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

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.

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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

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