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
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.
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.
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.
Hamid was, like other Arabs who have fled to Iran, put under heavy surveillance. But Hamid's situation was better than most. He suspects his is most likely because of his previous dealings with elements in the Iranian regime, which gave him what he believes was "a margin of manoeuver." Other Arabs who had arrived in Iran were treated much worse. They were, by Hamid's account, also naïve. They failed to recognise that Iran "had always played its own game," said Hamid, and would accordingly play them too.
According to Hamid, in the year or so immediately following the 2001 U.S. invasion, Iran had what amounted to an open door policy for the fighters and associated officials fleeing Afghanistan. "They allowed Arabs and their families fleeing Afghanistan to enter," Hamid recalled, and "they even offered to assist some of them."
Iran's goal, Hamid suspects, was to "map the network" of Arabs in the country. Although most arrivals were largely unhindered, they were under heavy surveillance. The following year, in 2003, Iran began to round up many of those who had sought sanctuary after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. "Iran was able to make a very big hit on the Arabs, when they arrested or deported around 98 percent of them," he said. Hamid was himself detained, though not deported. He spent some time in a large prison before being transferred into the custody of intelligence, he says, which held him for two years.
After his release, Hamid says he was put into a guarded house, unable to leave -- although his family was allowed to come and go, because they had lived in the country for many years. Others in Iran who were not known to the regime, or who had little value, did not fare so well. "Iran only kept those who it could use as playing cards," Hamid says. "Because the Americans say I am important, they thought that they had caught a big fish." Hamid believes that those who remain in Iran -- which reportedly include senior al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad leaders as well as a number of other militants of significant stature or experience -- are being held as bargaining chips. "The others who remain, they are being treated as playing cards," he said. "Iran wants to use them to make a deal, and so I don't feel that they are going to release them for this reason."
But Hamid is not the only figure of note to have been released. He was sent back to his home country after prolonged negotiations with the Egyptian government, but other people have been quietly released at Iran's border and handed over to smugglers who facilitate their travel to Pakistan or Turkey. Among them, Hamid claims, have been several bin Laden family members, including Saad bin Laden as well as Hamza bin Laden and his mother, Umm Hamza. Both bin Laden sons are now dead; Saad died some time ago in a drone strike in Waziristan while Hamza was killed alongside his father in the Abbottabad raid.
According to Hamid, Umm Hamza was released at the border about six months before bin Laden's killing and delivered to a smuggling gang who then facilitated her return to her husband in Abbottabad. For this reason, Hamid believes that many governments, including Pakistan, Iran and the United States, knew bin Laden's whereabouts. "The place of bin Laden was not a secret, he was sitting under house arrest in that garrison town," he said.
Hamid is adamant about this point, arguing that the smuggling gangs know everything and often sell information about their own activities. "Using smuggling gangs, it is a fact of life there on the borders, everything is smuggled, people, narcotics, weapons, anything making money. The Americans use them and give the facilities to collection information on the Taliban and others," he said. Such gangs are widely used and not only by the Americans, according to Hamid. "The gangs sell information to the Americans or to anyone who will pay."
"It is well known that all the governments in the region use the same gangs," Hamid said, again arguing, "It is unrealistic that they did not know that Umm Hamza was going to her husband. ... It is impossible that [the gangs] did not know. Pakistan knows, America knows, Iran knows. The gang itself will sell this information to anyone who has an interest to know. America has the interest and the money to have discovered the route of the lady from the border."
Sitting with me in Alexandria, Hamid suspects another reason that he was released and others were not was that, as he put it, "Iran knows the Taliban is coming back and perhaps expects me to play a similar role again when it, and other countries must deal with the Taliban in post-occupation Afghanistan."
Hamid believes that he was released in part because his freedom would somehow serve Iran's interests in the region, particularly its future dealings with the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal. As for the other militants remaining in Iran, how well they fare will depend, Hamid believes, on whether or not there is tension between Iran and the U.S. and between Iran and other Arab governments. Their ongoing detention is likely so long as no rapprochement takes place, Hamid believes. If he is right, then recent events in the U.S., and the implication of Iran in a purported plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, DC, suggest that rapprochement may be a ways off and that the remaining militant figures and their families still detained in Iran will not be going anywhere soon.