Two senior Taliban commanders currently among Afghanistan’s most wanted insurgents successfully hid their true roles while held at Guantanamo, recently leaked assessments authored by Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) show. Both served Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar before being captured, but once in custody they never admitted their leadership positions and were determined to be only “medium” (as opposed to “high”) security threats.
Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who was known as Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul (Internment Serial Number 8) at Guantanamo, was assessed to be “a bodyguard for a high-ranking member of the Taliban” while in US custody. However, Taliban sources told The Sunday Times (UK) in 2009 that Zakir was really a “high-ranking commander close” to Mullah Omar prior to his detention.
Zakir is now Mullah Omar’s top military commander.
Maulvi Abdul Rauf Khadim (aka Abdul Rauf Aliza, ISN 108) told his interrogators that he was only a “low-level Taliban foot soldier and food supplier.” But Newsweek reported earlier this year that in reality he “commanded Mullah Omar’s elite mobile reserve force, fighting regime opponents all over Afghanistan” before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Today, Rauf serves as the Taliban’s shadow governor for the southern province of Uruzgan and is reportedly rising quickly through the Taliban’s ranks.
Both Zakir and Rauf were captured in December 2001 and then transferred from Guantanamo back to Afghanistan on Dec. 12, 2007. According to Newsweek, Rauf was released from Afghan custody sometime in 2009. And in early 2010, Rauf and Zakir were reportedly detained together by Pakistani officials and then released in short order. Over the past few years, the two have been identified in various press accounts as members of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura Council.
The recently leaked documents illustrate the cat-and-mouse game played between interrogators and detainees, with intelligence officials attempting to pick apart the various inconsistencies in detainees’ stories. American analysts and interrogators at Gitmo clearly had their doubts about both men, citing reasons to believe they were lying. But military officials could not prove the two were more senior than they claimed.
Zakir’s cover story: A mere ‘foot soldier’
In an assessment dated Dec. 25, 2006, authorities explained that Zakir had identified several senior Taliban leaders as “friends and associates but continues to identify himself as being a mere foot soldier.” Among the Taliban commanders Zakir said he knew were: Mullah Norullah Noori (a high-ranking Taliban governor and military commander); Mullah Mohammad Fazl (the Taliban Army’s chief of staff); Mullah Dadullah; and Mullah Baradar.
Noori (ISN 6) and Fazl (ISN 7) are currently held at Guantanamo. [For profiles of Noori and Fazl, see LWJ report, Afghan peace council reportedly seeks talks with Taliban commanders held at Gitmo.]
Zakir’s fellow Taliban commanders covered for him at Guantanamo. Fazl was asked about Zakir’s role, but refused to divulge his high rank. Fazl described Zakir as “being more like a foot soldier,” who “performed duties as a bodyguard, driver, and administrative assistant,” according to the leaked file.
Zakir was captured along with other senior Taliban commanders, including Noori and Fazl, by the Northern Alliance. And when the Northern Alliance took them into custody, Zakir and his comrades were separated from the real low-level Taliban soldiers because of their significance.
The JTF-GTMO analysts who authored the leaked assessment concluded: “It is highly doubtful that [Zakir], who was allegedly standing with other Taliban soldiers along a roadside, would be singularly selected by General Dostum’s soldiers to join [Noori] and [Fazl] in the vehicle they were secured in, unless [Zakir] was as significant as his fellow captives.”
Still, the JTF-GTMO analysts found that Zakir’s “true intelligence value cannot be assessed in its entirety until more is known” about him. “There are gaps in [Zakir’s] information and relationships with… high-ranking Taliban members,” including Mullah Dadullah.
The JTF-GTMO analysts’ suspicions about Zakir’s relationship with Dadullah proved to be justified. Dadullah is described in the 2006 assessment as “an extremely important commander” and “one of the top members of the Taliban’s War Council, the Military Shura that made most of the Taliban’s military decisions.”
Dadullah was subsequently killed, but Zakir filled in for his fallen friend after returning to Afghanistan. Today, Zakir leads the Mullah Dadullah Front – one of the Taliban’s chief anti-Coalition fighting forces.
Rauf’s cover story: A ‘bread deliverer’
JTF-GTMO analysts knew that Rauf, like Zakir, had ties to senior Taliban commanders. But Rauf also refused to divulge all he knew and downplayed his own role, claiming to be a low-level Taliban member who merely delivered bread.
According to an Oct. 26, 2004 threat assessment, Rauf was able to accurately identify several high-level Taliban leaders and “admitted involvement in the production and sales of opium, as well as association with criminal elements within the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.”
Rauf was “generally cooperative” during interrogations, but he was “uncooperative in terms of discussing his complete involvement with the Taliban and the opium trade.” He remained “vague and inconsistent when questioned on high-level Taliban leadership or topics of a sensitive nature.” Rauf also “evaded answering questions regarding his role and leadership within the Taliban.”
The JTF-GTMO team suspected, however, that there was more to Rauf’s story.
In addition to his knowledge of senior Taliban leaders, Rauf was a disruptive influence on his cell block. The leaked threat assessment reads: “For a simple Taliban foot soldier and bread deliverer, [Rauf] manages to exhibit leadership qualities by conducting speeches and instilling fear into those who cooperate with JTF-GTMO personnel.” US intelligence officials previously contacted by The Long War Journal have explained that, like gang members in a prison, detainees who hold senior positions outside the wire generally wield the same level of influence behind it.
Several other high-level Taliban detainees also identified Rauf as “a Taliban troop commander,” but analysts worried that his identity may be confused with that of another senior Taliban commander, the aforementioned Mullah Fazl. Fazl and Rauf apparently look similar.
Rauf’s name was also found “on a list of factions and leaders within the Taliban as a corps commander in Herat,” Afghanistan.
One of the senior Taliban commanders who identified Rauf was Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former governor of Herat province and interior minister. The Long War Journal has profiled Khairullah Khairkhwa previously. [See LWJ report, Iran and the Taliban, allies against America.]
Khairkhwa identified Rauf as “a possible military leader, military commander, or possibly even as mayor of Khost,” Afghanistan. JTF-GTMO was left uncertain about Rauf’s true role. But an astute analyst surmised: “After serving three tours with Taliban, it does not seem plausible that [Rauf] was not promoted and given a more important duty than a mere bread deliverer.”
Rauf refused to give his interrogators clarity. The leaked file reads: “When asked questions that he has been previously asked, or asked to clarify previous statements, [Rauf] says it is in his file, or complains of maltreatment.” An analyst’s note adds: “These are common anti-interrogation techniques used by numerous JTF-GTMO detainees, as well as by al Qaeda.”
The October 2004 assessment ends by noting that “recent findings” suggested Rauf “may have had a more important role within the Taliban that previously thought.” His intelligence value was therefore upgraded from “low” to “medium.”
In the end, JTF-GTMO recommended that Rauf and Zakir be transferred to Hamid Karzai’s government, which was supposed to ensure they did not rejoin the jihad. However, the two were freed and resumed their Taliban careers – leaving no doubts today about who they really were all along.