KABUL, Afghanistan – Stuffed toys languish on a shelf near the building’s entrance. Playground equipment remains dead still beside Taliban uniforms draped over the playpen fence to dry: glaring reminders of the nursery school that existed inside the faded pink walls just 10 days earlier.
The former school now serves as the new base of the Taliban’s elite special forces unit known as Badri 313 or the “Badri Command.” But it is not only home to the hardest of hard fighters, who roam the grounds clad in camouflage and touting an arsenal of American-made weapons, it is also for those training to become suicide – or martyrdom – bombers too.
“This Command has two parts,” one high-ranking fighter, whose name I later learn is Hafiz Badry, tells me in a low voice. “There are those who train to be special forces fighters and those who train to be special suicide bombers.”
After a little while of grappling, the senior unit leader agrees to let us inside. We pass through cracked concrete pathways where children used to play and into an office with an American M240 pointed to the door and chain links of ammunition on standby.
The battalion is heavily equipped with state-of-the-art American equipment, including camouflage uniforms, body armor, Humvees, night-vision goggles, M4 carbines, and M16s. For their sidearms, the men carry shiny new Glocks and 1911 hand pistols.
“We don’t have official training when we join the Taliban,” Badry, 29, a native of Helmand Province, explains with a laugh. “We just got the guns and got started.”
One has to “have done special actions designed for this command” before being picked for training, Badry explains.
As for the suicide bombers, he and a fellow top fighter, Kari Omadi Abdullah, 26, concur that they are overwhelmed with those wanting to be chosen for that esteemed cadre.
“It is not about the picking in this case. It is about the eagerness,” Badry says with enthusiasm. “There are some fighters who even come to us crying and begging, asking why we don’t pick them for the suicide squad.”
The men say that training lasts between 40 days and six months, depending on the mission, and involves intensive tactical work and religious studies.
Experts say most of the recruits come from poor families and are largely uneducated. Others were arrested by Afghan intelligence forces before they could carry out their assailments. Previous recruits have said their training programs entailed using long arms through the mountainside, but much of it came down to spiritual preparation and unbridled commitment to the cause.
One trained suicide bomber I spoke to in 2017, who was just 17 when he was ordered to attack the German Embassy in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in late 2016 but passed out and could not go through with it – the others on the attack team killed some six people and wounded more than 100 – said he was trained near the Pakistan border. The first weeks involved heavy Islamic teachings, followed by weapons and physical exercise.
The specialized unit operating out of the former Kabul nursery school is named in homage to the Battle of Badr some 1,400 years ago, they say, in which the Prophet Muhammad’s 313-person army clocked a military victory against a much larger Quraysh force. The squad is also said to be closely tied to the Haqqani network, which is allied to al-Qaeda. Moreover, the Haqqani Network has long endorsed the triumphs of the “Badri Army,” indicating it is all one of the same.
Estimates indicate that the special group comprises hundreds – if not thousands – of highly-trained, battle-wizened fighters. According to Badry, there are around 300 Special Forces in and around Kabul.
“Our schools are filled with fighters,” Omari says.
The men tell me the average age of the Badri fighters is between 25 and 30, and the suicide bombers are usually around 20 years old and above.
Indeed, suicide missions over the past decade became a staple of the then-insurgency group’s strategy to instill fear and eventually capture the country. Blowing oneself to bits in the name of martyrdom is viewed as a revered act. Even the son of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s new Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is reported to have been a suicide bomber.
Suicide attacks became commonplace after the first NATO mission withdrawal at the end of 2014. The carnage – which has chiefly targeted Afghan security forces – has been relentless. The Taliban have either claimed responsibility or been suspected of orchestrating attacks in recent years everywhere from police stations to Shia neighborhoods in Kabul’s rush hour, to outside an Afghan election office and most recently outside the residence of the Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, killing eight people just twelve days before they took the capital.
After Kabul crumbled into Taliban hands last month, the Taliban boasted that Badri 313 quickly secured the presidential palace and later took the helm around the Kabul Airport amid the frenzied US departure. The Badri troops even parodied the US in a social media post, recreating the iconic image of soldiers raising the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima in 1945 with a portrait of themselves hoisting the white-and-black Taliban flag in the triumph of Afghanistan.
And since their victory in taking prized Kabul, the men say they are inundated with requests to join.
“We have unlimited recruits. If we capture one thief, 40 people then come to collect our numbers to join, too,” Omari boasts, adding that they accept foreigners.
While the fighters are now echoing a message of “peace” in the conquered country, there is no indication that the suicide school will cease. The men also made it clear that their heavy weaponry and building up the air force is the next focus on the item agenda.
“We are going to be concentrating our training on the big arms, as well as the helicopters, jets, whatever is available,” Omari goes on. “We are training on these to show the world that we can do it.”
The new Taliban stockpile, courtesy of the defunct Afghan forces, features light attack aircraft and helicopters – including dozens of American Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Cessna Combat Caravan airplanes, possibly the C-130 Hercules and at least twelve intel-gathering Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, to name just a few.
On the grounds of the former school, fighters gather around the picnic rug with their rifles; some wear turbans and sandals with their camouflage, sporting beards and long hair. Others look more like they once belonged to the Afghan or even US army, with fresh chin stubble, hardened jawlines and tightly-laced combat boots. Their armored truck still bears the US sticker “Danger” across the back.
Outside the nondescript suicide base, fortified only by chipped lemon walls covered with graffiti, children push carts of spices and slabs of meat to and from the nearby market, and men ride rusty bikes along the cobblestone path without batting an eye.
No one seems to know about the secret squad inside. If they do, no one seems disturbed, only saddened.
“It used to have a beautiful park next door,” one onlooker says wistfully. “Now we stay inside.”