Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl exchanged for top 5 Taliban commanders at Gitmo

The US government announced today that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban since 2009, has been released. Bergdahl was exchanged for the top five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo. The Taliban detainees are reportedly being transferred to Qatar, which helped broker the deal.

The Taliban has long sought freedom for the “Gitmo Five,” all of whom are experienced jihadists and helped run the Taliban’s operations in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. They served in various military and intelligence roles.

All five of the detainees were deemed “high” risks to the US and its allies by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). Two of the five, according to files prepared at Guantanamo, have been wanted by the UN for war crimes.

One of them served as a key intermediary between the Iranian regime and the Taliban after 9/11. During meetings between these two former foes, the Iranians pledged to assist the Taliban in its war against the US.

The Obama administration has long sought to coax the Taliban into meaningful peace talks, which have thus far been fruitless. The Taliban has demanded that the “Gitmo Five” be released before those talks move forward.

A key goal of those talks is to get the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda, something Mullah Omar’s group has declined to do. It is difficult to see how the prisoner swap helps to achieve that goal. All five of the now ex-Gitmo detainees were closely allied with al Qaeda prior to their detention. And Bergdahl was initially captured by members of the Haqqani Network, which remains one of al Qaeda’s strongest allies to this day.

The Long War Journal has published extensive profiles of the five former Guantanamo detainees previously. See LWJ reports: Iran and the Taliban, allies against America; Afghan peace council reportedly seeks talks with Taliban commanders held at Gitmo; DC district court denies former Taliban governor’s habeas petition; Taliban seek freedom for dangerous Guantanamo detainees; and Afghan Taliban announces new ‘political office’ in Qatar.

The profiles below, which are based on declassified and leaked documents, are culled from these previous accounts.

Abdul Haq Wasiq (Internment Serial Number 4), senior Taliban intelligence official


Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former Taliban intelligence official, “had direct access to Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) leadership,” according to a leaked JTF-GTMO threat assessment. Wasiq “was central to the Taliban’s efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against US and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks.”

JTF-GTMO concluded that Wasiq “utilized his office to support al Qaeda and to assist Taliban personnel elude capture” in late 2001. Wasiq also “arranged for al Qaeda personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff in intelligence methods.”

Al Qaeda’s training of Taliban operatives, arranged by Wasiq, was reportedly conducted by Hamza Zubayr, a terrorist who was formerly an instructor at one of al Qaeda’s most important training camps. Zubayr was killed during the same September 2002 raid that netted 9/11 facilitator Ramzi Binalshibh. The assistance from Zubayr was crucially important to the Taliban’s intelligence efforts, according to the JTF-GTMO file, because many of the administrators in the Taliban Ministry of Intelligence “had no prior intelligence background.”

Mullah Norullah Noori (ISN 6), senior Taliban military commander


Another leaked JTF-GTMO file described Noori as a “senior Taliban military commander” who was engaged in hostilities “against US and Coalition forces in late 2001.” Noori is “wanted by the United Nations (UN) for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.”

When the JTF-GTMO threat assessment for Noori was authored in February 2008, his brother was still active in the fight against the Coalition. Noori’s “brother is a Taliban commander directing operations against US and Coalition forces in Zabul Province.” Noori himself “remained a significant figure to Taliban supporters” even after his capture.

In addition to his ties to Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban leaders, Noori was “associated with…senior al Qaeda members and other extremist organizations.”

Declassified memos authored at Guantanamo provide more details about Noori’s al Qaeda ties. Noori “fought alongside al Qaeda as a Taliban military general, against the Northern Alliance” in September 1995. Noori also “hosted al Qaeda commanders” and “met a subordinate of Osama bin Laden to pass a message from the Taliban supreme leader” – that is, a message from Mullah Omar.

Mullah Mohammad Fazl (ISN 7), Taliban deputy minister of defense


Mullah Mohammad Fazl was one of the Taliban’s most experienced commanders prior to his capture in November 2001. Like Noori, according to another leaked JTF-GTMO file, Fazl is “wanted by the UN for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiites.” Fazl “was associated with terrorist groups currently opposing U.S. and Coalition forces including al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and an Anti-Coalition Militia group known as Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami.”

Fazl had “operational associations with significant al Qaeda and other extremist personnel,” according to JTF-GTMO. One of the high-ranking al Qaeda commanders Fazl long cooperated with was Abdel Hadi al Iraqi, who led Osama bin Laden’s Arab 055 Brigade in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. The 055 Brigade was bin Laden’s chief fighting force and served alongside Taliban units.

Immediately “following the assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in September 2001,” al Iraqi explained to US officials, “the Northern Alliance was demoralized” and he met with Fazl to “coordinate an attack with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance.”

Prior to his detention, Fazl “wielded considerable influence throughout the northern region of Afghanistan and his influence continued after his capture.” Fazl’s “name and capture have been used in recruiting campaigns by the Taliban.”

“If released,” JTF-GTMO warned in a February 2008 memo, Fazl “would likely rejoin the Taliban and establish ties with [Anti-Coalition Militia] elements participating in hostilities against U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa (ISN 579), former governor of Herat province


Khairkhwa was one of Mullah Omar’s closest confidantes prior to his capture. According to a JTF-GTMO file, Khairkhwa “was directly associated” with both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. “Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks,” the leaked JTF-GTMO file reads, Khairkhwa “represented the Taliban during meetings with Iranian officials seeking to support hostilities against US and Coalition Forces.” In June 2011, a DC district court denied Khairkhwa’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, based in large part on his admitted role in brokering the Taliban’s post-9/11 deal with the Iranians. [See LWJ report, DC district court denies former Taliban governor’s habeas petition.]

As the governor of Afghanistan’s western Herat province, Khairkhwa and “his deputy were probably associated with a militant training camp in Herat operated by deceased al Qaeda commander (in Iraq) Abu Musab al Zarqawi.”

In declassified memos prepared at Guantanamo, US officials alleged that Khairkhwa became a major drug trafficker as well. Khairkhwa reportedly built three walled compounds that he used to manage his opium trade. And he allegedly oversaw one of Osama bin Laden’s training facilities in Herat, too. One US government memo noted that only Khairkhwa or bin Laden himself “could authorize entrance” to the facility, which was one of bin Laden’s “most important bases” and “conducted terrorist training two times per week.”

Mohammad Nabi Omari (ISN 832), senior Taliban leader who served multiple roles


In a leaked memo dated Jan. 23, 2008, JTF-GTMO analysts recommended that Nabi be held in “continued detention” by the Defense Department. Nabi “was a senior Taliban official who served in multiple leadership roles,” according to JTF-GTMO. Nabi “had strong operational ties to Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) groups including al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), some of whom remain active in ACM activities.”

Intelligence reports cited by JTF-GTMO indicate that Nabi was a “member of a joint al Qaeda/Taliban ACM cell in Khowst and was involved in attacks against US and Coalition forces.” Nabi also “maintained weapons caches and facilitated the smuggling of fighters and weapons.”

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Nabi worked for the Taliban’s border security and in this capacity had “access to senior Taliban commander and leader of the Haqqani Network, Jalaluddin Haqqani.” Haqqani was the Taliban Minister of Frontiers and Borders at the time and this is what gave Nabi the opportunity to become Haqqani’s “close associate,” according to JTF-GTMO.

One “sensitive contact” told authorities that Nabi was one of “three former Taliban commanders loyal to Haqqani.” The other two are Nabi’s brother-in-law, Malim Jan, and Gul Majid. The three worked under still another Taliban commander, Zakim Khan.

Malim Jan was nicknamed the “Butcher of Khowst” for his reported role in murdering 300 people there. Jan was a sub-commander under Haqqani and the head of a “Secret Police” unit.

Intelligence reports cited by JTF-GTMO indicate that Malim Jan, Gul Majid, and Zakim Khan were all still active in the insurgency in Afghanistan as of late 2007.

A “sensitive contact” told authorities that Nabi participated in a Jan. 26, 2002 “planning session to identify a new Governor of Khowst and to propose a list of members for the Khowst City Shura Council loyal to Haqqani.” Several other high-level Taliban and Haqqani officials attended the meeting. One of them “directed the group to reconvene after members discussed names with al Qaeda members in their provinces.” The leaked JTF-GTMO memo notes: “The plan was to have all personnel identified and vetted to prepare for future al Qaeda control of the area under Jalaluddin Haqqani.”

Beginning in February 2002, according to another intelligence report cited by JTF-GTMO, Nabi and “three al Qaeda affiliated individuals held weekly meetings to discuss ACM plans and to coordinate Haqqani loyalists.”

Then, in July 2002, an “Afghan government employee” reported that Nabi had joined “a new Khowst province ACM cell comprised of Taliban and al Qaeda commanders who had operated independently in the past.” The list of cell members provided by this source included not only Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, but also individuals affiliated with the HIG and the Haqqani Network.

The JTF-GTMO file includes an intriguing detail about one member of Nabi’s cell – a Haqqani money courier named Malik Khan. “Ayman al Zawahiri, the number two leader of al Qaeda” at the time, and now al Qaeda’s emir, “has stayed at Khan’s compound located outside Miram Shah,” Pakistan.

In August 2002, Nabi reportedly helped two al Qaeda operatives smuggle “an unknown number of missiles along the highway between Jalalabad and Peshawar,” Pakistan. The missiles were smuggled in pieces, with the intent of rebuilding them for attacks near the Jalalabad airport. On Aug. 28, 2002, JTF-GTMO analysts noted, “two Americans were killed during attacks against the Khowst, Gardez, and Jalalabad airports.”

Nabi was captured in September 2002, detained at Bagram, and then transferred to Guantanamo. It was the end, temporarily at least, to a career that started in the 1980s when Nabi first fought as a mujahideen against the Soviets.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Great news that Bowe is free and Taliban prisoners exchanged, happy for all families. Very grateful to those who listened and helped with communicating messages, a good day for dialogue, compassion and common sense… lets hope we can work on further prisoner releases!

  • JZarris says:

    Oof, that’s a high price to pay but I’m not going to flame away at a family for wanting their son back. Am I totally in the realm of sci-fi to hope we placed tracking devices somewhere under these guys skin for future demolishon?

  • Vern says:

    Freeing these terrorists in exchange for SGT. Bergdahl is a travesty of justice and an insult to the American warfighters still on the battlefield. This exchange could have been done anytime in the last 1-2 years. It was done at this time for Obama’s convenience. He needed a diversion for the VA scandal and he sent Kerry to seal the deal. The media will buy it and the VA will slide off the radar. It’s good Bergdahl is coming home, but questions need to be answered on how he was picked up by the Talibs, and why he was not with his team.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    How many lives will Bergdahl take? How many friends and family of American soldiers will cry? One can live so many can die. The depth to which this regime will burrow knows no bounds!

  • blert says:

    My crude understanding was that Bergdahl was AWOL… with some of his fellow soldiers implicating him in some hair-brained attempt to score some hash.
    As for the Gitmo Five, I strongly suspect that the President would’ve coughed them up just to boot-strap the peace imagery.
    Benghazigate may loom very large in the calculus.
    We’re still being sold the narrative that the Afghan conflict is essentially over.
    Certainly the President wants it on the back burner during this Fall’s elections.
    And, the President wants to shut down Gitmo, too. Near as I can tell, the Taliban have already gotten 98% of what they want before they’ve even reached the table.
    It must be obvious that every NGO and contractor is going to be racing for the exits PDQ.
    Each of these players would have at least flag rank in jihadi circles.
    As for negotiating tactics: sheesh!

  • Stephen Ryan says:

    Apparently Bergdahl was not really a heroic prisoner. Apparently he voluntarily gave up to the Taliban. Some good American soldiers (does anyone know any of their names?) were killed trying to locate him. Was he worth the Gitmo exchange? A life sentence in Leavenworth might be more appropriate. He comes out of this smelling like roses.

  • Scott J says:

    I am happy for Bowe Bergdahl’s parents that they’re getting their son back. And I am glad that we are not leaving Afghanistan with this matter unresolved.
    It was a high price to pay, and Sgt Bergdahl, as far as we know to this point, is no hero. But I am glad we got him back.
    But now, when these terrorists and murderers return to jihad, let them become targets, only not for capture this time.

  • Michael Green says:

    It is my understanding that Sgt Bowe Bergdahl walked off base, (without his gear). As such, he is a deserter and is no hero American POW.
    To exchange these high-level Taliban commanders, whom 2 are wanted for war crimes, and all who have worked closely with Al Qaeda is disgraceful.
    There is no doubt they will be back at their previous occupation of slaughtering and killing innocent people, and very possibly assisting in the killing of American service members, 9,800 which will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2016.

  • Demetrius Minneapolis says:

    This ties a nice red bow on the Obama announcement that the “war” in Afghanistan is now successfully completed. Absolute, 100% rubbish and in my opinion we have accomplished little to nothing after 9-11. The Taliban will control the country well before 2020.

  • Brian L says:

    I’m no fan of Barak Obama, but Israel makes exchanges like this all the time, most recently with Gilad Shalit: many top Hamas men for one Israeli soldier. Nobody on the American right complains a bit. If Netanyahu can do it, Obama can do it.

  • M3fd2002 says:

    “if Netanyahu can do it, Obama can do it” Seriously, Did you vote in the Israeli or USA elections? maybe both? Why do you think that hezbollah/fatah/hamas are always trying to capture jews? Think about it, and give everyone your insight.

  • Paul says:

    Brian L, so is Benjamin Netanyahu the President of the United States? What in God’s name does this disgraceful act have to do with whatever the Israeli’s do?? Good men have lost their lives trying to find Pvt. Bergdahi. It will be interesting to watch and see if he is charged with desertion. My bet, knowing this administration, I’d wager- no way.

  • Aezino says:

    Carol Anne Grayson of the progressive London Journal says Bergdahl’s release is good news.
    He deserted and went looking for the Taliban. Now we have him back and he won’t be prosecuted. That is good news?
    Brian L, Israel makes exchanges all the time. The exchange rate is hundreds or thousands to 1. It is actually a defeat.
    I was happy (as much as I could be) that the exchange rate was only 5 to 1. It would have been much better if it had been 1 to 1 and we had prosecuted instead of promoting Bergdahl.
    As someone else said I hope the releasees are killed on the battlefield shortly rather than recaptured.

  • Ron says:

    Does not make any sense release five Taliban for a
    Army Deserter.
    America will not be safe because the five killers are set free.
    Sgt Berqdahl belongs in prison.

  • Eric Sykes says:

    I remember being on the operations floor as a young intel soldier when the whole Berghdal affair first happened. We all thought that Berghdal was a complete scumbag. Ah well, I guess Operation Unkempt Barber is a success…of sorts.

  • Andrew says:

    @Brian L
    I think the Israeli government actually did get a lot of flack for that. I thought it was a dumb move personally, but there’s another crucial difference.
    AFAIK Gilad Shalit is an honorable soldier. Him getting taken was just bad luck on his part. Bergdahl is an incompetent idiot at best, and a deserter or even wannabe traitor at worst. If Bergdahl had a great reputation among his platoon mates (he doesn’t!), then people would probably be more forgiving of the deal than they are.

  • James Depke says:

    Certainly lives were lost in American effort to recover a low level officer Sgt. Bergdhal, but countless more American lives were sacrificed in the operations to capture these 5 high level enemy operatives, and President Obama has the gall/stupidity to hand them over and put them back in play to potentially wreak havoc on the world again? You have go to be kidding. Is this not an impeachable offense? Is this president mentally handicapped. You typically negotiate to win. Not in this case. To use a sport metaphor, this would be similar to trading 5 top front office executives/players for a minor leaguer. In the real world this is not done, and if it is you are fired on the spot. But not with this idiot president. I have absolutely no understanding of how anyone in this administration would sign off on this. This is a disgrace. Sleep well Obama. You just put 5 of our most hated enemies back on the playing field.

  • Bill Dee says:

    In my Army “walking off post” without permission was and still is AWOL
    You did not go from PFC to Sargent–rather you lost a stripe and no back pay
    If you sneak off “desert”-in a combat zone you get a lot more than 5 years
    POW my ass
    He was AWOL or a deserter
    Thanks to agenda driven vets like Hagel many American lives are now at risk

  • Andrew says:

    @Bill Dee
    I don’t like Bergdahl either, but to be fair 5 years in captivity with the Taliban is a LOT worse than 5 years in a military brig.
    He certainly shouldn’t be celebrated or get a parade, but as far as punishment goes, there’s nothing we can do to him that’d be half as bad as what he’s already gone through. So he’s suffered enough.

  • Rex says:

    Maybe integral personalities for the Taliban’s new government?

  • Rick O. says:

    In his public relations campaign to appear as the great peacemaker, Obama has demoralized our military by effectively trivializing the lost lives, injuries, and sacrifices which brought about the incarceration of these hard-core vicious prisoners. Taliban do not value peacemaking; peacemaking is perceived as submission and failure. American voters placed authority into the hands of a commander-in-chief who is so weak in character, and so needy of admiration, that he cannot accurately perceive what threatens our country. When image-making is more important than reality, when lies dominate over disclosure, our leadership chooses to jeopardize American lives across the globe. Thank you Bill Roggio for your work here.

  • shipley130 says:

    Bergdahl’s captivity was so bad, that he refused water and food. What an effing idiot.

  • Drider says:

    What is strange here is why we traded taliban people to the Haqqani Network who held this guy.
    The Haqqani Network are criminal organization that wanted money for the guy a few years ago. They had no use for these taliban commanders other than maybe having them back on the field of battle to create even more chaos by which the Haqqani’s thrive in.
    But still, money rules with them not the taliban.

  • Colm Barry says:

    Now those young campaigners for Obama that helped him win his first term can take heart: Obama is finally closing down Guantanamo: “top five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo” released. We knew he’d keep his word …

  • Godabove09 says:

    The fact is this is not really about getting Bergdahl home, rather it’s about getting these Taliban monsters home instead. The fact he was known to have deserted, seemed to sympathize with the enemy and was most likely reluctant to leave make me think it is win-win for the savages. They get their best throat slitters back, even more belligerent and anti American, they get Bergdahl working the PR angle once he gets air time and all of it makes America look foolish and gullible. Obama wanted them home and used the Bergdahl situation to instigate a swap. It had nothing to do with concern for the American and everything to do with emptying Gitmo.


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