The specter of an attack by radical Islamic terrorists is an unfortunate reality for Afghan media mogul Saad Mohseni.
It’s even conceivable that the Islamic State—which has been terrorizing the Middle East and, more recently, France and Belgium—will soon be haunting Mohseni’s homeland as well.
But now the more immediate threat, alas, is a concrete possibility: As of Oct. 12, Mohseni and his 1,200 employees have been coping with the fact that they’re topping the hit list of the Taliban—selected for execution by the thuggish Muslim extremists who formerly ruled the hardscrabble country, before being toppled by the American military in the aftermath of 9/11. They are trying to fight their way back into power.
“It was very serious, because it was issued and signed by the military council of the Taliban,” Mohseni said the other evening as he nursed a steaming pot of chamomile tea and a glass of sparkling water at one of Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood. “It basically deemed us genuine military targets. So all bets are off.”
The 49-year-old Mohseni—a liberal Muslim whose privately owned Moby Group, launched in 2002, remains Afghanistan’s dominant source of news and entertainment in television, radio and print—has long been a rich target in a target-rich environment.
Moby subsidiary Tolo (for “dawn”) TV’s aggressive reporting on official corruption and Taliban violence that continues to plague 30 million Afghans, despite many billions of dollars spent by the United States to stabilize and democratize the fractured country, has not only provoked howls of protest from the government in Kabul, but it has also—more ominously—infuriated the Taliban.
“We’ve been dealing with crises for over a decade, so for us, it’s always, what steps do we need to take?” said Mohseni, who runs his rapidly expanding company with his two brothers and sister from Dubai (with a healthy investment by media titan Rupert Murdoch), and travels with a team of armed bodyguards during his twice-monthly visits to Kabul.
“It was A to Zed,” Mohseni continued. “There were different things we needed to ensure. Are the facilities safe? Do we have enough security people? What are the routines? How do people get home? When they travel around the city, who’s the most vulnerable? Who lives where? There was a whole list of things we had to go through.”
He added: “But you don’t panic. We’re trying to figure out how to deal with it. Having said that, we’re not altogether surprised that it was going to be issued. It may have come in 2015, but even when we first launched there were times when the Taliban were not happy with our coverage, and surprisingly, nothing like this had been issued.”
The Taliban edict labeled Tolo TV and a second Afghan media outlet, 1TV, “satanic networks” for their “disrespectful and hostile actions” against the deeply unpopular militant group—a reference to the networks’ reports of rapes and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Taliban fighters during a pitched battle in the past two months with government forces to control the northern city of Kunduz.
“No employee, anchor, office, news team, and reporter of these TV channels holds any immunity,” the Taliban statement blustered. “All the reporters and associates of these channels will be deemed enemy personnel, all of their centers, offices and dispatched teams will be considered military objectives which will be directly eliminated.”
The threat was disseminated online, via Twitter and the Taliban’s official website in Pashto and English. It even included Mohseni’s personal Twitter handle. There was also a menacing video that featured some of Tolo TV’s better known on-air personalities.
“They’re relatively sophisticated in some ways,” said Mohseni, who has responded to the Taliban’s death sentence with plucky defiance.
“It’s serious,” he said, “but we are also very serious in the way we cover things, and it wasn’t going to stop us from doing our jobs...You’d be surprised how you adjust. You just deal with things day to day. You’re not sitting there getting spooked if somebody drops a spoon on the floor. My experiences in Kabul are always pleasant. It’s our country, it’s our place, and we’re not going to let anybody make us feel like strangers in our own country.”
The London-born Mohseni, the son of an Afghan diplomat whose family was exiled to Australia after the 1979 Soviet invasion, returned to Kabul after the Taliban were overthrown.
His media outlets have been at the forefront of the liberalization of Afghan society and especially the rise of women in the workplace and the formerly banned education of girls.
“Why should we let anyone tell us how we should conduct ourselves, how we should dress, how we should live, and how we should report on things?” Mohseni demanded. “People have a right to know these things.”
Mohseni said there are disturbing parallels between the Taliban and ISIS, which is starting to gain a foothold in the Afghan countryside.
“Ideologically, I think they’re on the same page—a very sort of righ-wing Salafi or Wahhabi type of Islam,” he said. “I think ISIS is beginning to emerge in the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. It’s a new brand—a more updated brand that some people in Afghanistan believe may actually resonate with a bigger percentage of the population. The Taliban obviously has some baggage so ISIS may be in position to not worry about some of the Taliban legacy issues.“
Mohseni argued that ISIS could make inroads especially in the ethnic non-Pashtun areas of the country where “the population is embracing this very right-wing, very aggressive and very backward movement. They can be very acceptable to a bigger percentage of the population.”
He added: “Especially if the Taliban embark on these peace talks [with the government] which have been put on hold, some of the more hawkish elements within the movement may break away from the Taliban movement—which could make ISIS much stronger, because it’s a franchise that anyone really can adopt, and ISIS can emerge as a real movement within the country.”
Mohseni said it is essential, especially for Westerners, to understand ISIS’s appeal, and its attendant violence, as a psycho-social phenomenon.
“You can never justify what happens, but maybe you can attempt to understand from a psycho-social aspect why a young man feels compelled to do these things,” he said. “Maybe they don't feel French. They live in these semi-ghettos in the suburbs of major cities of France, they’re never seen as really French, there's the baggage of colonialism.
“These things affect how they perceive their own roles in their adopted country. There’s high unemployment, limited opportunities, they’re not relevant, they’re not educated, they feel like complete losers, so they become very vulnerable to getting indoctrinated into this crazy extreme ideology.”
Mohseni continued: “I think you can understand the appeal of ISIS in different parts of the world. I think for a young disenfranchised French Muslim who has issues with self-esteem, who and has been economically deprived for most of his life, the appeal of ISIS is one thing. But the appeal of ISIS to a village boy in northern Afghanistan who gets paid twice as much by ISIS as what the Taliban pay him is something else."
Mohseni warned that the West’s demonization of Muslims and Islam—as practiced by, among others, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump—will likely help ISIS, whose impact on young Muslims in Europe can be compared to the wickedly glamorous allure of the Hell’s Angels.
“How the West is trying to counter the ISIS narrative can serve to amplify the ISIS narrative,” Mohseni said. “If you tell someone, ‘Don’t join the Hell’s Angeles because you’re going to have a lot of women, you’re going to have a big motorbike, and you can beat people up,’ a person who’s inclined to join the Hell’s Angels will say, ‘Where do I sign up?’
“They want to be part of something. They’re exposed to this ideology and something goes off like a shot and suddenly they’re in Syria with guns. The concern I have is that as Muslims are demonized more and more in the West, it may get to an unfortunate stage where young people no longer have to go to Syria or Iraq to fight for Islam. They stay in their own home countries and fight for Islam.”