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Ex-Taliban cmdr. charged with murdering 3 US troops to face trial in NY court

Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C. in July 2012. (Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons)
October 08, 2021

On Thursday, the Department of Justice charged a former Taliban commander with killing three U.S. service members in a series of terrorism charges and he now faces trial in a New York federal court.

Haji Najibullah, the accused Taliban commander, was charged with a list of terrorism charges stemming from the time he acted as a commander for Taliban forces in Afghanistan, from 2007 to 2009, the DOJ said. Najibullah is charged with murdering U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew L. Hilton and Sgt. 1st Class Joseph A. McKay, and Sgt. Mark Palmateer and their Afghan interpreter in a June 26, 2008, attack on a U.S. military convoy.

The DOJ stated that in his role as a Taliban commander, Najibullah led more than a thousand fighters, acted as times as a spokesperson for the Taliban and reported to senior Taliban leaders. 

In addition to the killings of the three service members, Najibullah is also charged with supporting terrorism, destroying a U.S. military aircraft, conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction and the November 2008 kidnapping of a U.S. journalist and two Afghan nationals. While holding him captive in Pakistan, the kidnappers forced the journalist to make several videos and phone calls for help, including a call to his wife and a video begging for his life while a guard pointed a gun at his face.

The DOJ did not specifically identify the U.S. journalist, but the details of the case match the kidnapping of New York Times journalist David Rohde. Rohde escaped his Taliban kidnappers in June of 2009, after eight months in captivity.

The charges are now being brought against Najibullah after he was arrested by Ukrainian authorities in October of 2020 and subsequently extradited to the U.S.

“As alleged, during one of the most dangerous periods of the conflict in Afghanistan, Haji Najibullah led a vicious band of Taliban insurgents who terrorized part of Afghanistan and attacked U.S. troops,” Audrey Strauss, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a DOJ press statement. “One of these lethal attacks resulted in the deaths of three brave American service members and their Afghan interpreter, and another attack brought down a U.S. helicopter. Najibullah also arranged to kidnap at gunpoint an American journalist and two other men and held them hostage for more than seven months.”

“Neither time nor distance can weaken our resolve to hold terrorists accountable for their crimes and to see justice done for their victims,” Strauss added. “Thanks to the outstanding work of our law enforcement partners, Najibullah will answer for his heinous acts in an American courtroom.”

In total, Najibullah is charged with conspiring to provide material support for acts of terrorism resulting in death; providing material support for acts of terrorism resulting in death; conspiring to murder U.S. nationals; murdering U.S. nationals Hilton, McKay, and Palmateer; murdering officers and employees of the United States, and a person assisting them in their duties, by killing Hilton, McKay, Palmateer, and their interpreter; attempting to murder officers and employees of the United States; conspiring to destroy U.S. military aircraft; destroying a U.S. military aircraft; conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction; conspiring to take hostages; hostage-taking; conspiring to commit kidnapping; and kidnapping.

Count five, murdering officers and employees of the United States, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.

Counts one through five and nine through 13 each carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. Counts six through eight each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment.