In her last tweet, three days ago, Anja Niedringhaus shared a story by an Afghan journalist, writing about the recent death of his friend and colleague Sardar Ahmed, an Agence France-Presse photographer who was killed with his wife and two children, along with five others, when Taliban fighters stormed Kabul's Serena Hotel in March.
Today, Niedringhaus, herself a celebrated photographer for the Associated Press who had covered Afghanistan for years, was also shot and killed — reportedly by an Afghan police commander. Her colleague, reporter Kathy Gannon, was wounded in the attack.
The shootings of two of the most distinguished foreign reporters in Afghanistan rocked the journalist community there, which was still mourning the loss of Ahmed. But the attack also put the country’s expats on edge, once again, as it came on the heels of a long string of attacks that have targeted them — including in Kabul, which had until recently been considered relatively safe.
Afghans will take to the polls tomorrow in what is going to be a highly watched election. But the Taliban have pledged to disrupt the ballot, and have so far done their best to do so, with almost daily attacks in the last few weeks.
Against a backdrop of increased media vitality in Afghanistan — but also increased violence against journalists, particularly Afghans — Niedringhaus’s killing marks the fourth violent death of a journalist there since the beginning of the year.
Nils Horner, a British-Swedish reporter, was shot and killed in Kabul in March, in an attack that appeared to be unrelated to his profession, and Afghan journalist Noor Ahmed Noori was killed in January, his mutilated body left in a plastic bag.
'Niedringhaus leaves behind a body of work that won awards and broke hearts.'
“With the run up to this election, unlike the last one, we have seen more journalists being either attacked or killed in the midst of major attacks,” Ashley Jackson, an Afghanistan researcher at the Humanitarian Policy Group, told VICE News. “Now with Kathy and Anja, it seems very clear to me that this is kind of a new thing. They’re targeting observers, and then all these attacks on journalists, send a very clear message that we don’t want anyone watching."
Two of the three major international observer missions have pulled out of the country because of the violence, leaving many to fear widespread fraud, she added.
“I think whether or not it’s intentional, it’s going to make a lot of journalists, both international and Afghan, think about their safety, and maybe not go out. That’s concerning because in 2009, it was really the journalists who were so vocal about the fraud,” Jackson said. “We know there’s going to be fraud. The real question is, if there aren’t observers or journalists, is there anyone there to watch it?”
But today's shooting was the first known instance of an insider attack on journalists, although it was not immediately clear if Niedringhaus and Gannon were targeted as journalists or simply as foreigners. The attack, some said, was reminiscent of the “green on blue” violence that had been on the decline in Afghanistan, as foreign troops gradually withdrew from the country.
“We don’t know exactly what happened, but in previous years there were a lot of what they call ‘green on blue’ attacks: Afghan security forces, police or soldiers, just spontaneously deciding to attack the international forces that worked with them,” Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Kabul, told VICE News. “The green on blue phenomenon has simply been dying a natural death as troops withdraw. We’ll see as the details emerge, but this might be an unfortunate holdover from that phenomenon.”
More than 60 coalition troops died at the peak of insider attacks, in 2012 — which prompted NATO to reduce joint operations with Afghan forces, according to the AP. But journalists embedding with Afghan forces, so far, had been spared.
At the time of the attack, Niedringhaus and Gannon were in a car in the heavily guarded compound in eastern Afghanistan, where they had traveled with a convoy of election workers that were delivering ballots in the city of Khost. A freelancer who witnessed the shooting said that a unit commander named Naqibullah opened fire on them with his AK-47, before surrendering to other officers there.
The Taliban denied any involvement in Friday’s shooting, but in the past they attempted to take credit for similar insider attacks.
“The Taliban always claimed that those were the work of a long infiltration campaign, but as best as we can tell that’s bullshit, pretty much. It was mostly just ordinary members of the security forces who, for whatever reason, got angry about some particular foreigners they were dealing with, or with the whole idea of the foreign presence,” Smith said. “The Taliban said they're also targeting journalists, but the Taliban say all kinds of things, not all necessarily true."
'This attack is a huge loss for Afghanistan.'
“Some of those attacks have just been pure frustration, no Taliban involvement, just Afghans who have been so disillusioned and angry with what they see as the international community’s failures. There is an increasing anti-foreign sentiment, and anger among ordinary Afghans,” Jackson also said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what that means for the international community’s capacity to advocate for free and fair elections, because they don’t hold as much weight anymore. They’re all leaving, all disengaging.”
Some reports suggested that Friday's attack might have been in retaliation for a US airstrike that killed members of the gunman's family in a province north of Kabul.
“It is ironic because both of these reporters are humanitarians," Kate Clark, a freelance journalist who worked with Niedringhaus told CBC. "They've done lots of work to uncover atrocities committed by all sides in this conflict."
The killing also sparked some controversy among journalists in Afghanistan, some of whom shared news of the attack on social media, reportedly before the families of the two women were notified.
Tributes for Niedringhaus were all over news sites and social media on Friday, and several organizations reposted images from her rich coverage of Afghanistan — including her recent photo essays on Afghan women and the election.
The AP said that Niedringhaus was injured several times on assignment and escaped many “close calls,” including in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
But colleagues said she did what she loved. Anne Barnard, a New York Times correspondent in Beirut, had worked with Niedringhaus in Iraq, and recently reconnected with her when covering peace talks in Geneva.
“For once on safe assignment stalking politicians in hallways,” Barnard tweeted, in a tribute to her colleague. “She hated it.”
“Anja Niedringhaus faced down some of the world's greatest dangers and had one of the world's most infectious laughs. She photographed dying and death, and embraced humanity and life,” her colleagues at the AP wrote in her obituary. “Niedringhaus leaves behind a body of work that won awards and broke hearts.”
The attack also drew widespread condemnation, including by UN officials in Afghanistan, who called it “abhorrent.”
“This attack is a huge loss for Afghanistan,” Jan Kubis, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “Both journalists were highly respected and were very well known for their professionalism, love, and appreciation of the Afghan people, and dedication to telling Afghanistan's story.”
The attack also sent shock waves among foreigners in Afghanistan — at least those who have not already left after the recent surge in violence.
'For us as Afghans, foreign aid and foreign presence in Afghanistan meant that they were standing with us, shoulder to shoulder.'
“Some internationals have been taking vacations or been encouraged to take vacations over the election period, and some organizations have locked down their staff inside their compounds,” Smith said, though the exodus has been smaller than in previous elections. “We haven’t seen the kind of evacuation of foreigners that has happened after some attacks in previous years, when whole UN agencies basically emptied out and went to Dubai or elsewhere.”
But recent violence in Kabul — including deadly attacks at La Taverna restaurant and the Serena Hotel, as well as a guesthouse used by foreigners — left expats there feeling on edge.
“It also would make sense that the insurgency would see the election as a foreign party that they want to spoil, and so they are hitting the foreigners in Kabul, and really not going after the campaigns as much as you’d expect,” Smith said. “The campaigns have been holding these big noisy rallies in relatively undefended areas but those haven’t come under attack.”
The rush to the exit, however, is not only tied to pre-election violence, but also to a gradual withdrawal of NGOs — and funding — that will likely follow the troops out of the country.
And while some in Afghanistan — and not just the Taliban — want the foreigners out, many others worry about a future without them.
“For us, foreigners was not just the military,” Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan politician and prominent feminist activist, told VICE News. “For us as Afghans, foreign aid and foreign presence in Afghanistan meant that they were standing with us, shoulder to shoulder, to build democracy, to have a prosperous Afghanistan, to implement human rights, and to dream.”
“That’s why I’m very much worried,” she added. “How will things get shaped now? How will it be?”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi