A former detainee at Guantanamo Bay has become the Taliban’s chief operations officer in southern Afghanistan. The former detainee, Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, was captured in Afghanistan in December of 2001 and transferred to Afghanistan six years later in December of 2007. His internment serial number (ISN) at Guantanamo was 8, a comparatively low number indicating that he was most likely one of the first detainees transferred from Afghanistan to Guantanamo after the facility was opened in 2002.
Rasoul currently operates in southern Afghanistan using the nom de guerre Mullah Abdullah Zakir, according to an account by the Associated Press. The AP cites “Pentagon and intelligence officials” as saying that Mullah Abdullah Zakir is “in charge of operations against U.S. and Afghan forces in southern Afghanistan.” One anonymous intelligence official cited by the AP says Rasoul’s “stated mission is to counter the U.S. troop surge” that began earlier this year in Afghanistan.
The Times (UK) has confirmed the AP’s story and provided additional details. The Times reported that Rasoul is “responsible for increasingly sophisticated explosives attacks on British soldiers in Afghanistan” and is currently operating out of the Taliban stronghold in Quetta, Pakistan. Prior to his detention at Guantanamo, he was a “high-ranking military commander close to the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar.”
“In the time of the Taliban government he was the commander of Taleban forces in Takhar province,” a Taliban official told The Times. “He was one of Mullah Omar’s deputies.”
During his time at Guantanamo, the Department of Defense and other branches of the U.S. government thought that Rasoul was a committed jihadist. A memorandum prepared for Rasoul’s first administrative review board (ARB) reads: “[Rasoul] stated that he felt it would be fine to wage Jihad against Americans, Jews, or Israelis if they were invading his country.” Moreover, Rasoul “advised the he was called to fight Jihad in approximately 1997; he then went to Kabul to join the Taliban.”
Rasoul was wounded, treated, and eventually rejoined the Taliban in September of 2001, according to U.S. government documents. “In approximately September of 2001,” the administrative review board memo reads, “[Rasoul] went to Konduz to join up with his Taliban comrades to fight the Northern Alliance.” He was given a “Kalishnikov rifle by the Taliban” and traveled to Konduz to fight the Northern Alliance. Rasoul was then “captured while riding in a car with a Taliban [l]eader named Mohammad.”
During both his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) and ARB hearing at Guantanamo, Rasoul attempted to deny that he was a member of the Taliban. But Rasoul also made significant admissions that make his denials appear hollow, especially in light of current reports indicating that he is a major Taliban leader in southern Afghanistan.
Rasoul repeated a common excuse used by Guantanamo detainees: he was an innocent sold to the U.S. by corrupt warlords for a bounty. Rasoul claimed: “I tell you the truth (Afghani) war commanders sold people for dollars (to Americans) and (labeled) them different names, like he is (Taliban), he is (al Qaeda). That was not true. That was their purpose, to get money. They sold innocent people.”
But Rasoul’s story and the answers he gave to basic questions posed during his proceedings at Guantanamo were suspicious, to say the least. During his CSRT Rasoul stated:
“I went to Konduz. I went there to earn some money but there was Taliban there when I went there. I didn’t go to fight anyone. I surrendered to Dostum. [Note: General Dostum is a Northern Alliance commander.] I don’t know who he was, but he was the leader of something. When I surrendered I was in the car with another man. That man was a Taliban leader. I had a Kalishnikov rifle in Konduz. The Kalashnikov was given to me forcefully by the Taliban. I don’t recall the exact date it was given to me.”
Konduz was one of the Taliban’s last strongholds in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, when Northern Alliance forces battled Taliban forces for control of the city. That Rasoul admitted traveling there with Taliban members is significant. Rasoul also admitted that the U.S.-led bombing campaign had already begun, but he claimed, somewhat implausibly, not to have known that the U.S. was bombing the area.
Note, too, that Rasoul admitted: he was given a rifle by the Taliban (claiming he was given it “forcefully” ), he surrendered to General Dostum’s Northern Alliance forces with fellow Taliban members, and he was even in a car with a Taliban leader at the time of their surrender.
During his ARB hearing, Rasoul was questioned further about his tale. “Did the leader of [the] Taliban tell you to surrender?,” a member of his administrative review board asked. Rasoul confirmed that he surrendered on the order of a Taliban leader: “Yes, they told us not to fight or do anything and just surrender.” Rasoul was also asked about the wounds he sustained in the 1990’s. He claimed that he went to a “Chinese hospital” in Afghanistan, but admitted that “definitely the Taliban brought me some medicine.”
Rasoul is not the only former Guantanamo detainee to work for al Qaeda and the Taliban upon release. A Pentagon spokesman recently said that more than 60 former detainees are suspected or confirmed of having rejoined the terror network after leaving Guantanamo. The Pentagon has not yet released a report confirming the identity of these former detainees. However, a previous report released by the DOD in June of 2008 noted that 37 former detainees had “returned to terrorism” and offered some examples.
Like Rasoul, some of the former detainees went on to become major Taliban figures. Abdullah Mehsud was released from Guantanamo in March 2004 and “became well known for his attacks in Pakistan,” the DOD noted in its 2008 report. “In October 2004, [Mehsud] kidnapped two Chinese engineers and claimed responsibility for an Islamabad hotel bombing.” In addition, a Pakistani government official confirmed that Mehsud “directed a suicide attack in April 2007 that killed 31 people.” In a confrontation with Pakistani forces in July 2007, Mehsud “blew himself up to avoid capture.”
Similarly, Mohammed Naim Farouq was released from Guantanamo in July 2003. In 2006, according to press reports, the Defense Intelligence Agency included him in a deck of playing cards listing the 20 most wanted terrorists operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Osama bin Laden was number one in the deck.
Rasoul’s reported return to the Taliban underscores the difficulties the U.S. government has in determining who can be released and ensuring that the former detainees do not return to terrorism. Detainees at Guantanamo frequently lie about their past and their intentions upon release.
During his ARB hearing, for example, Rasoul was asked: “What do you plan to do if you are released back to Afghanistan for work?” Rasoul responded: “I want to go back home and join my family and work in my land and help my family.”
“Do you like what the United States is doing in Afghanistan now?,” one board member wanted to know. Rasoul responded: “Yes, I am very happy. I am very pleased like I told you before. They are [re]building my country.”
“I [have] never been America’s enemy and I never intend to be,” Rasoul insisted.
According to the latest press accounts, Rasoul is now one of America’s chief enemies in southern Afghanistan.
Note: This article has been updated with a citation to the The Times (UK).
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.