Much of the world watched in horror as the Taliban cemented its takeover of Afghanistan this week. But in darker corners of the internet, far-right extremists, including Donald Trump supporters, white nationalists, and neo-Nazi terror groups, which often push Islamophobic messages, celebrated the fact that an underequipped insurgent group could defeat a great power — and one commanded by a Democratic president.
Now experts are warning that the scenes of the past week and the failed US-led 20-year war in the country will likely be used by such extremists as recruitment tools to push misinformation, grow their ranks, and fuel organizing.
“The political backlash from the US troop withdrawal has been leveraged by White nationalists to support their claim of the illegitimacy and ineptitude of the Biden administration as well as calls to reinstate Donald Trump as president,” Sara Kamali, a scholar and author of Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States, told BuzzFeed News in written comments.
One such white nationalist is Nick Fuentes, a 23-year-old vlogger and antisemite who cheered on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and has an ally in Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona. Seemingly praising the Taliban as “a conservative, religious force,” Fuentes told his 42,000 subscribers on Telegram on Monday, “The defeat of the US government in Afghanistan is unequivocally a positive development.”
Islamophobia has been weaponized by white nationalists like Fuentes for recruitment and propaganda, making his support for the Taliban’s militant Islamist worldview all the more intriguing. But Kamali said it’s notable “because he is reifying the White nationalist narrative of victimhood by supporting that of militant Islamists, specifically as mutual targets of American government aggression.”
“This shared narrative of victimhood, in turn, sanctions the war many White nationalists view themselves as fighting against the US government, people of color, and immigrants to be holy, righteous, and necessary,” she added.
In April, President Joe Biden set a goal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks that drew the US into the country’s longest war. In the months following, Biden said the collapse of the Afghan government and military was unlikely to happen as quickly as it did this week, even though US spy agencies were warning privately that the outlook was grim.
Then, one by one over the past week, Taliban fighters seized cities and government buildings, finally taking the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The only territory not under the Taliban’s control is a section of the Kabul airport, where the US and other Western nations are frantically trying to evacuate thousands of desperate Afghans scrambling to flee the Islamist insurgents.
Meanwhile, on Telegram and other encrypted social media apps, extremists like Fuentes watched with excited anticipation as the Biden administration’s debacle seemed to grow worse by the hour and the Taliban tightened its grip on Afghanistan.
“To be honest, the Taliban is epic,” wrote a far-right vlogger associated with a violent neo-Nazi group who was at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in a post, first reported by VICE, on Telegram on Monday that has since been viewed more than 20,000 times. “The US had to invade in the early 2000’s and stay over 20 years, spending $1 trillion dollars, and dozens of American lives to hold them back. As soon as we left, the Taliban takes over the whole country in like 12 hours. LMAO.”
Dozens of similar posts were shared by various extremist groups and figures, and while still praising the Taliban, their racism, hate of the Middle East, and antisemitic views were readily apparent.
“I think Islam is poisonous,” began a post, first reported by VICE, in a Telegram channel linked to the neofascist street brawling club the Proud Boys with over 50,000 subscribers. “BUT, these farmers and minimally trained men fought to take their nation back from [Western neoliberals]. They took back their government, installed their national religion as law, and executed dissenters. Hard to not respect that.”
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On Twitter, Kathleen Belew, an expert on the US white power movement and author of Bring the War Home, wrote that the images of the evacuation of the US Embassy in Kabul call directly back to the fall of Saigon in 1975, a moment used “to fuel decades, if not generations, of organizing.”
“It will not take much for them to slide old recruitment strategies into this new context,” she said. “Furthermore, the frustrations of veterans of the Global War on Terror and especially Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan about what this means ... will make some of them available for recruitment and radicalization.”
Kamali echoed that, telling BuzzFeed News that “Ghost Skins,” or past and present members of the military and law enforcement who don’t openly display their white nationalist beliefs but are part of the complex makeup of extremist groups, could be susceptible to militarization.
“Though the blood of US military personnel was not shed to the extent of the Afghan military in the fight against the Taliban, there is certainly resentment from American servicemembers and veterans about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan,” she said. “The mental and physical anguish endured, including lives lost, has also been interpreted as being for naught.”
“This anti-government resentment will be another weapon in the arsenal of White nationalists to further recruit Ghost Skins,” she added.
Reports of US veterans, contractors, and others voicing their criticism of events in Afghanistan are being shared just about everywhere. And the military and law enforcement agencies are known to have problems with extremists in their ranks. At least 62 people arrested for allegedly participating in the Capitol riot are current or former military members, and at least 15 were either former police officers or active law enforcement officers at the time. However, as Belew noted, this doesn’t mean they are all susceptible to extremist recruitment.
But some extremists who have military ties are already exploiting recent events.
In a video published on BitChute on Sunday as the Taliban was seizing city after city, the founder of neo-Nazi domestic terror group the Base and a former contractor for the Department of Homeland Security in Afghanistan told US extremists whose goal it is to foment the collapse of society, “we need to think bigger [and] try or organize on a regional level” like the Taliban has done.
Update: This post has been updated to reflect that certain extremist quotes were first reported by VICE.