April 22, 2010 | FDD’s Long War Journal

Taliban denies kidnapping ex-ISI officers

The Afghan Taliban have denied any involvement in the kidnapping and ransoming of two pro-jihadist former Pakistani intelligence officials who were reported missing in early April.

The Afghan Taliban's top spokesman and an unnamed senior commander said the Afghan Taliban are not involved in the kidnapping of former Inter-Services Intelligence officers Colonel Imam and Khalid Khawaja, both of whom went missing along with two journalists while visiting the town of Miramshah in North Waziristan last month. Imam, Khawaja, and a British journalist were said to have traveled to North Waziristan to produce a documentary on the Taliban. This week, a group calling itself the Asian Tigers claimed credit for the kidnapping and demanded the release of three top Afghan Taliban leaders who have been detained by Pakistani security forces over the past three years.

But Zabihullah Mujahid, the top spokesman for Mullah Omar Mohammed, said the Afghan Taliban were not involved in the kidnapping, and he questioned the legitimacy of the Asian Tigers.

“If this is really a true jihadi organization why didn't it come with its original name,” Mujahid told a reporter from The News.

Mujahid and another Taliban commander who did not provide his identity to The News stated that they were not aware of the location of Imam and Khawaja, and claimed to be trying to secure their release.

“We are trying our best for their release and hopefully they would be freed soon,” the Taliban commander said.

The Afghan Taliban commander also said that Imam and Khawaja would not be placed under custody by the Taliban. Imam in particular is “widely respected among the Taliban for his independent views and sympathies towards the mujahideen.” Khawaja's wife echoed the Taliban commander's sentiment, noting her husband “had filed a writ petition at the Lahore High Court against extradition of the five American Muslims to their government and the detention of Mullah Baradar and other people by the Pakistani government.”

Pakistanis with close links to the Taliban and various jihadist groups are conducting talks with jihadist groups based in North Waziristan in an attempt to secure the release of Imam and Khawaja. Shah Abdul Aziz, a former member of parliament who was arrested last year while meeting a top leader of the Ghazi Force, a terrorist group behind attacks in Islamabad and elsewhere, has initiated talks with Taliban groups in North Waziristan.

More Taliban theater?

A senior US intelligence official who previously described the drama behind the kidnapping of Imam and Khawaja as “Taliban theater” and “a farce” to The Long War Journal said the denial by the Afghan Taliban was predictable.

“The Afghan Taliban want their commanders in Pakistani custody freed, but they don't want to be tied to this publicly,” the official said. “They can't be seen, publicly at least, as opposing their ISI handlers. If their cutout [the Asian Tigers] secure the release of Baradar or Kabir, then the gambit will have worked.”

The official also scoffed at the notion that Imam and Khawaja could disappear from North Waziristan without the Taliban's knowing.

“North Waziristan is jihadi central and the Taliban rule there with an iron fist,” the official said. “Does anyone seriously believe that these guys, who were under the protection of [South Waziristan Taliban leader Waliur Rehman Mehsud, who is sheltering there] all the sudden disappeared into thin air, and the Taliban are wondering how?”

The so-called Asian Tigers have threatened to kill Imam and Khawaja if the government does not free Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Abdul Kabir, and Mullah Mansur Dadullah Akhund.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar directed the Quetta Shura before he was detained in Karachi sometime in January or February 2010. Baradar was the Afghan Taliban's second in command and the group's operational commander.

Kabir led the Peshawar Regional Military Council, one of the Afghan Taliban's top four regional commands, before he was captured by Pakistani intelligence in February 2010. He served as the Taliban's former shadow governor of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, as well as the governor of Nangarhar during the Taliban's reign.

Dadullah, who is also known as Mullah Bakht Mohammed, replaced his brother Mullah Dadullah Akhund as the top commander in southern Afghanistan during the summer of 2007. His status has been in doubt, but he was last reported to have been arrested by Pakistani security forces in January 2008.

Background on Imam and Khawaja

Colonel Imam, whose real name is Amir Sultan, is considered to be one of the fathers of the Taliban. He was instrumental in providing training, organization, and material support for the Taliban as they began to take over vast regions of southern Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. He is believed to have directed the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995, and then later directed the Taliban assaults on Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad, according to the London Times.

Imam has continued to support the Taliban since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and has been spotted in southern Afghanistan by Afghan and United Nations officials. Imam has openly praised Mullah Omar.

“I love him,” he said. “He brought peace to Afghanistan.”

Khawaja is a former Squadron Commander in the Pakistani Air Force who fought alongside al Qaeda and reportedly Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After retiring as a major, he served in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Pakistan's notorious military intelligence service that helped to found the Taliban and other jihadist terror groups. Khawaja has also been linked to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Khawaja serves as the Taliban's “consigliere,” a US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. At the end of February, Khawaja succeeded in blocking the transfer of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's second in command, and four other members of the Afghan Taliban's Quetta Shura, to foreign custody. He is also one of the lawyers for the five Americans who entered Pakistan to join al Qaeda in North Waziristan late last year.