The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taliban arrests Canadian aid worker amid widening crackdown on activists and foreigners

Nadima Noor, shown on June 4, is a 38-year-old dual Canadian-Afghan national who runs a small humanitarian organization in Afghanistan. (Susannah George/The Washington Post)
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KABUL — A dozen men identifying themselves as members of the Taliban stormed Nadima Noor’s office, informed her she was under arrest and ordered her into a car parked in the street outside. She initially refused, but when the men threatened to begin executing her colleagues, she had to comply.

That was nearly a month ago, according to her brother Dastaan Noor, who has been able to piece together that day’s events by speaking to some of her colleagues who were released. Nadima Noor, a 38-year-old dual Canadian-Afghan national, remains in prison. She ran a small humanitarian organization with a Western colleague, who was also arrested that day.

It is unclear whether she has been charged with a crime. Her family has not been informed of any formal charges, and the Taliban refuses to comment publicly on the matter. Half a year after the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan, there is a widening crackdown on Afghans and foreigners alike across the country. Targeted arrests are on the rise, and once detained, many people are held for months. Two journalists working for the United Nations are the only foreigners who have been released so far.

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A senior Taliban intelligence official said he did not know what Noor is charged with, but most Westerners are arrested on suspicion of espionage, human trafficking or lack of proper documentation.

The human-trafficking charge is often used against those accused of helping Afghans flee the country, the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Taliban officials initially said Noor would be released within days but have since told her family that the investigation has expanded, without any further explanation.

Noor, the first female dual national arrested by the Taliban since it took control of Afghanistan in August, and her colleague bring the total number of Westerners in Taliban custody to eight, according to the intelligence officer. The majority of the Westerners imprisoned are British citizens, but an American is also among those held.

“These arrests are a lesson to all the foreigners in Afghanistan who are not obeying the rules,” said the officer, who has direct knowledge of Noor’s arrest. He said that she may not be formally charged but that the Taliban’s full investigation would reveal any wrongdoing once complete.

“We have a government now, and just like in any country, the foreigners here must follow the laws,” the officer said.

Noor was arrested by a Taliban intelligence unit that technically falls under the country’s Interior Ministry but appears to operate with near-total autonomy. Like the other foreigners, she is being held at the ministry, her brother said, but the chain of command is unclear.

“I’m confused about who is even making the decisions there,” he said.

Going public with his sister’s ordeal is his family’s last resort, he said, after weeks of speaking directly to the minister and other senior figures and not making any progress.

A Kabul-based diplomat with direct knowledge of ongoing negotiations said the lack of formal communication between different arms of the Taliban often makes it difficult to gather information when someone is arrested. Most arrests occur without formal charges, and some people have been held for days before the relevant diplomatic missions or even the Taliban’s own Foreign Ministry was notified, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

The Taliban has not publicly requested an exchange for the detained foreigners, but two of the countries involved conducted separate diplomatic visits to Kabul in an effort to secure their release, a second Taliban intelligence official said. Both visits were unsuccessful.

Afghan journalists, activists, professors and political analysts have come under increased pressure in recent months. About 20 female Afghan activists remain in prison despite repeated international pressure for their release.

One of the few vocal critics of the Taliban remaining in Afghanistan, Sayed Baqir Mohsini, a university professor, disappeared for two days over the weekend after accusing the Taliban of censorship on Facebook.

Mohsini became a frequent guest on political talk shows after the group’s takeover. But then last week, Taliban intelligence threatened Shams Amani, the host of a show, with arrest if he continued to broadcast Mohsini’s appearances.

“The Taliban want us to censor us,” Amani said. “After that, we only have two choices: stop appearing on television or start speaking in support of the Taliban.”

Mohsini posted on Facebook late Sunday that he was safely back with his family, but the once outspoken professor didn’t immediately respond to requests for an interview.

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Despite an initial demonstration of some tolerance by the Taliban, many Afghans and the international community fear that the recent crackdowns signal that the group intends to rule the relatively liberal, urban areas with the same harsh tactics it employed over the past two decades to control large swaths of rural Afghanistan.

“It’s natural that if you go somewhere new, you need time to get to know the people,” Shakir Nasir, a senior Taliban police commander, said of the group’s takeover of Kabul and other Afghan cities.

“But over time, we have recognized who is good and who is bad,” he said, referring to the increase in arrests in recent months and the launch of massive house-to-house search operations that have sparked pockets of anger and resentment.

“We made lots of promises to our people and worked to increase trust,” he said. “But some people took advantage of our good behavior.”

Taliban forces say they are also able to monitor more of the Afghan population now.

A female activist who once regularly took to the streets in Kabul to protest for her rights is now in hiding after Taliban fighters came looking for her at her home and beat her father. “The restrictions are just increasing day-by-day now,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Foreigners in the country are also under increased monitoring by a recently established department within the Taliban’s intelligence unit, according to the second intelligence officer.

“We follow all journalists on social media, we watch where they move, and of 100 people who say they are journalists, believe me, only three or four are real journalists,” he said.

Noor had a vocal social media presence, posting a combination of humorous and inspirational videos promoting her humanitarian work and calling for harmony, love and positive energy to end conflict and improve life for Afghans.

“She gained a lot of followers through her social media presence,” said Dastaan Noor, her brother. The exposure helped her promote her organization, but he said it also sparked nasty smear campaigns and could have contributed to other problems, especially with Afghanistan’s more conservative communities.

When the Taliban took Kabul, “Nadima refused to change the way she worked,” he said. When many Kabul residents were too fearful to leave their homes, she continued to post to social media and began giving interviews to journalists, refusing to demonize either side.

“She felt really safe, but she liked to push limits. She’s a rebel,” her brother said. As the situation in Kabul became less and less predictable, he often advised her to lower her profile.

“I remember I shared a quote with her. … You sometimes need to be a lion and sometimes you need to be a fox. Now is the time to be a fox.”

“And I remember exactly what she said: ‘I’m neither, I’m a wolf!’ ”