'Pious Spy' Article Casts Doubt On Taliban Chief's Death

Qari Ahmadullah was the Taliban's minister of intelligence. He held great power in Afghanistan, using mullahs to inform on the people. He was supposedly killed by the United States in an airstrike, but a piece in Harpers Magazine raises the question of whether he may still be alive. Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne talks to journalist Mujib Mashal, whose piece is called "The Pious Spy."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It really wasn't that many years ago - the 1990s - when a power struggle waged by warlords in Afghanistan ended up bringing the Taliban to power in that country. Journalist Mujib Mashal was just a boy when the Taliban marched into Kabul. And in the January issue of Harpers, he writes about one of the more memorable characters in that repressive regime - the minister of intelligence. Renee Montagne reached him in Kabul.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Mujib Mashal calls the intelligence chief, Qari Ahmadullah, the "pius spy"; also, Mashal write, a spy who is rumored to still be alive even though he was reportedly killed as the Taliban fled Kabul.

Remind us of what it was like in Kabul. That is to say, what kind of power did he and his spy service wield over the average person's life?

MUJIB MASHAL: It was quite a controlling government. Actually years later, after the Taliban government fell, I ended up in a boarding school in the United States, and I read George Orwell's "1984." And I just kept smiling because so many of the images in Orwell's "1984" sort of resonated with me. All grown-up men - say, from above the ages of 13 and 14 - were required to report to the mosque for prayer five times a day. And these mullahs would, you know, look around in the mosque and if they saw somebody missing for too long, they would report it to the security agencies. There was an environment of fear where you couldn't distinguish between who is a government agent and who is not.

Ahmadullah's spy agency wrote an article, and the article concluded that sharing information with the government in the name of God brings rewards in the other world. It very eloquently, and very smartly, used religion to justify the surveillance on people's lives.

MONTAGNE: What about Qari Ahmadullah himself? What kind of person was he?

MASHAL: The kind of person he was, was largely shaped by his - where he grew up. Several members of his family were killed by the Soviets during the war. So he grew up with a lot of, you know, sorrow in the back of his head. And his brother and his family tell me that he was, you know, very quiet guy; he was a bit stubborn. But later, when he became a government official, Ahmadullah had a house in the diplomatic enclave in Kabul. You know, a lot of diplomats left, and these houses were taken over by - Taliban members moved in. So Ahmadullah had a house in this very posh neighborhood, but he would spend the nights with his soldiers at the ministry.

MONTAGNE: People would say he was humble. He gave his chair to an elder. He could cure a child. Clearly, he was a spy who left an impression. Now, for 12 years, he was widely believed - Ahmadullah - to have been killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan. What led the U.S. and others to believe that he was, in fact, dead?

MASHAL: Part of his story is also a reflection on the chaotic environment in which this war began in. It began in quite a vacuum of information about the government of the Taliban. Even today, you can't find a picture of Ahmadullah on the Internet - or anywhere. And I think because it was one of the first victories the U.S. claimed in killing the senior leaderships, I think they were very quick to claim this victory without actually verifying on the ground.

The version that is put forward in Hank Crumpton's book - the former deputy director of counterterrorism for CIA, who was sort of coordinating the attacks in Afghanistan 2001 - he gives a version that we had information that Ahmadullah is in this house in eastern Afghanistan. We dropped a bomb on the house, and then satellite images showed one man trying to flee this house; and we dropped a second bomb on this one individual and, you know, he perished; we killed him. But if you read news reports, it says that a body was brought to Ghazni - identified and brought to Ghazni for burial.

What sort of raised the question to me is that if you drop one of those heavy bombs on one individual, how come there's a body left to be identified and then be brought to Ghazni? And then when I went to his family and Ghazni, and they said well, actually, there was never any burial for Ahmadullah. They laughed off the idea.

MONTAGNE: His family claims Ahmadullah is teaching at a seminary, somewhere. And what with the talk now in Afghanistan of reconciling with some Taliban, there may be no need to lie low if that's what he's really doing.

MASHAL: So for one, maybe Ahmadullah feels that there's not much risk to his life anymore by coming out now. But for another reason, he's still young. And if there ends up being a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, he probably has political ambitions.

MONTAGNE: Again, if he's still alive. Mujib Mashal's story is in the current issue of "Harpers" magazine. It's called "The Pious Spy: A Taliban Intelligence Chief's Death and Resurrection."

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