The Mystery PR Man — or Three — Behind Taliban Propaganda

Is he real or fake? One man or many? Nobody knows for sure about Zabihullah Mujahid.

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Why you should care

Because Zabihullah Mujahid’s the Taliban’s contact to the outside world.

After the Longest War: What's next in Afghanistan? After the Longest War: What's next in Afghanistan?

Zabihullah Mujahid has been the Taliban’s mouthpiece for 12 years, yet he might not even be a real person. His Twitter account has more than 65,000 followers, but it’s unclear if it’s operated by several members of the Afghan Sunni extremist group or one.

Most suspect the former, but when I called “Zabihullah Mujahid,” the man who answered swore it was his real name. We spoke just after President Donald Trump promised to leave a small contingent of troops behind in Afghanistan. “We don’t interfere in American affairs, so they have no right to interfere in ours,” he tells me, calm and collected. “Afghanistan is our country.”

One week later, on Sept. 7, the president abruptly halted peace talks in a tweet, citing the death of an American soldier in a Taliban suicide blast. Many Americans are still eager to wind down their country’s longest war, but Mujahid indicated in a follow-up message that the battle for Afghanistan is just getting started.

“We had chosen two ways to end the occupation of our country,” Mujahid wrote. “First, dialogue and understanding. Second, fighting and jihad. Now that Trump has declared the first way dead, the second way is alive. And we will make Trump regret, God willing.”

Whatever the truth, Mujahid is one of the most important cogs in the Taliban’s propaganda machine.

 

Mujahid is one of three official Taliban spokesmen. The others are Yousef Ahmadi, who is responsible for speaking on matters related to southern Afghanistan, and Suhail Shaheen, who speaks from Qatar. But Mujahid is by far the most active, as his Twitter account promptly announces assassinations, claims or denies attacks and regularly denounces the Americans as invaders.

Mujahid has claimed that he’s a man in his forties with several children. He has also sworn he’s in Afghanistan, although his Twitter geo-location has placed him in the Pakistani province of Sindh … and in Ohio. When we spoke, he wouldn’t discuss his personal life or location, for “security reasons.” Convincing the world that he is in Afghanistan is vital to avoid being perceived as a puppet of Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime patron.

Whatever the truth, Mujahid is one of the most important cogs in the Taliban’s propaganda machine.

Describing his job over the phone, he says his foremost purpose is to tell Western audiences about American atrocities in Afghanistan. To be sure, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has said U.S. forces may be guilty of war crimes in Afghanistan, which prompted the Trump administration to revoke the entry visa of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in April.

But the Taliban has made brutality a calling card for decades. Since peace negotiations began last December, the Taliban stepped up attacks against government forces, officials and civilians. Mokhtar Wafayi, an Afghan journalist for Howayda News, spoke to me just a day after three friends were killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in Kundoz province. The “truth” Mujahid presents to the world, Wafayi says, is often distorted.

“Mujahid usually lies about who the Taliban kill and the number of people they kill,” he says. “Their goal is to make the government look weak and scare Afghans.”

Wafayi also is sure that Mujahid isn’t one person, but several. Since 2014, he says Mujahid’s voice has changed three times. His number changes often too, yet he always sends Wafayi his new contact.

Early on, U.S. military intelligence officials referred to Mujahid as “Zabihullah Persona,” since they believed that the pseudonym represented a small media center based in Pakistan. There is just no way, they thought, that one man could communicate with so many reporters while remaining active on social media and jihadist websites. Then, in 2009, CNN’s Nic Robertson conducted an interview in Afghanistan with the shadowy spokesperson, his face blurred. Once the interview aired, Mujahid contacted Afghan journalists to deny ever doing an interview with Robertson, calling the man on television an impostor.

“We punished him, and he was regretful,” Mujahid says when I ask about the man Robertson interviewed. “He’s since been freed, but I don’t know where he is.”

In November 2011, Afghan intelligence arrested a man they identified as Zabihullah Mujahid, but the spokesperson quickly contacted journalists to deny the arrest.

Omar Sharifi, a social anthropologist and former director of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in Kabul, traces the Mujahid phenomenon to the 1980s. That’s when several mujahideen groups established their own ad hoc media centers in Pakistan to communicate with Western journalists about their campaign against the Soviet invasion. “Just like the groups back then, the Taliban today is trying to present a façade of legitimacy by opening links with journalists,” Sharifi says.

In the eyes of the Taliban, journalists have proven useful to disseminate their message, but the group still doesn’t tolerate free speech. Mujahid says that any person who insults Taliban officials or Islam would be punished, while denying that the Taliban has ever threatened or attacked journalists for doing their jobs. He doubles down when I remind him that the Taliban threatened to attack Afghan journalists for spreading “anti-Taliban sentiments” in June.

“Some journalists publish Taliban phone numbers and reveal what our [military] goals are,” Mujahid says. “They do things that the media isn’t supposed to do.”

The Taliban, however, saw no issue with escalating the war while negotiating a peace agreement with the U.S. Mujahid tweeted to confirm the group’s third attack in as many days on Sept. 2. It was the same day that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was briefed on the draft of the peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. But with peace talks now off, it appears the Taliban miscalculated.

The ongoing bloodshed has journalists like Wafayi anticipating a Taliban takeover whenever negotiations resume and the U.S. eventually pulls out. If that happens, waves of journalists and civil society figures could flee the country

That would leave Zabihullah Mujahid as the only voice in Afghanistan.

Pallabi Munsi contributed to this story.

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