Interview with a Taliban Insider: Iran's Game in Afghanistan

A long-time senior strategist for the Taliban regime who fought under the name Abu Walid al Masri was recently released from Iran after nearly a decade in captivity. In an exclusive interview, he describes Iran's relationship to the Taliban, why it and other countries may have known Osama bin Laden's hiding place, and the country's strategy in post-occupation Afghanistan

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Mustafa Hamid, also known as Abu Walid al Masri, shown in 1990 and in 2011 / Leah Farrall

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- A beachside cafe in Alexandria may not seem like a place where you'd find a man who counts among his old friends Taliban leader Mullah Omar, military commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, and past and present leaders of al Qaeda. But that's where I met with Mustafa Hamid, better known as Abu Walid al Masri, a senior mujahidin figure who was among the first Arabs to arrive in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets some 30 years ago, and the first foreigner to swear allegiance to Mullah Omar.

Regarded in the militant milieu as "a school in himself," as the historian Basil Muhammad put it, Hamid is an independent but respected and valued figure. He's also a journalist who worked for the Arabic-language Al Ettihad news during the Soviet-Afghan war and was Al Jazeera's Kandahar bureau chief during the latter years of the Taliban's reign. Hamid has also emerged as a prominent historian of the Afghan jihad, authoring 12 books on this topic. He also serves as a contributing author for the Taliban's flagship publication, al-Samud.

"Iran knows the Taliban is coming back"

Until two months ago, Hamid had spent the better part of the past decade under house arrest in Iran, he said, after being detained entering the country when Afghanistan fell to coalition forces in late 2001. His detention, he told me, "was a very bad experience that affected my family and I greatly in health and morale. But it also had one benefit for me: I was sitting and writing. Without being in jail, I think I would have never finished my books."

Now, after a sustained lobbying campaign by family members, Hamid is free. We met back in his Egyptian homeland nearly two years after we first began talking online, a months-long conversation (and, at times, debate) we had over email about our respective ideas.

"I thought Iran intended to hold me forever," he said when we met at the cafe. "They denied that I was there but after the campaign from my family, my presence became known and if the outside world knows someone is there, then they have a chance of a deal being made for their release."

Hamid knows more than most about the machinations driving Iran's detention and release of foreign fighters who had illegally crossed its borders; he served at times as the unofficial Taliban emissary to the country. But he hotly contests that he represented al Qaeda or its interests to the government in Iran, as is alleged by the United States.

"Al Qaeda did not send me, nobody sent me. I made the proposal to Mullah Omar to reach out to Iran when he came to visit us in the village south of Kandahar airport, in 1997, and he agreed." The proposal Hamid recounts would have been part of efforts aimed at unlocking the Iranian embargo that later intensified after several Iranian diplomats were killed in 1998 by Taliban forces at Mazar-i-Sharif, an event that also led Iranian forces to mass at the border. "The closing of the borders brought great harm to the Afghan people," Hamid says.

"Al Qaeda tried to find its own routes into and out of Afghanistan without the Iranian government"

Hamid suggested to Omar that the Taliban try to normalize relations with Iran as well as Pakistan, he says, which was also "causing problems at the border" at the time. "I told Mullah Omar that he should seek good relations with these countries because Afghanistan had no ports and no sea access, so my argument for reaching out was from the strategic point of view," Hamid says.

Hamid says that Omar agreed, dispatching him to talk to their Iranian counterparts about normalizing relations and opening up cross-border routes for supplies and food. But Hamid failed, and the effort was unpopular among a key constituency. Some within al Qaeda were unhappy that Hamid had talked to Iranian officials and were very aggressive to him when he returned, he told me. Still, al Qaeda also wanted to engage with Iran, Hamid says, but for different purposes. It wanted to establish its own private transit routes through the country, according to Hamid. "Al Qaeda tried to find its own routes into and out of Afghanistan without the Iranian government and tried to do it through Baluchistan," an ethnic region spanning Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The failed diplomatic mission did not end Hamid's ad-hoc liaison role for the Taliban government. As war loomed in Afghanistan in late 2001, he was again dispatched to reach out to Iran. The Taliban leadership, Hamid says, wanted him to figure out what position Iran would take in the coming U.S. war against the Taliban, and whether the Iranian government might be willing to assist the group. Hamid and a number of Afghan officials met at the border with Iranian counterparts, who suggested the Taliban retreat to the south. "This made the Afghans angry," Hamid remembered. "They realised that Iran would continue to play its own game in Afghanistan, and the region." This led Hamid to believe that the Iranian government, in other words, would not try to help the Taliban retain control over Afghanistan.

When Herat fell unexpectedly to coalition forces the next day, marking the beginnings of the Taliban's collapse, Hamid and the small group with him were trapped and had to cross into Iran. He recalls linking up with some Tajiks from the al Nahda party, formerly a militant group operating in Tajikistan, some of whose members Hamid says he had earlier trained at the famed al Farouq training camp in the mid 1990's. (Al Farouq was destroyed by U.S. cruise missiles targeting al Qaeda following the August 1998 African Embassy bombings). The Tajiks helped the group to cross the border, Hamid remembers, dodging gunfire from Iranian border guards.

When Hamid and the others with him were detained by Iranian authorities, the Tajiks from al-Nahda helped to negotiate their release. They had a presence in Iran, Hamid said of the Tajiks, and "they had some work to do there [in Iran] or some job." " I don't know what kind of job, whether it was political, economical, or for communications with the outside world, but in late 2001 they were still in Iran." Several years earlier, the Tajiks had helped Hamid to resettle his family in Iran using faked documents. In late 2001, after being released from border custody, Hamid made his way to his family in Iran.



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Leah Farrall is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a former counter terrorism analyst, and founder of the blog allthingscounterterrorism.com.

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