Bounties offered to Taliban-linked militants by a Russian military intelligence unit are believed to have resulted in the deaths of an undetermined number of U.S. service members, according to multiple reports.
The bounties, first reported Friday by The New York Times, were offered secretly for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence officials concluded.
The intelligence was gleaned from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants, The Washington Post reported. Officials said that was bolstered by electronic data which showed large amounts of money being transferred from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, according to the Times.
Update 2:15 p.m. EDT June 30: Unidentified officials told The New York Times on Tuesday that American officials intercepted data that suggested Russia was paying Taliban-linked militants for killing U.S. and coalition forces.
The data showed large sums of money being transferred from an account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to one linked to the Taliban, according to the Times. Analysts determined the transfers were likely part of a bounty program that detainees had told U.S. interrogators about, the newspaper reported.
Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the American intelligence community that Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.
President Donald Trump has denied having any knowledge of the bounty program despite officials telling multiple news outlets, including The Associated Press, that mention of the program was made in at least one of the president’s written daily intelligence briefings in 2019.
Update 11:12 p.m. EDT June 29: American officials provided U.S. President Donald Trump in late February with a written briefing that detailed their conclusion linking the Russian military intelligence unit to the bounties, The New York Times reported late Monday.
According to the Times, the investigation has focused in part on an April 2019 car bombing that killed three Marines as one such potential incentivized killing.
The latest report emerged after the White House on Monday downplayed the intelligence assessment alluded to in the original Times report and reiterated Trump’s own claim that he was never briefed on the subject.
One of the officials cited in the Times’ latest report said the bounty information appeared in Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document, prepared for his review each day, in late February. Another official told the newspaper the item appeared specifically in the Feb. 27 briefing.
Original report: It was not immediately clear exactly how many U.S. deaths are being attributed to the suspected incentive program, but the Post reported a total of 10 U.S. service members died in the region from either hostile gunfire or improvised bombs in 2018. Another 16 were killed in the same manner in 2019, and two have died in 2020 to date.
In addition, several service members were also killed each of those years by what are known as “green on blue” incidents, involving members of Afghan security forces, which the Post reported are sometimes believed to have been infiltrated by Taliban forces.
According to the Times, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded several months ago that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency offered the bounties for successful attacks on coalition forces to further destabilize the region.
The GRU unit allegedly involved has also been linked to the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a nerve agent in Salisbury, England, in March 2018, BBC News reported.
Although the Times reported that U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed on the reports in March, he has denied having any knowledge of the intelligence.
Likewise, White House formally denied on Saturday the president had any knowledge of the matter as did John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, NPR reported.
Meanwhile, the Russian embassy in the United States accused the newspaper of promoting fake news.
Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the existence of the program, the Post reported, and a spokesman for the Taliban called the accusations baseless.
“Our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” Zabihullah Mujahid told the Times, adding that Taliban forces ceased attacks on U.S. and NATO forces after agreeing in February to a phased troop withdrawal and to lift sanctions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.