A lawyer representing the famous Afghan Girls Robotics Team has sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that an Oklahoma woman stop claiming she personally rescued them from the Taliban, the Washington Post reported.
In recent weeks, the Taliban, an ultra-reactionary, armed Islamic fundamentalist group that was in power from 1996 to 2001, has capitalized on President Joe Biden’s decision to end the 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and pull out all U.S. troops by the end of August. It has swiftly consolidated control of virtually the entire country, save a U.S. garrison evacuating civilians at the airport in Kabul and small pockets of scattered resistance mostly put up by ex-government forces trying to avoid summary execution.
The Taliban is notorious for its previous turn in power, which was hallmarked by brutality and harsh oppression of women. That drew considerable concern for the safety of the world-renowned team, which is made of girls 12-18 who would never have been permitted to study engineering under the Taliban’s prior regime and became a prominent example of how life had changed for the better for many Afghan women after their ouster.
According to the Post, entrepreneur and Mars Explore board member Allyson Reneau said that she first met members of the robotics team at a space conference in DC in 2019 and continued to remain in touch. In a Today.com story with the original clickbait-y headline “Oklahoma mom of 11 helps rescue 10 girls on Afghanistan’s robotics team,” Reneau described being unable to sleep considering the girls’ potential fate before deciding she was “just going to fly to Qatar—like a leap of faith—and see what I can do.” Ultimately Reneau never flew to Qatar and ended up working with a contact at the U.S. embassy in Qatar to help secure paperwork for the team’s emigration.
That Today story has since received a major rewrite emphasizing that the girls “rescued themselves,” that the robotics team’s parent organization the Digital Citizen Fund had been working with the Qatari government since early August, and that it was “unclear how much [Reneau and the embassy worker’s] efforts helped.” The Post story also reports that that Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ibrahim AlHashmi said the Qatari government directly coordinated the evacuation with the Digital Citizen Fund, that their ambassador to Afghanistan was the one to pick the girls up, and that Qatari officials had never heard from Reneau.
As the Post noted, though, the Today narrative was the one that caught on, with laudatory coverage on CNN, an NBC affiliate in Oklahoma, countless aggregated posts, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal—which went so far as to suggest Biden give her a job in charge of the evacuation effort. (Gizmodo also quoted from an interview Reneau gave to CNBC in mid-August.) Reneau has also told outlets she will continue to work towards rescuing other girls still in Afghanistan and raised $50,000 for those efforts via Facebook. Here’s one choice example from the Post story, in which Reneau was interviewed by right-wing talking head Glenn Beck:
She said has been inundated with requests from Afghan women since her media tour and is working with a former NASA general counsel and a Yale Law School team, and has “an extraction team on the ground” in Afghanistan. “I’m not going to leave one behind,” she told conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck on Tuesday. “The one thing I’m missing is planes.”
Beck, who has an organization working on evacuating Christians and other religious minorities from the country, said he could provide the planes if she gets evacuees to the tarmac.
The Afghan Girls Robotics Team is not happy about the narrative that’s built up and would like Reneau to stop talking to media.
“Continuingly recycling old pictures with the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, many of whom are minors, as validation that you had anything to do with their immensely stressful and dangerous escape not only impacts the safety of the girls but it also significantly affects the safety of the members of the team who still remain in Afghanistan,” Kim Motley, a Digital Citizen Fund board member who also serves as the team’s lawyer, wrote in a letter to Reneau after midnight on Wednesday, according to the Post. “It is highly unfortunate that you would use such a tragically horrible situation… for what appears to be your own personal gain.”
AlHashmi, the Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson, was even blunter. He told the Post, “She took the agency from the girls and she claimed credit. The media let her be a White savior, claiming the girls were saved by her.”
AlHashmi added, “They came to global attention because of their work … so it should be about them and their courage and the work they have done. This should be the story that the media is focusing on, not a woman who is thousands of miles away who is claiming credit.”
Los Angeles-based Afghan community organizer Arash Azizzada told the paper that “family members of the robotics team have been in touch with me, asking me for assistance with evacuating their extended family because the media coverage has now put them in danger and they are now fearing retribution by the Taliban.”
Reneau was unapologetic in her response to the Post.
“I’m above board, and if you don’t tell the truth, then you have nothing else to show for it,” she told the paper. Despite the “blowback,” Reneau added, “The attention I’ve gotten has allowed me to help other Afghan women, so I don’t see any reason for me to stop.”