War & Peace

The Mulla Dadullah Front: A search for clues


A Mulla Dadullah Front has claimed responsibility for assassinating the High Peace Council member, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, on 13 May. Some in the media, as well as the Afghan authorities have picked up on the claim – and some alleged members of the Front have been arrested. Although this is not actually the first sighting of the front, information about it is scarce. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, goes in search of clues, about the group’s emergence and its possible relationship with the Taleban mainstream.

The claim of responsibility by the ‘Mulla Dadullah Feda’i [Self-Sacrificing] Front’ for assassinating the High Peace Council member, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, was briefly reported by AAN in an amendment to our blog about his killing. The front is named after a notorious Taleban commander, Mulla Dadullah, who was responsible for some of the worst war crimes (look for ‘Dadaullah’ in the linked report) committed by the Taleban before 2001 and one of the first to announce the launch of the post-2002 insurgency; he subsequently imported al-Qaida tactics (and some al-Qaida rhetoric) from Iraq to Afghanistan(1), before being killed in a joint Afghan-international forces operation in May 2007 in Helmand. There were some rumours, at the time, that the Taleban leadership might have given him away because it was dislike his bloody ways of massively using suicide attacks and being his own spokesman and it could not reign him in. (2)
Diverse descriptions of the Mulla Dadullah Front have been offered since. But while the front still remains mysterious, it is neither a ‘new’ nor an ‘unknown’ group, as Radio Azadi – the Afghan wing of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that picked up the front’s statement from the Pakistani Express Tribune first – called it in two different reports.

There have indeed been occasional sightings of a ‘Mulla Dadullah Front’ in southern Afghanistan since around late 2008. It was actually the slainPajhwok reporter in Uruzgan,Omaid Khpelwak, who first mentioned the front (at least in the reports I have collected) in two different dispatches in December 2008 when it said it had abducted a number of ANA soldiers in Chinarto district of Uruzgan.(3) In April 2010, another Afghannews agency reported that the front had claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Kandahar provincial council member. In January 2011, the Long War Journal, a terrorism watch website, quoted ‘a US military intelligence official’ that a suicide attack on a bathhouse in Spin Boldak was the work of the Mulla Dadullah Front and that it had carried out several other ‘recent high-profile attacks’, including a ‘complex suicide assault’ on a US combat outpost in Kandahar city on 12 December 2010 that had killed six US and two Afghan soldiers.

The roots of the front seem to go back even further, to mid-2007, when its eponym, Mulla Dadullah, the then Taleban military commander for the southern zone (Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Nimruz), was killed and his younger brother Mulla Bakht Muhammad, not only took over his position, but also assumed his name, re-naming himself Mansur Dadullah; ‘Mansur’ means ‘he who triumphs’ in Arabic.

The original Dadullah, who was credited with rebuilding much of the Taleban’s military structure after its 2001 defeat, had developed a network of his own that, owing to his position, was far more autonomous from the Taleban leadership than is usual in southern Afghanistan. It cut across tribes and reached regions beyond the classic Kandahari realm and was financially self-sufficient. However, it still operated within the Taleban ‘network of networks’. Dadullah’s unique position, though, led to a form of hubris that contributed to his downfall. When he cast himself as (or was taken by some media) as an official Taleban spokesman and as the Taleban’s overall military commander, two positions he officially never held, he possibly even fell from Mulla Omar’s grace.

After his death on 11 May 2007, Bakht Muhammad, alias Mansur Dadullah, was able to maintain some of his slain brother’s status, thanks to resources channelled directly to him from Arab donors who were honouring his brother’s ‘hero status’. But the Taleban leader, Mulla Omar, did not tolerate the Dadullahs’ extravagancies anymore. In December 2007, Mansur Dadullah was demoted for repeatedly ignoring instructions.(4) His current status is unclear. There were reports of his arrest in January 2008 in Pakistan and a report, by murdered Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, that he had been released again in April 2011. (There are rumours and reports, though, that he had been released much earlier, in 2010 or even in February 2008 already, from Afghan custody.(5))

Maybe there are still remnants of this network around, acting on their own. The Taleban spokesman’s claim, reported by the New York Times, ‘that there was no such organization affiliated’ to the Taleban might indicate that it may be working autonomously. The same information came from Afghans with contacts in the Taleban, whom AAN spoke to; they said such a group existed but was ‘very weak’. (This raises the question, of course, of why it has become more visible now.) In any case, Mansur Dadullah has not been mentioned in the latest events as one of the front’s main proponents – unless he has changed his name again.

The name mentioned as ‘the front leader’ is Mulla Faruq Mansur and, as spokesmen, Qari (Mir) Hamza and Mulla Shahabuddin Atal. Of course, these names – as all others – may be noms de guerre.

This leads to the next question, namely, whether the Mulla Dadullah Front is still part of the wider Taleban movement or separate from it – a genuine splinter group. The Long War Journal (see above) called the Front ‘a wing of the Taliban in the south that has adopted al Qaeda’s tactics and ideology’, ‘attempting to sabotage negotiations between the Afghan government and lower-level Taliban leaders and fighters in the south’. Jeff Dressler, of theInstitute for the Study of War, spoke of an ‘extremist offshoot’ of the Taleban a few days ago. A ‘wing’ or ‘faction’ would still be part of a broader movement, although with dissenting opinions and actions perhaps. This is less than a ‘break-away group’, a term that also has been used by some in the media. What ‘offshoot’ might mean is less clear to me: does it indicate common roots, but already a new ‘tree’?

Given the lack of solid information, it is far too early to answer this question for good. Moreover, when not much is known and everyone craves for new bits and pieces, a ‘new group’ can quickly become a hype, blown out of proportion and the object of all kind of psy-ops and counter psy-ops. Already, Afghan security forces have claimed they arrested three Front members in Kabul who, they believe, are ‘part of a bigger network’, as reported by the New York Times (find the link above). The security forces also mentioned the Front in one go with the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e Taiba and with the hands of both the ISI and Iran behind it. These are not unbelievable claims, but they also are cheap to make.

This – still open – debate also belongs in the context of the much-discussed issue of how we should look at the Taleban movement: is it a ‘network of networks’ but still rather homogenous, with an undisputed Mulla Omar, as its leader, and the so-called Quetta Shura as its military command centre (as I have often argued)(6) or, as terrorism analysts and ISAF commander, John Allen, have argued is just is ‘a heterogeneous conglomeration of insurgents with varying motivations and loyalties’ over which Mulla Omar ‘has lost all control’? This, in turn, has repercussions on the question of whether it makes sense at all to try to get the Taleban’s signature on a political settlement that is worth the paper it is written on. Or, to put it more analytically, does Mulla Omar and the Quetta shura control (most of) the movement and can it deliver politically?

The question is timely because we see more reports claiming a difference of opinion within the Taleban movement on the question of whether to talk or not. See for example, the recent public statements by Agha Jan Mutassem, a former head of the Taleban political commission who went to Turkey after almost having been killed in Karachi – by whom is anyone’s guess (here and here).(7) In his 14 May interview with AP, he said:

‘There are two kinds of Taliban. The one type of Taliban who believes that the foreigners want to solve the problem but there is another group and they don’t believe, and they are thinking that the foreigners only want to fight’.

This sounds as if he assumes they are all part of one movement still.

Finally, there is the Long War Journal’s assertion (based on the same intelligence official?) that the Mulla Dadullah Front is led ‘by none other than Mullah A[bd]ul Qayoum Zakir, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee who has since been promoted as the Taliban’s top military commander and co-leader of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura’. In the light of what is available on the background of both Zaker and Mir Hamza who has been called the Front’s leader in recent reports, this does not seem convincing.

Mulla (sometimes also called Qari) Mir Hamza is a rather well-known, long-time Taleban commander.(8) My AAN colleague, Martine van Bijlert, mentions him as a leaders of one of the early Taleban fronts of the 1980s in Dehrawud district of Uruzgan when they still were part of the mujahedin and the post-1994, ‘Taleban Movement’ did not yet exist. She also says that, at least at one point after 2001, he was a member of the Quetta shura.(9) During the Taleban’s Emirate, he served as district governor of Gereshk, which is formally a rather low position. However, according to some sources we spoke to, he was actually the de facto governor of half of Helmand province and a close advisor to Taleban leader, Mulla Omar. In 2006, he was mentioned as a Taleban commander in Helmand (as ‘Mawlawi Amir Hamza al-Ghazi, the ‘Ghazi’ [conqueror] pointing to some earlier merits) and was quoted as saying Mulla Omar was his leader. In February 2010, he was reported to as being one of the Taleban commanders rounded up in Pakistan, together with then Taleban deputy leader, Mulla Beradar. Zaker, meanwhile, is young and a relative newcomer. These differences make it more likely they would be rivals. I would be surprised if the veteran Mir Hamza would work under young Zaker.

My conclusion for all this would be: we have not seen a split in the Taleban, but rather a recently intensifying debate about ‘talks’ in their ranks. As Motassem put it in his interview: ‘[S]ome of my colleagues and friends did not agree with my concept that the Taliban should be a political movement as well’. This is neither unprecedented nor surprising, given the scope the movement has, and any ‘disagreement’ might take on the character of open clashes or ‘sniping’ in some areas or instances. At some point, such a debate can indeed lead to a split of the Taleban movement, particularly when it increasingly involves violent means. Mawlawi Rahmani’s assassination might be one such case: Some Taleban may see those erstwhile comrades, like the late Mawlawi, who have gone back to Afghanistan and reconciled as traitors and might even go as far as killing them.

But we don’t know whether the Mulla Dadullah Front does represent such a split. In any case, we first need to find out far more about its real strength, or even reality, before drawing any far-reaching conclusions.

(1) Immediately before his death, in May 2007, he said in an interview: ‘We and al-Qaida are as one. We and they are in one front. Our aim is one, our Islam is one, and our enemy is also one. We are with them in every operation. We sit down with them at the fronts and we participate in everything together, especially in fighting the enemy’ (quoted from Hekmat Karzai, ‘Taliban: Why Dadullah’s Death Matters’, RSIS Commentaries). This was a minority position in the Taleban, however. His obsession with suicide bombers triggered a discussion within the Taleban in 2007/08 whether these methods are ‘un-Islamic’, with many first-generation Taleban (the so-called ‘pious Taleban’) rejecting Dadullah’s methods.

(2) The story was even broader. The killings of Dadullah and, earlier in 2006, Akhtar Muhammad Osmani, were reported as tit-for-tat betrayals between rival Taleban factions. See Tom Coghlan’s chapter ‘The Taliban in Helmand: An Oral History’, in Giustozzi (ed): Decoding the New Taliban, Hurst: London 2007, pp 138-9.

(3) Some sources say that the Dadullah brothers, members of the Kakar tribe, were born in this district which would make it their home turf. Other sources, however, say that they stem from Pakistan where the Kakar also settle (in Balochistan province).

(4 ) On the Taleban website it was announced that ‘Mullah Mansoor Dadullah is not obedient to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in his actions and has carried out activities which were against the rules of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, so the decision[-making] authorities of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have removed Mansoor Dadullah from his post’. Source: ‘The decision by authorities of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to remove Mansoor Dadullah from his position as the Commander in Charge of the Taliban’, Al Emarah, 29 December 2007. Translation: AfghanWire. Quoted from Joanna Nathan, ‘Reading the Taliban’, in Antonio Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban, London 2009, 40.

(5) The latter version comes from Kabul daily 8 Sobh, 25 February 2008, where it was put in context with the abduction and release, possibly in exchange for Taleban prisoners, of Pakistani ambassador-designate to Kabul, Tariq Azizuddin, on his way to his new assignment. (Read a report about the abduction here.) The same newspaper also reported in the same month that Mansur Dadullah had been re-instated by Mulla Omar, a claim later denied by a Taleban spokesman. So, both 8 Sobh reports seem to be wrong.

(6) More details about the organisational structures of the Taleban in my AAN papers ‘The Other Side’ and ‘How Tribal Are the Taleban?’

(7) Mulla Abdul Salam Zaif – who reportedly travelled (or ‘fled’) to the Gulf after several US searches of his Kabul residence (or from Taleban threats) while sources told AAN that he was in Kabul a few days ago – indicated that several ‘factions’ are emerging within the Taleban.

(8) Nevertheless, Hamza does not appear on the UN sanctions list.

(9) See her chapter ‘Unruly Commanders and Violent Power Struggles’, in Giustozzi, Decoding the New Taliban, 157.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace