Afghan intelligence operations take on significant role

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Photographs of insurgents arrested by the Afghan National Directorate of Security in September 2011, displayed to journalists at a press conference in Kabul. Photo source: Bakhtar News Agency.

On Sept. 10, just a few days before the daring terror assault against the US embassy complex and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) announced the arrest of a “foreign spy” in Kabul, according to Bakhtar News Agency.

The spy, named Mohammad Farooq, was described by the NDS spokesman as a “resident of a neighboring country” who worked as an engineer for Afghan Omeed Construction, as well as for the wireless communication companies Roshan, Afghan IT, Etesalat, and Areeba Mobile for the past nine years. Alarmingly, Farooq had provided the intelligence networks of “two neighboring countries” with information regarding the location of radar systems and mobile phone towers, by mapping them through GPS in the provinces of Kunar, Kandahar, and Uruzgan. Farooq had also identified the location of various aerial defense systems used by US forces in Bagram, Khost, Ghazni, and Kandahar by taking photographs of the precise locations and providing them to his handlers, the NDS said.

It is not believed that Farooq had any information regarding the Kabul siege that took place three days after his arrest. NDS did not expressly speculate whether Farooq worked with the Pakistani or Iranian intelligence services, although both organizations are routinely linked to subversive attacks against security forces and government representatives across Afghanistan. NDS did, however, identify Farooq’s intelligence handlers as “Akramullah” and “Dana Maqbool,” who were “two neighboring countries’ intelligence officers.”

This summer has marked the deadliest month for US forces in Afghanistan since 2001, with 66 troops killed. Nearly half of those troops died when their helicopter crashed in Wardak province after coming under enemy fire on Aug. 6. Punctuated by a series of high-level assassinations, complex assaults, and urban terror attacks, the Taliban summer offensive could have exceeded expectations if it were not for a series of little-reported intelligence coups facilitated and executed by the NDS.

Over the past two weeks, NDS operations have led to the arrest of two Taliban district shadow governors. On Sept. 7, NDS forces arrested Mullah Amruddin, the designated Taliban district governor for Baharak district in Badakhshan province, along with Qari Muhibullah, a bomb-making expert. According to NDS, the pair confessed to planning a suicide attack against the Najm-ul-Madaris mosque in the Baharak district. The young boy used in the failed attack was seized by security personnel and disarmed before he could detonate the explosives-laden vest on Sept. 2.

On Aug. 25, NDS officers arrested three militants allegedly involved in the planning of the deadly attack against the Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base in the western province of Herat. The attack, which occurred on May 30, killed seven civilians and wounded 50 more, including 10 Italian soldiers. The NDS operation seized Abdullah, the purported cell leader of the group, after he and two other militants traveled from Kandahar to Herat to stage further attacks.

Separate NDS operations around the same time nabbed the Taliban’s shadow police chief for Khuja Ghar district along with three of his associates in Takhar province. “Afghan security forces in an operation captured Mullah Hussian, a native resident of Khuja Ghar and a shadowy police chief for the district, along with his three associates named Taj Mohammad, Mohammad Rasool and Mohammad Ishaq, who are residents of Khuja Ghar district, were involved in terrorist acts in outskirts of the district,” NDS spokesman Luftullah Mashal told reporters on Aug. 22.

The NDS has also conducted a number of other successful operations this summer:

  • A 19-year-old suicide bomber known as “Yaseen” was arrested along with his handler, Hizbullkah, by NDS officers during an operation in Kapisa province in mid-August.
  • An NDS operation in Parwan province nabbed Mawlavi Noorullah and Hasibullah (both residents of Parwan) for their part in planning and executing the complex assault against the Parwan governor’s compound on Aug. 14. Both commanders were also implicated in other suicide attacks that were conducted in Parwan province.
  • NDS arrested six individuals who helped plan an attack against the Defense Ministry in Kabul.
  • NDS operatives broke up a suicide attack cell in northern Takhar province, arresting two would-be bombers in the Namak Ab district. The pair were detained along with two suicide vests, a pistol, an AK-47 Kalashnikov, a Kalakov, four hand grenades and a Corolla car, according to the Provincial Police Chief, Brigadier General Khair Mohammad. Initial interrogations suggest the detainees intended to launch attacks on the governor’s compound. (Source: Pajhwok Afghan News.)
  • NDS arrested an insurgent in Takhar province who was linked to the poisoning and mass murder of an Afghan Border Police (ABP) unit. The insurgent, a relative of Mawalawi Emamuddin, the Taliban district governor for the Dasht-e-Archi district of Kunduz province, poisoned 12 members of the ABP at a Kunduz security post with 500 grams of an unknown powder. Once groggy and incapacitated, the Taliban gunman executed each of the men in cold blood. It is unclear if the man arrested had facilitated the July 10, 2010 poison execution or the similar attack on August 25, 2010, both of which occurred in Kunduz. (Source: Afghan Paper-Dari.)
  • Three insurgents linked to the Taliban were arrested in Kabul and Kunduz in separate operations but were part of the same terror cell tasked with assassinating the Kunduz governor and the Kunduz provincial security commander. According to NDS, the trio provided intelligence that helped thwart additional suicide attacks in the Dasht-e-Archi, Goortipah, and Imam Sahib districts of Kunduz province. (Source: Afghan Paper-Dari.)

The Pakistan connection

NDS has recently added to the body of evidence it has presented linking militants in Pakistan to attacks in Afghanistan by revealing a series of further details that connect militants in Peshawar and Mohmand with attacks inside Afghanistan. According to Badahkshan NDS chief Ali Ahmad Mubarez, the young boy intending to detonate himself at the Najm-ul-Madaris mosque in Badakhshan on Sept. 2 had confessed during preliminary interrogation that his training for the attack took place at the Haqqani Madrasa in Peshawar City. Of the four-man terror cell arrested on Aug. 22 that was plotting to attack the District 2 Police Headquarters in Kabul City, three were Afghans residing in Peshawar, according to the NDS.

In mid-August, NDS officers broke up a suicide bomb cell in Kapisa province and nabbed the 19-year-old would-be bomber, Yaseen, a resident of Deh Sabz of Kabul who had lived in Akorra Khatak of Peshawar before being sent on his mission by the Taliban.

Similarly, Atiqullah, the suicide bomber who detonated inside the Defense Ministry on April 18, had lived in Hayat Abaad, Peshawar and received his military training from the Haqqani Network in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency, according to his brother, Shaifqullah, a Taliban militant nabbed by the NDS in late June. Atiqullah came to Kabul to commit the suicide attack and stayed for a couple of days in the Ghazniwaal market area. Both Atiqullah and his brother Shaifqullah, who is still held in detention by the NDS, originally came from Paktia province (Sayed Karam district) and were aligned with the Haqqani Network. [For more details on the connection between Afghan insurgents and Pakistan, LWJ reports Haqqani Network directed Kabul hotel assault by phone from Pakistan and ‘They come from ISI’ – Afghan colonel on insurgent threat.]

Senior Afghan officials have also accused foreign governments of conducting an assassination campaign against political and security leaders. Jawedan, quoting Tolonews this past Sunday, reported that Borhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the peace council (Shuraya-e-Solh), said that the spate of recent terror attacks against senior Afghan officials had been planned by the “foreign intelligence organizations.”

Several high-profile assassinations have rocked Afghanistan since the launch of the Taliban’s summer offensive earlier this year. The victims include the President’s half-brother and major powerbroker of southern Afghanistan, Ahmad Wali Karzai; the Provincial Police Chief for Kunduz; the Provincial Police Chief for Takhar; the Provincial Police Chief for Kandahar; the Mayor of Kandahar City; and the Afghan National Police General for RC-North, General Daud Daud.

It should also be noted, however, that the NDS has confirmed the arrests of numerous individuals in the past few weeks who were plotting to assassinate various officials including the Interior Minister, Besmillah Mohammadi; Balkh Governor Attah Mohammad Noor; and Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, the former jihadi leader and current Member of Parliament.

This past weekend, Rabbani spoke to the media while visiting Kandahar province, in the wake of the resignation of two senior officials tasked with reconciliation efforts in Kandahar, where a string of bloody and bold assassinations has politically paralyzed the local administration. Rabbani said that killing people under the name of Taliban is “one of the tricks that foreign intelligence agencies have benefited from,” and that such activities tarnish the religion of Islam. Rabbani stressed the seriousness of the situation, calling it “critical,” and described the deaths in the Taliban assassination campaign against Afghan officials as a great loss for the country.

Amrullah Saleh, the former head of NDS, has voiced strong concerns about Pakistan. According to a report in Jawedan that quoted Tolonews, Saleh warned that for any progress against terrorism to be made, Pakistan must be pressed more by the international community. If that is not done, he said, the West cannot possibly win. Similarly, Dr. Abdullah, the Afghan Foreign Minister during Karzai’s first term, has also criticized Pakistan, saying that the country is not an honest ally because of the different treatment it gives to the Afghan Taliban as opposed to the Pakistani Taliban. He observed that although the Pakistani army and its police are in a real fight with the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban are freely moving around in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban even “receives support and help and they have no problem at all being in Pakistan.”

NDS and the long road to transition

Although the NDS has had success in dismantling a number of dangerous militant networks this summer, insurgents have increased their targeted killing of Afghan NDS operatives across the country. Three NDS officers were killed when their vehicle struck an IED in Helmand on Sept. 10, and another NDS officer and three Afghan soldiers were killed on Sept. 7 in an IED attack in Logar province. On Aug. 20, one NDS officer was killed and four others wounded when a remote-controlled IED destroyed their vehicle in the Joy Haft area of Jalalabad City.

Top NDS leaders as well as senior Afghan government officials continue to view Pakistan as a leading source of internal stability. NDS operations in the last week of August nabbed 15 insurgents, including two Pakistani citizens tasked with carrying out terrorists attacks and trained by ISI, according to the NDS. The pair of Pakistanis was responsible for assisting in some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul this summer. “They have confessed during the investigations that they were attracted by a person named Hossain Ali, working at the level of a manager in ISI, and they were assigned to destroy Afghanistan’s big establishments, including long bridges and power dams and government institutions,” NDS spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told journalists at a press conference.

In late August, NDS officials called for the Afghan judiciary to establish a special court for war criminals and those involved in terrorist activity. Citing bureaucratic delays and other government inefficiencies, NDS officials claimed there is a major problem with both the premature release of insurgent suspects and the prevalent long delays in the trials of those suspects. Mashal said that criminal cases involving evidence provided by NDS should not be delayed. “If a special court is set up in this regard, the issue will be resolved and criminals will receive punishment quickly,” he added.

The challenges facing the NDS come not only from the insurgents. International critics including the UN recently issued a confidential report to the Afghan government on the NDS, accusing the intelligence agency of facilitating grievous human rights violations including torture at its prison compounds. The prison under the greatest scrutiny is the counterterrorism prison department 124 (located in Kabul), run by NDS, along with other NDS prisons in Herat, Khost, Lagman, Kapisa, and Takhar. Two Afghan police-run prisons, in Kunduz and Tarin Kowt, are also under investigation. Because of the claims, NATO has since stopped sending detainees to some NDS prisons in Afghanistan. The Afghan Interior Minister blasted the UN report, saying, “We consider these unfounded excuses for not transferring the prisoners and prisons to the Afghans, and it will damage the process [of transition].”

Despite widespread concerns over the transition of security from NATO to the fledgling Afghan National Security Forces, including criticisms of the country’s police and intelligence agencies, the NDS remains the most capable and effective security organization operating at the national level.

For additional coverage of recent NDS operations, see the following Threat Matrix reports:

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