On the morning of May 9, nearly three years ago, two armed men came to the home of an ex-president of Afghanistan’s Olympic Committee. The men demanded money, saying they were armed police, but instead asked if the officials had hidden weapons in the house. They then forced the athletes, officials and family members out the door and into vehicles.
As they departed, they made clear: The next time, “It will be different.”
But the family took the warning seriously. They contacted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office and told him that their home in Kabul was under threat. As soon as he took office, he created the Special Protection Unit, or SPU, an elite unit modeled after the successful Brussels Motorcycle Squad that was formed after the Feb. 1994 terrorist attacks in that Belgian capital.
Ghani’s top security adviser, Mohammed Ayub Stanekzai, a former Afghan police chief, encouraged the SPU to take action. “Everyday we felt relieved,” said Maiwand Kabiri, head of the Olympic Committee in the capital.
The team of nearly 300 “militia volunteers” was created to aid a counter-terrorism initiative launched after the Sept. 11 attacks. It was assigned to protect embassies and foreign organizations. But the team’s mission expanded in February 2015, when Ghani asked for a force to assist in protecting Afghan athletes, officials and their families. The team was authorized to help in 9,000 attacks, said Nangyaran Habibi, a former member of the SPU who oversees the Olympic Committee’s security program.
The SPU volunteers trained in helicopters and land for some weeks before combat missions. Today, the team is led by Yahya Jamal Habibi, the former commander of the Swiss force, and Khalil Mujahed, the son of the late ex-deputy Afghan president, Said Habibi.
To allow the team to travel around the country, each has a driver. Members of the force patrolled the streets, including at key airports, and played “hide and seek” with drug traffickers, Shamshad Shah, another volunteer, said.
The SPU began working with 40 Olympic Committee officials and family members. They helped contact more than 500 athletes and were paid $350 a month. By the spring of 2015, the SPU had helped arrange for the 130 athletes and volunteers to leave the country. Many of the team’s families had already left. But the SPU got rid of the security threats. Most returned to the country, and the international Olympic Committee’s decision to bring the games back in 2014, despite the insurgency, was a sign that things were beginning to turn around.
“We were like ragtag group of volunteers,” said Shahzad Agha, the co-ordinator of the SPU, which is run by the Afghan Ministry of Public Security. “But we managed it.”