WATCH | The Taliban is threatening to target the American University of Afghanistan for kidnappings.
The Taliban’s recently released proof of life video of two professors taken hostage - one American and the other Australian - delivers a stark message to the Trump administration and acts as a warning from the militant group, whose spokesman has told Circa that they will kidnap more westerners and target the American University of Afghanistan if their demands are not met.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Circa that the militant group believes the school, which is a private non-profit organization funded mainly by USAID, is a hub for the CIA.
“The American University in Kabul is a CIA base, where many CIA agents are working as teachers,” Mujahid told Circa. “Both hostages are also CIA agents, so therefore we kidnapped them and have kept them hostages.”
On August 7, 2016 Taliban militants kidnapped professors Kevin King, 60, an American, and Timothy John Weeks, 48, of Australia as they were leaving the campus.
Later that month, the Taliban launched a multi-pronged attack on the university using a car bomb and automatic weapons, killing 13 people, including university students, police officers and professors. Dozens of people were wounded.
In the video, King and Weeks, who both appear against the backdrop of brown blinds, plead with President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull to negotiate for their freedom.
The key demand of the Taliban is the release of prisoners currently being held in an Afghan prison, and they have also asked for millions of dollars, as Circa reported in December.
“Have mercy on me and get me out but please do not send any commandos because that would threaten my life and my colleague's life,” King tells Trump. He is visibly parched, with dry lips and a long white beard.
Weeks, who appears to be reading from a script, asks the Turnbull to “negotiate with the Taliban - I know that you are able to do this, you have already freed one Australian captive and you left me here.”
Zabilhullah warned, “so I want to make clear that all foreigners who are working on this campus are working for intelligence and we will capture anyone who comes under our hands.”
Mujahid said the information regarding the university’s connection with the CIA was collected by the militant group’s own intelligence apparatus, citing the university's funding by the United States.
He would not discuss any interrogations of the hostages, only saying that Weeks and King are in good health.
But U.S. officials flatly deny that the university is in anyway connected to the CIA.
CIA spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak told Circa “these claims are baseless Taliban propaganda.”
A State Department official said they are still working to examine the video and are not currently in a position to comment on it.
“We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages,” the official said. “Taking and holding hostages is reprehensible and we condemn such actions in the strongest terms.”
The State Department official said the United States “is committed to seeing our citizens returned safely to their families and the Department works closely with agencies across the government to do so. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families involved.”
The American University in Afghanistan, which opened in 2006 with only 50 students, is now home to more than 1,700 students and dozens of employees, according to its website.
The school has 29 Fulbright Scholars and “maintains partnerships with the world’s most prestigious universities, including Stanford University, Georgetown University, and the University of California network,” according to its website.
For years, U.S. and Afghan officials have been attempting to negotiate the secure release of hostages held by the Afghanistan Taliban, whose direct ties to Pakistan’s Haqqani group, one of the most dangerous terror networks in the region, makes it formidable.
Secret backchannel negotiations stalled under the Obama administration but the Trump administration “has picked up where the last left off and is working diligently to find a resolution,” said a U.S. official with knowledge of the ongoing situation.
Weeks and King are not the only hostages being held by the Taliban.
Caity Coleman, of Pennsylvania, her husband, Joshua Boyle, of Canada, and their two young sons, both born in captivity, have been held hostage since 2011.
Still, years of negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban have faltered.
“Obama administration officials were in contact with us to release these professors and we put demands before them," Mujahid said, adding the administration was considering them but efforts failed once Obama’s term ended.
He said the Trump administration stopped the negotiations that were ongoing under Obama, “so that is the reason [the hostages] are still in captivity."
Last month, the university’s website, along with its Facebook page, posted a plea to the Taliban for King and Weeks' freedom.
"The American University of Afghanistan appeals for the immediate and unconditional release of our friends and colleagues, Kevin King and Timothy Weeks,” the university posted.
“Kevin and Tim are innocents. Both came here to teach young Afghans, helping them to contribute to the rebuilding efforts of Afghanistan. We call for their release now, unharmed, to join their families, friends, and colleagues."
You can follow Sara A. Carter @SaraCarterDC