The company, along with five other Western businesses is accused of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act by paying protection money to the Taliban, a designated terrorist organisation known to have been working with al-Qaeda.
The suit was filed in the federal court of the District of Columbia by American service members and civilians and their families who were killed or wounded in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2017.
“Defendants decided that buying off the terrorists was the most efficient way to operate their businesses while managing their own security risks — even though doing so jeopardised other American lives,” states the suit, which did not specify the quantum of damages being sought.
MTN Group and its wholly-owned subsidiaries, MTN Dubai and MTN Afghanistan, are listed as defendants. “MTN is reviewing the details of the report and is consulting its advisers but remains of the view that it conducts its business in a responsible and compliant manner in all its territories, and so intends to defend its position where necessary,” the company said in the statement.
“MTN was a particularly aggressive practitioner of protection payments. Rather than invest in expensive security for its transmission masts, MTN purchased security by buying it from the Taliban,” the papers states.
As MTN’s competitors were not prepared to pay the protection money, they were therefore open to attacks, the Taliban preferred to use MTN’s network for its own communications, the report says. But it goes even further, saying that MTN “ventured into active co-ordination” with the Taliban by “de-activating” its cellular network at night at the instruction of the insurgents.
This practice gave MTN a smooth access to the Afghan market after its acquisition in 2006, MTN became the country’s largest provider of cellular phone services.
Protection money was often paid in two forms: by disbursing money to Taliban commanders in dangerous districts; and/or cash passed to local tribe elders to protect cell tower sites, money which would eventually end up in the hands of the Taliban.
Other companies named in the suit includes the London-headquartered G4S Holdings International and its subsidiaries; the Florida company Centerra Group; the Maryland company DAI Global; the Tennessee firm Janus Global Operations; Kansas firm Black & Veatch Special Projects; and the Canadian company Louis Berger Group and its subsidiaries and affiliates.
MTN is Africa's largest mobile operator and the eighth largest in the world, with more than 240 million subscribers.
In 2015, the firm was fined more than $5bn (£3.8bn) by the Nigerian authorities for failing to cut off unregistered sim cards - a figure that was reduced to $1.7bn after a long legal dispute and the intervention of South Africa's then President Jacob Zuma.
In February, a former South African ambassador to Iran was arrested in the capital, Pretoria, on charges that he took a bribe to help MTN win a $31.6bn (£24bn) license to operate in Iran.
MTN has not denied the allegations but said it is reviewing them.