Three weeks after the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan authorities appear to have found out astonishingly little about who ordered and carried out this plot. As part of a new tranche of documents and testimony from the investigation, the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, has released videoed testimony from Hamidullah, the go-between who introduced the assassin to Rabbani’s circle. Nothing in his testimony so far backs the Afghan government’s claims that the Quetta Shura and the ISI were behind the killing, although this does not mean they are innocent either. There is also still no indication as to why government officials in Kabul, including the president, were so easily taken in. AAN senior analyst Kate Clark reports.
In a DVD* released at a recent NDS press conference, Hamidullah Akhundzada, looks bruised and battered. Given what we know of the treatment commonly meted out to Afghan suspects in custody, this should not come as a surprise (see the recent UNAMA report). Nevertheless, Hamidullah’s ‘confession’, as NDS has titled it, does not come across as having been scripted by his interrogators. He appears to be largely truthful, although there are gaps and implausibilities which seem to point to lies in parts of his account. His words appear to be neither those of a master conspirator nor of an entirely innocent man, but as someone who was rather feckless.
Published accounts by both Hamidullah and the reconciled Taleb and HPC member Rahmatullah Wahidyar, who was tasked with finding Quetta Council contacts, concur that a man called Abdul Satar (about whom we have no details) introduced them to each other. Hamidullah said he came to Kabul with Abdul Satar** and met Wahidyar, Stanekzai, Rabbani, the former governor of Helmand Assadullah Wafa (confirmed by another HPC member, although Wafa has denied meeting him), and Habibullah Fawzi, the Emirate-era Taleban ambassador to Islamabad and Jeddah and current member of the HPC.
Wahidyar and Hamidullah both said that Hamidullah recorded all his meetings, except the one with Rabbani, on his mobile phone. According to Wahidyar, Hamidullah said he was going to pass these messages to the Quetta Shura and for the next four months Hamidullah was regularly reporting back on his progress. However, Hamidullah’s version of his promise is less substantial: ‘I said I would do my best to pass on their messages to the Taleban.’ There is no evidence that these messages ever reached the Quetta Shura. It may well be that Wahidyar, Rabbani, Stanekzai and ultimately President Karzai were far more enthusiastic about this track than was warranted.
Hamidullah said it was in Quetta that he got mixed up with the killers – and here his account sounds implausible. He said that a childhood friend, Muhammad, who was known as Mahmud, found the audio by chance when he was playing with Hamidullah’s mobile one day. The following day when they saw each other in a relative’s house, he copied the audio to his own phone. Subsequently, while meeting in a park at night where they ‘often played volleyball,’ he said he was introduced to another man, Muhebullah (whom he said, after he was arrested, was identified to him as the Taleban shadow governor of Kabul)^ and that he promised to ‘help’ them because he was a Muslim and would help any Muslim. Hamidullah said ‘they’ (presumably Muhebullah and Mahmud) pressured him to use his HPC contacts to introduce Esmatullah to Wahidyar and the HPC.
Hamidullah admits that he knew Esmatullah would have explosives in his turban and that he told the plotters that Esmatullah would be searched by the HPC guesthouse guards. Despite this, he still travelled with Esmatullah to Kabul and also brought his family along. Even after he heard the news of Rabbani’s killing, he decided to stay on in the capital. His phone security was horrible. He took calls from Esmatullah and Muhebullah, allowing him to be tracked quickly by the NDS and arrested. These do not seem to be the actions of an experienced conspirator, nor of someone wholeheartedly committed to the murder, who is now trying to hide his complicity, but rather of someone who was naive.
Astonishingly, although Hamidullah has been in custody for three weeks, we still do not know who this key go-between ‘is’- his factional and tribal background, his family and networks, his credentials.
On the DVD, Hamidullah gives his father’s name and says he is from Kandahar and is Zadran (if true, that would make him a member of a rare breed – Zadrans are from Loya Paktia, with a few naaqelin families, ie families who were resettled by different kings in various parts of the country, here and there). If he had a position in the Emirate, he gives no indication of this, although he looks to be in his 50s, so should have lived through both the Emirate and the jihad. The various names he gives in his narrative – Dr Ahmad, Muhammad aka Mahmud, Muhebullah and Asadullah – are also too commonplace and lacking in detail to be of any help in tracing who might be behind this plot. The information in an earlier blog that he may have been the former head of Ariana Airlines seems to have been wrong. The ‘Ariana Hamidullah Akhundzada’ is alive and well and gainfully employed in Afghanistan. So who might the arrested Hamidullah ‘be’?
One man who met him briefly on one of his earlier visits to Kabul is HPC member, Habibullah Fowzi. He described Hamidullah, when interviewed, as neither educated nor a mullah, and that he had said he was a former mujahed rather than an ‘original’ Taleb. He said that, although it is difficult to size a man up in 20 minutes, Hamidullah appeared to be, ‘an ordinary man, not a special man to have for such a mission.’ NDS spokesman, Lutfullah Mashal, said Hamidullah looks to be, ‘an ordinary Taleb, living in Quetta, with no known position during the Emirate and possibly Achekzai.’
All things considered, the go-between, Hamidullah, appears to have been a very thin thread on which to hang hopes for peace talks with the Taleban. It is difficult to argue with the assessment of the former EU and UN envoy, Fransesc Vendrell that President Karzai’s way of conducting peace talks appears to have been inherently problematic and unprofessional and left the participants vulnerable to trickery and attack.
Moreover, there is nothing in the available testimony to back President Karzai and his government’s accusations that variously the Quetta Shura, Pakistan and the ISI were behind this killing (see this earlier blog).This plot appears to have been hatched on Pakistani soil, but beyond that, unless the Afghan government has other sources of information which it has not disclosed, any accusation apart from those against Esmatullah and Hamidullah, seems unsupported by the evidence.***
The decision to blame Pakistan has resulted in major policy shifts: the official halt of Karzai’s policy of talking to the Taleban and the souring of bilateral relations. Domestically, however, it was a political masterstroke, calming anger from Rabbani allies who never wanted talks with the Taleban anyway and are hostile to Pakistan. It dove-tailed into US allegations of ISI links with the Haqqani network and masked the fact that we still do not know who was behind the killing of Rabbani, that the investigation so far has produced few leads and that Karzai’s way of doing peace may well have been contributed factor to making former president Rabbani vulnerable to assassination.
As a coda, it should also be mentioned that the Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed’s phone has largely been switched off in the last four weeks. Two journalists who have managed to speak to him in recent days said he told them that the leadership was still investigating the Rabbani killing. According to the Taleban’s own rules, suicide bombings must be authorised – and this was someone posing as a Taleban envoy. The leadership has yet to let the public know whether it authorised this killing or whether it was a rogue operation, which would indicate command and control problems in the Taleban ranks or indeed, whether it was carried out by a group other than the Taleban. Finally, ISI assistance can still not be ruled out.
*On the same DVD, the NDS has released a fresh statement from Wahidyar (this adds to his earlier press conference testimony, see here); testimony from the manager of the HPC guesthouse in Kabul where the killer stayed; and the audio message which the killer said had been sent by the Quetta Shura to the HPC. AAN has also obtained a copy of the letter purported to have been sent by the Quetta Shura. Translations can be found at the end of this blog.
** In Wahidyar’s testimony, Abdul Satar first came to Kabul and met Rabbani and Stanekzai, then Hamidullah was introduced and came separately.
*** The Pakistan accusation was widely reported in the media whereas the contents of Hamidullah’s confession was not (the DVD was handed out at a press conference on 4 October 2011).
Translation of the ‘confession’ of Hamidullah (from video from a DVD released by NDS on 4 October 2011)
My name is Haji Hamiddullah. My father’s name is Haji Mullah Abdul Hamid Akhund. My tribe is Zadran, I am from Kandahar, District 5 in Saheb Agha street and right now I am living in Quetta, Pakistan.
Six months ago, I was introduced to the Peace Council by Abdul Satar whom we call Mawlana. The first time we came together and met with Wahidyar and Habibullah Fawzi, then I met Stanekzai with Asadullah Wafa. After a few days, I met Stanekzai again and finally, for the third time, three days later, I met Stanekzai alone and one evening Wahidyar took me to Rabbani. I met Ustad Rabbani for almost thirty minutes. Except for Ustad Rabbani’s meeting, I recorded all the meetings I had with the Peace Council members on my mobile phone. I stayed for ten nights in Kabul and I promised them that I would do my best to transfer their messages to the Taleban. Then I went to Quetta.
I have a childhood friend whose name is Muhammad and we call him Mahmud. One day he came to my house and got my phone and found the audio of the meetings I had had with the Peace Council members. I said to him, ‘Don’t touch my phone,’ but he said, ‘Wait I just want to listen to it.’ Finally, the next day day when I went to one of my relative’s houses whose name is Dr Ahmad, Mahmud came there and was playing with my phone and transferred the audio to his mobile.
An hour later, Mohebullah came. I did not know that he was a Taleb. In Kabul when I told people [the interrogators] about his appearance, they said he was the Taleban governor of Kabul.^ When Muhebullah came, Mahmud played him the audio and he listened to it.
There is a park called Chalo Bawle park in Quetta where we go in the evenings and play volleyball. We go there in the evenings and stay until it gets dark. A few days later, we went there. When I went there, Mahmud was there. I sat with him. Muhebullah was walking around and eventually found us and sat down right next to me and said, ‘You can help us if you make a promise.’ He was saying, ‘You sit here and you’re saying this and that and in this case…’ I said to him, ‘Yes I am a Muslim. If I can, I will help every Muslim.’
Two days later when me and Mahmud met each other, he was repeatedly asking me, ‘Do you stand on your promise that you will help us?’ I told him, ‘Don’t bother me every day. I told you in Pashtu [ie I was not lying] that yes I can.’
A few days later, I was in the park when Mahmud and Muhebullah came at the same time and said that I had the ability to do something for them and I should do it. I told them what help [you need], let me know. They said, the way you went to the peace council, we have somebody else from the Taleban to send there and you can help us in this regard. Now we don’t have anybody else to introduce him to the people you met, so you will introduce this person that we will introduce to you. Introduce him to the peace council members whom you met. And that which is in your folder [ie the audio], I will take it and it will be considered as evidence and you will introduce this person to those you met.
Our meeting finished on that day and a few days later, they came and explained that they would do something which should be broadcast in media. A voice should be raised from the High Peace Council to the media and therefore we need your help. I said that what I promised I will do. Then they explained they would make an explosion. I said, ‘If you cause an explosion, there is checking in the guest house of the Peace Council’ and they said, ‘We will do it in such a way that they will not check’. Finally they actually showed me a cap and said they would do it this way and would do something which should be broadcast on the media.
Every day, they were coming to me and asking when I would go. Finally I decided to come to Kandahar with my family after one and half years and they brought a man called Esmatullah to my house and we did not sit and meet each other till late at night, because I was making preparations for the next day’s trip with the family and when I sat with him late at night, I talked to him. He was not talking and only answered my questions very briefly. I thought he didn’t know me and that is why he was not talking to me.
The next day, I went with a motorcycle and brought a taxi. Esmatullah sat in the front seat, me and my family sat in the back seat of the taxi and we left for Kandahar. Esmatullah took my number and gave me a missed call and I saved his number. I went to my nephew’s house and Mahmud called me from Quetta. I told him I was busy and that I would talk to him later and he asked, whether I was going the following day. I told him yes and now I am very busy.
The next day, we headed towards Kabul at 3 o’ clock in the morning. Esmatullah had a plastic bag in his hand in which he had the cap and I asked him in the bus why he had put it away in his bag. He said the wires were not connected and not, to worry.
We arrived in Kabul. We got off the bus and I asked Esmatullah what he was going to do. He said he had called Wahidyar and he was on his way and would pick him up. I left for my father-in-law’s house with my family and Wahidyar picked him up from the station. It was evening, he called me and said he had arrived and now he was with Wahidyar. He was in Kabul for a few days and one day, he called me and said he had a meeting with Stanekzai and the next day he called me and said he had a meeting with Rabbani that evening.
Late in that evening one of my childhood friends called me and asked where I was. I told him I was in Kabul and he informed me that an incident had happened in Kabul. When I arrived home and watched TV, I discovered that Ustad Rabbani had been killed.
The following night, Muhebullah called me and asked how I was and what I wanted to do and did I want to stay [in Kabul]. I said that yes I would stay here for a few days because I was with my family and he said, ‘OK, as you wish.’
Dr Ahmad is living close to Chalo Bowle in Woch Manda [in Quetta]. I had gone to his house because he is my relative and Mahmud was always going there. [Dr Ahmad] is close to Mullah Mansa Akhund who is the Taleban governor of Kandahar. His home is in Usman Qala in his grandfather’s house. Concerning Asadullah, he was introduced to me by Esmatullah. He said he was from Kandahar, but his accent was not Kandahari.
In the investigation which they carried out, they told me I had done it all, but I would like to say that I didn’t know who was behind the scene. What I know is that Muhebullah and Mahmud and their meetings were done in Quetta. I don’t know with whom.
^ This is a correction: An earlier version of this blog described Hamidullah as having said that when he arrived in Quetta and told people about Muhebullah, they told him that he was the Taleban governor of Kabul.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020