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Taleban Attack Hotel to Drive Foreigners Out

Insurgents stage a shocking assault on Kabul’s Serena Hotel, and claim success for their new tactics.
By IWPR Afghanistan

As Kabul reels from a violent attack on the luxurious five-star Serena Hotel, the Taleban are in jubilant mood.



“We have said that we will show the world the weakness of the Kabul administration,” crowed Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mojahed in a telephone interview with IWPR. “If we can carry out an operation like this right at Karzai’s feet, what is to stop us from reaching any target we choose?”



The Serena is a stone’s throw from the presidential palace; a mere 50 metres separates the scene of the attack from Karzai’s residence.



Details of the attack are still in dispute, but the outlines are clear. At a little after 6 pm on the evening of January 14, four armed men in police uniforms approached the heavily fortified gate of the Kabul Serena Hotel.



One of them opened fire, killing a guard. When a second guard returned fire, the gunman detonated his explosive vest, killing himself.



In the ensuing confusion, at least two others entered the compound, gaining access to the hotel lobby. There the second man blew himself up, blasting ball bearings throughout the area and killing or wounding several people in addition to himself.



A third man ran to the spa area, where foreigners were working out in the gym or relaxing in the sauna. Along the way, he sprayed bullets at anyone he saw, gravely injuring a spa worker, a Filipina who managed the facility. The woman later died.



It is not clear whether the fourth man actually entered the Serena, although the Taleban spokesman claimed that he was following behind the others with a video camera.



“Our people in the hotel fired their guns until they ran out of bullets,” said Mojahed. “One of our men was filming, but he left the camera at the hotel.”



The Taleban spokesman boasted that the attack killed 35 people, both foreign and Afghan.



The official tally was more modest. According to Amrullah Saleh, head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security, NDS, six people died in the attack, including the Afghan guard, three Americans, one Norwegian journalist, and the Filipina spa worker, whom he incorrectly identified as French.



The United States embassy has confirmed that one American died; the nationalities of the others is not known. Other reports have listed seven dead.



People evacuated from the hotel described pools of blood, lifeless bodies, falling plaster and bullet holes. The hotel was cordoned off, with guests and visitors evacuated. The NDS took command while police patrolled the perimeter.



Much of the capital was in lockdown mode on January 15, as Afghan security forces briefed the press on the progress of their investigation.



“Within 15 minutes of the attack, the security forces had established control,” said NDS head Saleh. “We arrested the third attacker, and we have asked him a lot of questions.”



This third man, named as Salauddin, was in the process of shedding his police uniform and explosive vest when he was detained. He had, according to Saleh, changed his mind about committing suicide.



The NDS was able to establish the identity of all four attackers, said Saleh. Based on Salauddin’s testimony, the operation was planned by Mullah Abdullah, who is living in Miramshah across the border in Pakistan, close to the Afghan province of Khost.



Abdullah recruited the men, who, in addition to Salauddin, were named as Faroq and Zaimullah - both of whom died in the attack - and a fourth man identified as Hamayoun.



Saleh said Hamayoun was responsible for organising the assault locally, and it was he who furnished the explosives.



According to the Taleban spokesman, he was also the one filming.



By the morning of January 15, the NDS had arrested Hamayoun and raided a safe house in Kabul where the four were apparently holed up for two days prior to the attack.



Saleh said his officers found a video camera at the house. He showed assembled reporters a clip showing Faroq, one of the suicide attackers.



“I am doing this for Allah,” said Faroq on film. “Not for any group or any person.”



The NDS chief said, “Now only one person is missing - this Abdullah. And we will try to find him and arrest him, too.”



On the evening of the attack, Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Stoere was attending a function at the hotel. He was unharmed in the attack, which appeared to target foreigners in general, rather than high-ranking diplomats.



The Australian embassy is also located at the Serena. Staff have evacuated the facility and have announced that they are relocating.



The NDS head insisted that the attack was a sign of the Taleban’s weakness.



“An enemy who cannot hold territory, an enemy who can find no refuge among the people, has no other recourse but suicide bombing. The Taleban cannot fight us face to face. So they continue killing people this way,” said Saleh.



But Mojahed was confident that the Taleban would hold sway. He told IWPR the assault was evidence of a change in tactics the insurgents announced at the end of 2007.



“We are going to stage these attacks in more and more places,” he said. “We targeted this hotel because there are foreigners there. We know that they are not military, but nevertheless, killing foreigners can put pressure on their armies to leave Afghanistan.



“The dead are victims of the activity of the foreign troops.”



He concluded, “All these attackers were Afghan. And we will drive the foreigners out of Afghanistan with Afghan blood.”



Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.