The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced today that a “combined Afghan and coalition security force” had killed “a key affiliate of the al Qaeda network during a security operation in Jalalabad district, Nangarhar province.” The deceased “insurgent leader” has been identified as a a former Guantanamo detainee named Sabar Lal Melma.
Melma was “responsible for attacks and financing insurgent operations in the Pech district, Kunar province” and was “in contact with several senior al Qaeda members throughout Kunar and Pakistan,” according to an ISAF press release.
Afghan citizens helped security forces locate Melma, who emerged from his compound “with an AK-47 rifle and was killed.”
Melma was transferred to Afghanistan on Sept. 28, 2007. According to a leaked threat assessment, Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) identified Melma as a “medium risk,” who “may pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
In the leaked file, dated June 3, 2005, JTF-GTMO recommended that Melma be “transferred to the control of another country for continued detention.” JTF-GTMO previously recommended that Melma be retained in US custody. Like many former Guantanamo detainees approved for transfer to Afghanistan, however, Melma was released at some point after his repatriation.
ISAF reports that Melma is one of “more than 40 al Qaeda insurgents” killed or captured in eastern Afghanistan this year.
Alleged double agents
Melma’s story is tied to that of another former Guantanamo detainee who is also a suspected recidivist, Haji Sahib Rohullah Wakil.
Melma and Wakil were first detained by US forces after a high-profile meeting in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province, in August 2002. Melma was the “equivalent” of a Brigadier General for Afghanistan’s corps of border guards at the time, according to the leaked threat assessment. Melma had “600 border security troops” along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border of Kunar province under his command. Wakil was a highly influential tribal leader who claimed he was allied with Coalition forces and Hamid Karzai’s new Afghan government.
The New York Times reported on the Asadabad meeting attended by Wakil and Melma. It is “possible” that al Qaeda was regrouping, Wakil told the gathering. Wakil “said he had his doubts and had passed them on to the Special Forces, who set up a base here several months ago,” the Times reported.
”I told them, ‘If there are Al Qaeda, tell us and we’ll take care of them,’ ” Wakil said. “It’s been three months, and they haven’t caught any Al Qaeda.”
Coalition forces suspected that Wakil and Melma were using their considerable influence along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to smuggle terrorists out of the country. In another leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment, dated June 17, 2005, US intelligence analysts found that Wakil had “provided operational support to al Qaeda by providing safe-harbor to Arabs fleeing” the Tora Bora Mountains in late 2001. “This support included facilitating and providing security to Arab extremists and al Qaeda to clandestinely enter and exit Afghanistan.”
According to JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment, Wakil allegedly “told all other key eastern zone leaders he wanted all captured Saudi al Qaeda fighters turned over to his control in order to facilitate their escape, as Saudi fighters were worth a lot of money.” Wakil “coordinated their escape through” the province of Kunar.
Melma allegedly played the same role. Melma “provided security for nine Arabs, two of whom were wounded, as they fled Tora Bora” in mid-Nov. 2001, according to JTF-GTMO’s analysis. “The Arabs were armed with two PK machine guns, two rocket propelled grenade launchers, and six AK-47s.” Wakil provided Melma “with an unspecified amount of money and instructions to smuggle the Arabs in Pakistan.” As a reward, Wakil allowed Melma “to keep the weapons the Arabs carried, as well as the truck in which they traveled.”
The JTF-GTMO file for Melma notes that “an additional 65 al Qaeda Arabs” are believed to have received the same assistance. The file contains this explanation: “The Arabs were then allegedly smuggled to Pakistan at the direction of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) and unidentified Wahabi party officials.”
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran
JTF-GTMO concluded that although Melma was probably a “facilitator” of al Qaeda members prior to his capture, he did not “seem to have any loyalty to any particular group and had reportedly been at odds with the Taliban for at least five years.” Melma was seen as an opportunist who would work for the highest bidder.
Wakil reportedly opposed the Taliban, too. In addition, Wakil claimed that Osama bin Laden and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), had his uncle killed because he opposed their ideology. (The JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Wakil notes that he is rumored to have actually had his uncle killed.) Wakil also rivaled the HIG for power in Kunar in the years following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. This did not, according to the JTF-GTMO threat assessment, stop Wakil from allegedly giving HIG members access to weapons caches in their war against the Coalition.
JTF-GTMO found that Wakil and Melma were really working with the ISID to destabilize the Afghan government.
Wakil “was a high-ranking member of the Jamaat ul Dawa al Quran (JDQ),” according to the leaked JTF-GTMO files. The JDQ is described as “an extremist Islamic organization with ties to various multi-national radical Islamic groups and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID).” Melma is described as a “former member” of the JDQ as well.
One of Wakil’s and Melma’s fellow Guantanamo detainees, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, told US officials that he overheard a conversation between the two. According to the leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Melma, Dost claimed he overheard the pair “bragging about a time when the ISID sent a military unit into Afghanistan, posing as civilians to fight along side [sic] the Taliban against US forces.” When the “ISID units got captured,” Wakil allegedly “secured funds from the ISID for their release.”
Dost also claimed to have overheard Melma and Wakil discussing the “ISID’s protection of al Qaeda members at Pakistan airports.” The ISID “diverted al Qaeda members through unofficial channels to avoid detection from officials in search of terrorists,” Dost said.
And Dost provided an interesting twist to Wakil’s anti-Taliban activities. Dost reported that Wakil “was a JDQ commander who was put into the Northern Alliance to spy on their activities,” presumably for the ISID.
Dost himself was initially thought to be a member of the JDQ as well as “an al Qaeda point of contact in Herat, Afghanistan,” according to a declassified memo prepared for his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT).
Dost was later deemed to be “no longer an enemy combatant” by the US military and released. He was rearrested by Pakistani authorities in 2006 only to be swapped for Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and a number of Pakistani troops in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. Dost is known as one of Gitmo’s “poets,” and worked for Taliban publications.
Whether Dost’s reporting on Wakil and Melma is true or not, additional intelligence included in the leaked JTF-GTMO files links the JDQ to the ISID.
“Reporting indicates [Wakil] worked in conjunction with Pakistan Intelligence Service Directorate (ISID) to undermine the current Afghanistan government under Karzai,” the file for Wakil reads. An explanatory note from JTF-GTMO’s analysts is included in the next line: “Rogue factions of the ISID have routinely pursued private interests and acted against the stated policy of the Government of Pakistan.”
“In January 2002,” the file continues, “ISID financed efforts of several factions” in Kunar province “in order to destabilize” the Afghan government. Then, in March 2002, “the ISID reportedly provided [Wakil] with $12,000 to finance military operations against the [Afghan government] in hopes of destabilizing the new government.”
Return to the fight
JTF-GTMO concluded in its 2005 threat assessment that Wakil was a “high risk” to the US and allies and should be retained in the Department of Defense’s custody. Nearly three years later, on April 30, 2008, Wakil was transferred to Afghanistan.
In April 2009, the US government included Wakil on its list of “former Guantanamo detainees confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist activities.” The threshold for labeling a former Guantanamo detainee a “confirmed” recidivist is higher than for “suspected” cases. Wakil was listed as a “suspected” recidivist. The reason given was his alleged “association with terrorist groups.” The Defense Department did not provide any more details.
A few months later, in July 2009, McClatchy published an account in which Wakil and other sources denied that he was ever a terrorist, let alone a recidivist. Wakil claimed that he was a loyal servant of Karzai’s government. While admitting that he was a member of the JDQ, according to McClatchy, Wakil said he was “never a fighter” and “that his group promoted a certain thread of Islam, not terrorism.”
The same McClatchy account refers to Sabar Lal Melma as Wakil’s “military commander” prior to their detention.
Melma is presumably now a “confirmed” recidivist.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.