Seven armed United States civilians attempting to make their way to Afghanistan via the United Arab Emirates were arrested on August 31, a State Department cable reviewed by Newsweek said.
The group of U.S. nationals was detained last Tuesday and later released on bail by local police at Dubai International Airport after having “arrived on a private plane carrying firearms,” the cable said.
“The passengers reportedly planned to assist Afghanistan evacuation efforts but had no approved onward travels plans,” the cable read, adding that the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai was “engaging with authorities on the issue.”
By midnight that same day, August 31, the last U.S. military plane had departed Afghanistan, signaling the end to a two-decade war effort and a chaotic evacuation that involved both U.S. officials and private groups airlifting tens of thousands of people, mostly Afghan personnel who worked with the U.S. government throughout the conflict.
As the U.S. began to leave roughly a year a half after a peace accord with the Taliban, the group made nationwide gains and quickly took the capital, leaving Afghanistan once again under the control of the Islamic Emirate 20 years after the post-9/11 U.S.-led intervention.
But even as the U.S. extraction concluded, it appears some were poised to take matters into their own hands.
Contacted by Newsweek, the State Department confirmed the previously unreported arrest.
“We are aware of reports of U.S. citizens detained and then released in Dubai,” a State Department spokesperson said. “Whenever a U.S. citizen is detained overseas, we stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment at this time.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also confirmed that the situation had been brought to their attention.
“The FBI is aware of the matter but has no further comment at this time,” an FBI spokesperson told Newsweek.
The UAE’s embassy in Washington did not respond to Newsweek‘s request for comment.
News of the affair drew a stark response from U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres of New York, vice chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, who argued the group should be swiftly investigated to determine what exactly they planned to do and whether or not they may have ties to domestic fringe groups who regularly call for flaunting federal regulations.
“The attempt by armed Americans to enter Afghanistan for reasons unknown is cause for alarm,” Torres said in remarks sent to Newsweek. “The Department of Justice must investigate who these people are, what were their intentions and motivations, and what, if any, ties do these individuals have to extremism here at home.”
And while the plight of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies left behind has elicited the sympathy of many in the United States, those familiar with the precarious diplomatic efforts underway between Washington and a historic foe warned that unsanctioned actions by U.S. citizens or groups may do more harm than good.
One senior law enforcement official involved in counterterrorism and intelligence, who wished to remain anonymous, told Newsweek that such activities presented a “danger to existing operations and sources.”
“Also,” the official added, “it could potentially undermine liaison relationships that, in that region, can be tenuous even in a blue-sky environment.”
The official argued that the seven and others who may try to follow suit may raise unwanted attention from foreign countries, further complicating the already intractable endeavor of coordinating with the Taliban and other nations near and far.
“Other countries could launch ISR (intelligence collection, surveillance, and reconnaissance) operations that could undermine existing cooperation,” the official said. “They will likely face arrest, processing will begin, and the U.S. diplomatic apparatus will quietly move it along with a positive outcome.”
This diplomacy is particularly thorny given the limbo in which U.S. ties with Afghanistan now exist in the wake of the Taliban takeover. President Joe Biden‘s administration has acknowledged working with the Taliban as the de facto authorities in the country, but neither Washington nor any other global power has established official relations with the Islamic Emirate.
As a result, the impact of last week’s apprehension could cause both diplomatic and legal headaches, especially as some of those working in the capacity of private organizations throughout the hectic U.S. airlift out of Hamid Karzai International Airport that ended August 31 were revealed to be reserve U.S. military personnel.
For members of the U.S. armed forces, even those not on active duty, being caught conducting such illicit operations could have serious effects on their military security clearance.
“Being arrested in general, let alone in a country with which we no longer have existing diplomatic relations, would certainly raise red flags for Security,” national security attorney Brad Moss told Newsweek. “The circumstances of the decision to try and infiltrate Afghanistan will no doubt play a role in how security adjudicators view these decisions.”
Another potential casualty of such escapades is the reputation of other private groups undertaking legitimate means to assist in facilitating the exit of those who seek to flee Afghanistan. These groups, many of them involving U.S. military veterans who served alongside Afghan interpreters and personnel, now run the risk of being lumped together with murky efforts being pursued by unofficial, sometimes armed collectives in a country where the U.S. already has a troubled history of using defense contractors.
“There are many different ways for veterans to help Afghan refugees, but conducting rogue rescue operations isn’t one of them,” Naveed Shah, an Army veteran and government affairs associate for the Common Defense political action committee, told Newsweek.
“How many countries are they going through on the way there?” he asked. “Not only is it physically dangerous for all involved, but it also puts years of diplomacy in jeopardy. And what happens to the refugees afterward? Is anybody providing services, ensuring they have resources necessary to survive in a new place? There are more questions than answers.”
Shah gave credit to other organizations that have gone through painstaking lengths to coordinate harrowing exits from a war-torn country in turmoil.
“While running a rogue rescue operation may seem heroic, the real heroes are the refugee assistance groups who have been in the trenches for months trying to ensure the Afghan people have a real chance for a better life,” he said. “If you want to help, donate to those groups, and leave the rescuing to the active duty troops who have the strategic and operational responsibility right now. Stay out of their way.”
One such group that has led advocacy efforts to expedite the flight of partnered Afghans and their families leaving the country through the Special Immigrant Visa program is No One Left Behind. Greg Fairbank, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, serves on the group’s board of directors, and he eschewed the concept of armed individuals acting unilaterally even for a nominally noble cause.
“If asked if it would be a good idea for an NGO /humanitarian aid worker to travel, armed, to a conflict zone, my response would be, ‘As an NGO or humanitarian worker, you absolutely cannot be armed, you must be seen as a non-combatant,” Fairbank told Newsweek. “By arming oneself you are blurring the lines between humanitarian and combatant and putting you and your respective organization in tremendous legal and diplomatic jeopardy.”
He said that his organization, No One Left Behind, “is unequivocally against any of our personnel or those representing us to take up arms in any fashion while executing our mission.”
And he added that individuals with military backgrounds who chose to skirt authorization protocol and bear firearms were actually more of a potential threat to the legitimacy of the broader U.S. efforts to extract Afghans who want to leave.
“Interestingly, upon reflection,” he added, “I think the more military/operational experience the person has, the more this guidance applies (i.e., the more the person is trained militarily, if armed, the more likely they will be seen as a combatant).”
Maintaining a clearly defined line between aid worker and combatant is also critical to the missions of international organizations who provide assistance across the globe, including in Afghanistan. Among the foremost agencies in this field is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Spokesperson Chris Boian emphasized that the “UNHCR is strictly a neutral, apolitical, humanitarian agency.”
“Our ability to operate, to help deliver the emergency protection and assistance that we work to ensure for forcibly uprooted people around the world,” he told Newsweek, “depends on recognition of and respect for those basic principles that are at the core of our humanitarian mandate and that guide the work of UNHCR every day and everywhere.”
Any actions that violate these international standards, even on the part of other individuals and groups, and provoke the ruling power on the ground, in this case the Taliban in Afghanistan, could threaten the mission and risk the lives of aid workers such as those affiliated with UNHCR.
“We depend on those in control of any given area to ensure the security of our own staff, the staff of our partners and the safety of the civilian populations we work to assist,” Boian said.
Warnings regarding the potential harm done by such unauthorized actions were echoed by one former senior U.S. military official, who expressed frustration at the notion that some within military circles were bragging about their alleged contributions to the airlift operations.
“Nobody should seek publicity for this since it puts all the other teams in danger,” the former senior U.S. military official told Newsweek. “It puts a target on all their backs. It makes it pretty obvious what is motivating them, and it isn’t helping families.”
He likened the behavior to that of stolen valor, and noted a worrying trend.
“Before the [Osama] bin Laden raid, that was actually a total fiasco tactically, the Tier 1 stereotype was from that old movie: ‘Don’t thank us, we were never there,'” the former official said, paraphrasing the famous catchphrase from the 1990 film Navy Seals, which depicted a humble, covert culture of special operations.
“Now,” the former official added, “it has become, ‘You better thank us even if we weren’t there.'”