A former Guantanamo detainee, Mullah Raouf Khadim, is reportedly leading a contingent of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand. Khadim’s role was first reported by The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press (AP).
Raouf had served as a top Taliban military leader until he and his allies lost an internal power struggle, paving the way for him to switch allegiances.
“A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema [religious leaders] and other people have contacted me to tell me that Mullah Raouf had contacted them and invited them to join him,” the AP quoted Gen. Mahmood Khan, an Afghan military official, as saying.
Raouf’s fighters have reportedly engaged in skirmishes with their Taliban counterparts.
The Taliban is trying to thwart Raouf’s recruiting efforts on behalf of the Islamic State. It is not clear if Raouf has developed operational ties to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization, or if his allegiance is more aspirational. The Islamic State has been attempting to cut into the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s dominant share of the jihadist market in the region since last year, when al Qaeda officially disowned the Islamic State.
The revelation of Raouf’s role came just days before the top US military commander in Afghanistan warned of the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts.
“We are seeing reports of some recruiting” on behalf of the Islamic State, General John Campbell told the Army Times. “There have been some night letter drops, there have been reports of people trying to recruit both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quite frankly.”
General Campbell stated that the Islamic State has a “hard message to sell” in Afghanistan. “The Taliban have their allegiance to Mullah Omar and a different philosophy and ideology than [the Islamic State], but, potentially, there are people who are disgruntled with the Taliban, they haven’t seen [Taliban commander] Mullah Omar in years, or they want to go a different way,” said Campbell.
Separately, Ariana TV in Kabul quoted Campbell as saying that “young Taliban” members may be wooed into the Islamic State’s ranks.
Raouf concealed his Taliban role while detained at Guantanamo
Raouf spent several years at Guantanamo, but was transferred to Afghanistan in 2007.
The AP cites an Afghan official as noting that Raouf “was a corps commander during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule” of Afghanistan. During hearings at Guantanamo, however, Raouf hid his Taliban role. [See LWJ report, Former Gitmo detainee turned Taliban leader threatens Afghan elders.]
“I am not a member of the Taliban,” Raouf said during his combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo. During his administrative review board (ARB) hearing, Raouf also denied receiving any weapons training or fighting for the Taliban. He said that he had merely served food from a nearby bakery to the Taliban’s soldiers.
“I wish there was a way I could prove to you that I will not be a danger anymore,” Raouf told military officials. He said he wanted to work with the Karzai government, which was then in power. “If they do not mind, I’d love to go there and help them out with the new government and work for them.”
According to a leaked Oct. 26, 2004 threat assessment authored by Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), Raouf 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.”
Raouf was “generally cooperative” during interrogations or debriefings, 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.” Raouf also “evaded answering questions regarding his role and leadership within the Taliban.”
The JTF-GTMO team suspected, however, that there was more to Raouf’s story. He was deemed a “medium” threat (as opposed to high or low) to the US, its interests and allies. And JTF-GTMO recommended that he be transferred to the control of another country for continued detention.
Ties to the so-called “Taliban Five”
JTF-GTMO’s threat assessment connects Raouf to at least two members of the so-called “Taliban Five,” a group of senior Taliban officials who were exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. [See LWJ report, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl exchanged for top 5 Taliban commanders at Gitmo.]
The leaked file notes that Raouf was “associated” with Mohammad Fazl, who served as the Taliban’s chief of staff and commanded a few thousand fighters.
Other senior Taliban commanders identified Raouf during their time in custody at Guantanamo. Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa is one of them. Khairkhwa identified Raouf as “a possible military leader, military commander, or possibly even as mayor of Khost,” Afghanistan but apparently never explained Raouf’s true role.
Both Fazl and Khairkwa are members of the “Taliban Five” and were transferred to Qatar last year.
Raouf has worked closely with another senior Taliban leader known as Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir. Like Raouf, Zakir was once held at Guantanamo and attempted to hide the true extent of his role within the Taliban while in custody. [See LWJ report, The Gitmo Files: 2 of Afghanistan’s most wanted hid leadership roles while in US custody.]
After being transferred to Afghanistan, both Raouf and Zakir quickly emerged as top Taliban commanders once again. At one point, Zakir led the Taliban’s efforts to counter the coalition’s surge of forces in southern Afghanistan.
However, both Raouf and Zakir were removed from the senior leadership positions they held within the Taliban after leaving Guantanamo. In April 2014, the Taliban announced that Zakir had resigned from his position as the head of the Taliban’s military commission due to “ill health.” It has been reported that in reality Zakir was forced out. [See LWJ report, Head of Taliban’s military commission resigns due to ‘ill health’.]
Today, Raouf claims he is loyal to the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. And he is not the only ex-Guantanamo detainee who is attempting to expand the Islamic State’s influence into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Muslim Dost, who was also once held in Cuba, has been helping Baghdadi’s organization by recruiting and spreading its propaganda throughout the region.