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American woman praised for helping to rescue Afghan Girls Robotics Team accused of overplaying role

Allyson Reneau of Oklahoma City garnered media attention for saying she aided the group in escaping the Taliban. Now, her claim of helping to orchestrate their exit is under scrutiny.
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An Oklahoma woman is being asked to stop claiming any affiliation with the group of Afghan high school girls whose talents developing and building robots have grabbed international headlines.

Allyson Reneau of Oklahoma City was accused in a cease-and-desist letter from the team of overstating her role in their harrowing departure out of Afghanistan last week.

The letter, sent Tuesday on behalf of the team and its parent organization, the Digital Citizen Fund, is described as a "fair and final warning" to Reneau to "stop any and all false statements in relation to the Afghan Girls Robotics Team," the team’s attorney, Kimberley Motley, wrote.

"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," Motley said in the letter, which was first reported by The Washington Post and provided Friday to NBC News.

Motley wrote that the government of Qatar, which helped the girls flee Kabul in the wake of the chaos caused by the Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan, "confirmed that they have no idea who you are and that you were not involved in any material way with the girls leaving Afghanistan."

Some team members were flown to Doha, Qatar's capital city, while five girls were transported this week to Mexico, Reuters reported.

Reneau, who has previously been in the media spotlight for being a mom of 11 biological children, initially spoke with NBC’s for an Aug. 19 article in which she said she helped to rescue members of the robotics team.

"We have repeatedly communicated to you to stop spreading false information," Motley wrote to Reneau, "and yet you continue."

Motley cited specific interviews with CNN and Fox News in which Reneau, who is on the board of directors of the nonprofit organization Explore Mars, spoke about meeting the robotics team at a conference in Washington two years ago and staying in touch.

In the Aug. 19 article, she told NBC News that when she saw how Afghanistan's government was collapsing ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline of the U.S. military's withdrawal from the country, she immediately thought of the girls and their safety. She said she worked with a former roommate, now living in Qatar, to prepare the paperwork to get the girls out safely.

The Taliban, when they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, had prohibited girls from getting educated.

Image: Afghanistan Robotic House
Afghan teenagers from the Afghanistan Robotic House take pictures at Herat International Airport on July 13, 2017.Hoshang Hashimi / AFP via Getty Images file

While Reneau implied on CNN that she had gone to Qatar, in a subsequent interview with Fox News, as her story gained more attention — including from a Wall Street Journal editorial that suggested President Joe Biden should "put her in charge" of helping people flee Afghanistan — she clarified she "never actually left Oklahoma City."

Qatari Foreign Ministry officials said the government had worked directly with the Digital Citizen Fund and its founder, Roya Mahboob, in helping the girls. Department spokesman Ibrahim Alhashmi said a Qatari diplomat was contacted by Mahboob on Aug. 13 "asking to evacuate the Afghan robotics team to Doha, citing fear for their lives and future."

Four days later, the girls met with Qatar's ambassador to Afghanistan in a secure location and he "escorted them safely to the airport, where they were evacuated to Doha in a plane arranged by Qatar's Armed Forces," Alhashmi said, adding that his government neither worked with Reneau nor the U.S. Embassy.

"The focus of this story should be the robotics team," Alhashmi said, "their struggles, hopes and aspirations, and the incredible work of the Digital Citizen Fund and Ms. Roya Mahboob to empower Afghani women and girls."

Following the scrutiny, Reneau defended herself in a Facebook post Friday and said she can produce "HUNDREDS of texts, emails and phone calls that shows the collaborative efforts" among herself, U.S. officials and the Digital Citizen Fund's founder.

"This has been a team effort as I have stated in every interview," she added. "I am not a one-man show and have made that clear from the beginning."

When reached by NBC News, Reneau said she sent her own cease-and-desist letter to the Digital Citizen Fund asking for the group to stop trying to discredit her to media outlets. The letter says that while Reneau "took the path of contacting various individuals in the United States, attempting to find a way to ensure the safety of those on the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, others took the international route, contacting those outside the United States."

Motley called Reneau's cease-and-desist letter "ridiculous."

Reneau remains adamant that she was also trying to help the girls as best she could and is "so sad that this has become a distraction," adding that "the real attention should be on the precious people of Afghanistan."

She also said she never set out to be seen as a "white savior," as she's been described, but will continue to help Afghans who are trying to leave the country, including the work being done to secure the safety of female judges.

"My wish for these girls is that they're the architects of their own future and they have the freedom to choose their own future," Reneau said. "I never stepped into this rescue effort to bring attention to myself."