On January 20, 2016, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck at a bus in the Afghan capital Kabul, killing seven passengers and wounding more than 20 other people. The bus was transporting employees of TOLO TV, an independent television network renowned for its courageous coverage of Afghan affairs. Most of the dead were young people; one, Mehri Azizi, was due to celebrate her engagement two days later.
It is no secret who was responsible for the attack. TOLO TV and its staff had been in the gunsights of the Afghan Taliban for months. When the Taliban occupied the northern Afghan town of Kunduz from 28 September-13 October 2015, TOLO TV took the lead in reporting their human rights abuses, which were subsequently documented in a December 2015 UN report. The Taliban on 12 October issued a direct threat to kill TOLO personnel: "Hereafter 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". When the bus was bombed, the Taliban claimed responsibility, gloating that "the vehicle was destroyed … and its corrupt passengers killed". This kind of thinking reflects the Taliban's indifference to international humanitarian law, and is in step with their abominable record of human rights violations.
These murders, every bit as evil as the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January 2015, might seem far away, but in fact there is a strong Australian connection. The most important figure in Afghanistan's free media is an Australian of Afghan origin, Saad Mohseni, who was responsible for developing TOLO TV, following the huge success of his FM station Radio Arman. In a country where the number of mobile phones has boomed, Radio Arman has given opportunities for the previously voiceless to become talkback callers, and in a much more mature and sophisticated environment than Australian commercial talkback offers. Similarly, TOLO TV, drawing for its staff on a new generation of globalised Afghans, provides Afghanistan's best news service, and hosts high-quality political discussions.
Nor is this the first time that Australian civilians or Afghan civilians linked to Australian enterprises have been struck by the Taliban. In September 2014, another Australian, Sayed Habib Mousawi, was murdered in rural Afghanistan. The deputy governor of the province of Ghazni, where the killing occurred, remarked that "Of course the reason is that he was an Afghan-Australian … He came from a country that the Taliban thinks is an infidel country." And in December 2014, a distinguished Australian musicologist with a PhD from Monash University, Dr Ahmad Sarmast, was badly injured when a suicide bomber attacked a theatrical performance at the French-supported Istiqlal High School. The Taliban also attacked a UN guesthouse in Kabul in late 2009, killing five staff, as well as Kabul restaurants popular with aid workers (including Australians) such as the Taverna du Liban (in January 2014) and Le Jardin (in January 2016).
Attacks of this sort plainly fall within an everyday definition of terrorism – violent attacks against non-combatants for a political purpose with a view to creating a disproportionate psychological impact on the wider population. They also fall within the definition of a terrorist act in the Australian Criminal Code, which includes an action or threat of action where the action causes serious physical harm to a person; or causes serious damage to property; or causes a person's death; and is done with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause; and with the intention of coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of a foreign country or intimidating the public or a section of the public. An organisation may be listed as a "terrorist organisation" if the Attorney-General is satisfied on reasonable grounds that the organisation is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting in or fostering the doing of a terrorist act; or advocates the doing of a terrorist act.
Significant consequences flow from such listing. As the government's National Security website puts it: "Under Division 102 of the Criminal Code, it is an offence to do things such as direct the activities of, be a member of, recruit for, provide training to, receive training from or participate in training with, provide funds to or receive funds from or provide support to, a terrorist organisation. It is also an offence to associate with a member of a listed terrorist organisation in certain circumstances where such association intentionally provides support to that organisation." The website further states that "information indicating links to Australia or threats to Australian interests may tend to prioritise consideration of listing a particular group as a terrorist organisation".
It is therefore astounding that the Australian government has not seen fit to include the Afghan Taliban in its list of designated terrorist organisations. This oversight should be remedied at once. It is not a matter only of symbolic importance. While an Australian fighting on the Taliban's side would be liable to prosecution under the Crimes (Foreign Incursions and Recruitment) Act 1978, adding the Taliban to the terrorist organisation list would make it clear that providing funds to support the Taliban would be a serious terrorism offence, not simply a violation of the Australian laws that implement UN Security Council sanctions against the Taliban imposed by resolutions 1988, 2082 and 2160, where lighter penalties apply.
The Australian government faces a choice. It can show solidarity with the Taliban movement by continuing to leave it off the list of designated terrorist organisations. Or it can show solidarity with the victims of the Taliban movement by listing it immediately. For a government serious about combating terrorism, it should be an easy choice to make.
*William Maley is professor of diplomacy, and David Savage a visiting fellow, at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. Professor Maley is author of The Afghanistan Wars (2009). Mr Savage, a former officer of the Australian Federal Police, served in Afghanistan with the Australian Civilian Corps, and has also worked with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.