Numerous Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, promoted a false claim on Monday and Tuesday that the Taliban had just executed a man by hanging him from a helicopter.
Cruz and Crenshaw, among other conservatives, shared a video that had been tweeted by a self-described “comedian” who goes by the Twitter handle @Holbornlolz. The video, which was somewhat blurry, showed a man dangling from a rope attached to a helicopter. The “comedian” inaccurately captioned the video: “Taliban hanging someone from a helicopter in Kandahar.”
Cruz added his own assertion above the comedian’s tweet, tweeting: “This horrifying image encapsulates Joe Biden’s Afghanistan catastrophe: The Taliban hanging a man from an American Blackhawk helicopter. Tragic. Unimaginable.” Crenshaw also used the video to criticize Biden’s withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan, tweeting: “In what f***ing world was it a good idea to just hand over a country to these people.”
Some popular Twitter accounts went so far as to make declarations about the identity of the person supposedly being executed. Indian journalist Sudhir Chaudhary, who has more than 6 million Twitter followers, wrote, “Taliban hang a person, presumed to be an American interpreter, from a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter.”
Facts First: Nobody was executed on the Kandahar helicopter flight depicted in the viral videos. Other footage shows that the man dangling from the helicopter was wearing a harness around his body, not a noose around his neck, and that he was moving freely – even appearing to wave.
CNN could not immediately confirm what exactly the man in the harness was doing. But Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist who fled the country in the evacuation of late August, tweeted on Tuesday: “Afghan pilot flying this is someone I have known over the years. He was trained in the US and UAE, he confirmed to me that he flew the Blackhawk helicopter. Taliban fighter seen here was trying to install Taliban flag from air but it didn’t work in the end.”
The Afghan news agency Aśvaka, which recorded its own video of the helicopter flight, told the Indian fact check website Alt News that its team had confirmed that the person attached to the helicopter “was controlled and hanging from the helicopter to fix the flag at the governor’s building in Kandahar.”
Cruz deleted his false tweet on Tuesday afternoon, after various journalists posted fact checks on Twitter and CNN had reached out to his office via email. Cruz acknowledged in a subsequent tweet that the claim about the Taliban hanging a man from a helicopter “may be inaccurate” – though he included the inaccurately captioned video from the “comedian” in his correction tweet.
The origins of the video
The Taliban’s history of brutal executions is well-documented. But there was never any basis for the claims that this particular video depicted a helicopter execution.
When a video of the helicopter flight was posted on a pro-Taliban Twitter account on Monday morning, the account – which was suspended by Twitter on Tuesday – offered no indication that there was an execution. The account’s caption was this: “Our Air Force! At this time, the Islamic Emirate’s air force helicopters are flying over Kandahar city and patrolling the city.”
The “comedian” then posted a video clip that was taken from the account of counterterrorism analyst Faran Jeffery. But Jeffrey’s caption had also said nothing about an execution; he simply wrote: “I swear I don’t know what’s going on here.” The “comedian” added the “hanging” caption.
Then the video took off – receiving millions of views on social media, generating inaccurate headlines in the Indian press and prompting inaccurate tweets from numerous American conservatives.
These conservatives included Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, congressional candidate Robby Starbuck, commentator Wayne Dupree, pastor Greg Locke, National Review journalist Jim Geraghty, former congressional candidate Chuck Callesto and Fox News host Sean Hannity and analyst Gregg Jarrett – though Hannity and Jarrett did hedge by claiming the video “appears” to show an execution.
It’s worth noting that the exterior of the helicopter in the video strongly suggests it had been in possession of the Afghan armed forces before it was seized by the Taliban, not left behind by the US military. In other words, it was almost certainly not one of the pieces of equipment left behind by the US military during the evacuation. The Pentagon says the departing troops rendered that aircraft inoperable.
Cruz’s office and Smith’s office did not immediately respond to Tuesday requests for comment. A Crenshaw spokesman, Justin Discigil, said he would get back to CNN for comment on this fact check only if we accepted his demand to do a fact check of separate comments made by Biden.