban—without mentioning religion. In the end, multiple factors can determine whether religion is a deep ideological foundation, a tool to appeal to grievances, or merely window dressing—the age and personal experience of a combatant, and their mechanisms of mobilization, among other reasons.

Regardless, religious leaders and religious institutions remain pivotal elements of the radicalization process in Afghanistan. While approximately 3,325 mosques were registered with the Afghan government as of May 2011, its Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs estimated that there may be as many as 60,000 unregistered mosques.[12] These religious institutions are central to daily life for most Afghans and ensure that the “foundation of [public] debate is religious issues.”[13] Mullahs and imams are likewise essential; they often represent the primary religious educator and religious preacher, and also the community’s moral authority and most trusted adviser. Despite recent efforts by the Afghan government to develop a unified curriculum for training mullahs, Afghan religious leaders espouse a variety of ideologies, and their levels of education vary widely—some having little higher education and many having received training in unmonitored Pakistani madrasas.

The role played by Pakistani madrasas is significant for both mullahs and the wider Afghan public. Given Afghanistan’s weak government-run religious education system and the well-developed and locally-respected madrasa system in neighboring Pakistan, large segments of Afghans are schooled there.[14] While figures are elusive, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million children attend Pakistani madrasas, many of whom are Afghan citizens, including thousands of Afghan refugees. Although many of these madrasas do not teach radical rhetoric or serve as sources for militant recruitment or training,[15] they nonetheless have sizeable influence on the ideological aspect of Afghan-based radicalization. In a 2010 assessment, the U.S. Department of State asserted that “a small, yet influential number of madrassas have taught extremist doctrine in support of terrorism.”[16] These madrasas include those at Shamshatoo, an Afghan refugee camp near Peshawar where followers of notorious insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar use “hard-sell recruitment” tactics on Afghan schoolboys.[17] The growing influence of conservative Deobandi scholars in Kabul, Logar, Parwan and Wardak is also sourced to Pakistani madrasas and has made these areas critical for insurgent support and recruitment.[18] While many graduates do not become radicalized, the potential impact is clear.

Considering the process of radicalization from multiple perspectives helps highlight the key tools and methods used to radicalize Afghans, and draws attention to many common settings in which radicalization occurs. It also demonstrates that, despite years of insurgent recruitment and mobilization, many of these mechanisms have remained unchanged over the recent past.

In Afghanistan, basic tools for radicalization include night letters (shabnamah), inspirational songs and poems (taranas), and CDs and DVDs with sermons or battle reports. While magazines and print media are used sporadically, they are less effective for the illiterate Afghan audience; in many instances, this propaganda and internet-based messaging is actually aimed at an international audience.[19] Another tool that has gained traction over the past year is cell phone and social media technology. The Taliban have increasingly spread their influence by sending propaganda that includes gruesome images to countless Afghan cell phones at once.[20] Insurgents’ preference for using “spammed” SMS messages and images will likely continue to increase as more young Afghans acquire smart phones.

Other methods for recruitment leverage one of Afghan radical groups’ core advantages: they innately understand their audience well and they often live and work among them, which allows the effective exploitation of social pressure points. They therefore use local power structures and face-to-face contact to recruit and radicalize through both persuasion and intimidation, two of the most powerful tools available. In this way, they also coerce Afghans to withdraw support for coalition forces, with night letters being an oft-used scare tactic.[21]

Finally, it is critical to identify the primary target audiences of these efforts—particularly the youth, former combatants, refugees and prisoners who are most vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization. Many Afghans 25-years-old or younger are “disenfranchised, lack educational and employment opportunities, and rarely participat[e] in [community] decision-making,”[22] making them especially susceptible to grievance-oriented rhetoric exploiting societal unease and unhappiness with the government. Refugee camps near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are also significant sites for insurgent radicalization and continue to supply low-level combatants to the battlefield.[23] Afghan prisoners are likewise a vulnerable group, especially in prisons like Pol-e-Charki, where Taliban leaders have maintained influence throughout the past decade. Understanding the more precarious situations of these particular populations helps clarify how radicalization occurs in the Afghan context while also highlighting pragmatic options for targeted counterradicalization efforts.

Next Steps
Despite the riots of last spring, there are few clear indications of widespread radicalization across Afghan society, although grievances, radical ideology, and readily available mobilization mechanisms are clearly pervasive. This raises concerns that the Taliban and other militant groups will continue to exert influence and that there may be violent outcomes to the political alienation and polarization growing within segments of Afghan society.

As Afghan, U.S., and NATO officials prepare for the forthcoming security transition, they should keep these factors in mind. Priority should be placed on stemming these drivers of radicalization, countering the influence they have on the Afghan people and on plans for post-transition stabilization efforts. In the near-term, efforts should focus on combating mechanisms for radicalization and supporting Afghan groups most vulnerable to radicalization. A comprehensive, long-term counterradicalization response should also involve continuing to address core, widespread grievances such as insecurity and corruption—with the Afghan government in the lead and the international community in a supporting role. Senior leaders, however, must be honest with the Afghan public that such grievance-oriented strategies will take years, if not decades, and success is not guaranteed. In the immediate future, the Afghan government and international community must support a frank discussion that acknowledges these grievances and their inability to fix them immediately. This could help release some tension in Afghan civil society and make particularly aggrieved Afghans less susceptible to radicalization.

Marisa L. Porges is an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in London, and previously served as a counterterrorism policy adviser at the U.S. Departments of Defense and the Treasury. She spent the spring and fall of 2011 conducting research in Afghanistan.

[1] Laura King, “Fury in Afghanistan Over Koran-Burning Continues as Protests Leave Nine Dead,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2011.

[2]  Rod Nordland, “Taliban Exploit Tensions Seething in Afghan Society,” New York Times, April 6, 2011.

[3] “Afghan Police Criticised Over Mazar-e Sharif Violence,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, April 14, 2011.

[4] For further explanation of how these three risk factors were identified as the key drivers of radicalization, see Peter Neumann, “Preventing Violent Radicalization in America,” Bipartisan Policy Center Report, June 2011.

[5] “Afghanistan in 2011: A Survey of the People,” The Asia Foundation, November 2011.

[6] Findings presented at workshop on radicalization in Afghan society, Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2011.

[7] He said he was “burning with rage.” See Miles Amoore, “Defecting in the Name of Love,” Afghan Scene, March 2011.

[8] Personal interview, family member of Afghan prisoner, Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2011.

[9] Personal interview, ISAF official, Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2011.

[10] Personal interview, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2011.

[11] Sarah Ladbury and Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU), Testing Hypothesis on Radicalisation in Afghanistan (Kabul: Department for International Development, 2009).

[12] Brief by senior Afghan official from Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2011.

[13] Brief by senior Afghan representative from Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2011.

[14] As of June 2010, the Pakistani government reported that 19,104 madrasas were registered. For the sake of general comparison, there were 336 madrasas registered with the Afghan government in 2007. Note that, in 2010, the Afghan Ministry of Education sponsored 48 madrasas specifically to counter the Taliban’s use of religious education as a recruitment and radicalization tool.

[15] According to an International Crisis Group report from 2005, “A Pakistan government report issued in 1995 found the existence of 746 extremist madrassas in Punjab province alone; it is currently unclear how many madrassas in the region would be considered radical.”

[16] In previous years, the U.S. Department of State worded this assessment more strongly, asserting that “many” madrasas taught extremist doctrine.

[17] Ron Moreau, “The Jihadi High School,” Newsweek, April 24, 2011.

[18] “The Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland,” International Crisis Group, June 27, 2011. Three of Pakistan’s most famous Deobandi madrasas–Darul Uloom Haqqania, Darul Uloom Hashemia and Imdadul Uloom-e Sharia–taught prominently insurgents from Wardak and Logar provinces.

[19] Personal interview, ISAF official, Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2011. Also see “Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?” International Crisis Group, July 24, 2008.

[20] Spencer Ackerman, “Taliban Texts Terror to Afghan Phones,” Wired, March 17, 2011.

[21] Personal interview, ISAF official, Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2011.

[22]  “Annual Project Report: Joint National Youth Programme,” United Nations Development Programme for Afghanistan, December 31, 2008.

[23] “Recruitment and Radicalization of School-Aged Youth by International Terrorist Groups,” Homeland Security Institute, April 2009.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up