The Turban Bomb: A Troubling New Taliban Tactic

Four insurgents have hidden explosives in their turbans this summer alone

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Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose emotional and tempestuous funeral took place only hours ago, was assassinated this week in Kabul as part of an elaborate plot. As The New York Times reports today, Taliban members spent months wooing Afghan officials and pretending that the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership council in Pakistan, was ready for peace talks with the Afghan government's High Peace Council, which Rabbani led. A Quetta Shura emissary then stayed at a peace council guesthouse and presented council members with a CD promising peace, only to detonate explosives hidden in his turban as he greeted Rabbani in his home and embraced him. Peace council member Rahmatullah Wahidyar, who was injured in the attack, tells the Times that when he regained consciousness, "I saw the guy lying at my feet, and I saw his body without his head."

The turban bomb, according to a Reuters report earlier this month, represents a new tactic for insurgents in Afghanistan. In fact, Rabbani's death marks the fourth time the strategy has been used since July 14, when a suicide bomber concealing explosives in his turban blew himself up outside a memorial service for Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Kandahar. Subsequent turban attacks killed Kandahar mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi and targeted the Helmand Military Corps Center on Afghanistan's Independence Day. In early August, Karzai urged the country's religious leaders to "convince militants not to use turbans and other religious attire to carry out suicide bombings, not to target mosques and to make them aware that suicide was un-Islamic," according to Reuters. Meanwhile, guards at some government ministries in Kabul began asking men to remove their turbans for security checks.

What makes the new trend so worrying is that it's occurring in a society where turbans are widely worn and asking men to remove them is considered disrespectful. "For these young policemen, it is very difficult for them to ask someone to take off their turban," an Afghan security official tells The Telegraph. When these men come from the villages, they all look like mullahs or elders." After the July 14 attack in Kandahar, the city's chief of intelligence told the Times that security had not checked the suicide bomber's turban "as a sign of respect," which the militant had "betrayed." The Guardian adds that in the case of Rabbani's death, the assassin and his accomplice may not have been searched thoroughly both out of respect and because they were deemed important visitors.

Still, the strategy could backfire. The Long War Journal observes that while the Taliban-led insurgency is "increasingly relying upon formerly-taboo tactics" like turban bombs and female suicide bombers, those "tactics have raised the ire of many Afghan communities." Perhaps that's why the Taliban has repeatedly denied hiding explosives in turbans and has uncharacteristically held back from claiming responsibility for Rabbani's murder.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.