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One Voice or Many for the Taliban, but Pegged to a Single Name

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  • One Voice or Many for the Taliban, but Pegged to a Single Name

    Published: June 14, 2011

    KABUL, Afghanistan — Will the real Zabiullah Mujahid, mouthpiece of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, please stand up?

    Afghan intelligence officials say he is really Hajji Ismail, a 42-year-old man from the Pakistani town of Chaman. In cellphone conversations, he insists that his real name is Zabiullah Mujahid, and that he is a middle-aged man living on the run in Afghanistan. American military intelligence officials prefer to call him the Zabiullah persona, saying that he is actually a team of Taliban operatives pretending to be the same man as they run what amounts to a media call center over the border in Pakistan.

    Whoever he may be, he has proved to be an effective communicator, as even some of his enemies acknowledge. The Taliban’s message gets out through a number of different social media tools — cellphone calls, text messages, e-mails, postings on jihadi Web sites, Facebook accounts and, more recently, Twitter feeds. And, most important, the messages get out quickly, with the Taliban often claiming responsibility for an attack within minutes of its execution, and with just enough credible detail to be believable.

    Rarely are NATO communicators able to move with that sort of speed, hampered as they are by member nations’ competing restrictions on the release of information, as well as by a huge military bureaucracy that is not as nimble as one man, or a small staff, with cellphones — especially when truth is no obstacle.

    “The facts are not really important to them,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the former chief spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan. “They have gotten away with that for a long time, and I would argue that is their greatest weakness as the media become more sophisticated.”

    Mr. Mujahid stays in touch with some Afghan journalists on a nearly daily basis by cellphone, sending text messages to them and fielding calls from them. Every couple of weeks, and sometimes even more frequently, he changes his number, then sends text messages out with the new number. Signed z_m or z_mujahid, the texts go randomly to a few Afghan journalists, who then share the new number with their colleagues.

    There is another major Taliban spokesman as well, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who concentrates mainly on southern and western Afghanistan. But Mr. Mujahid is much more active, giving the Taliban version of attacks carried out in Kandahar and through eastern and northern Afghanistan.

    Afghan journalists who talk to him regularly say they recognize his voice; he speaks Pashto with an accent from eastern Afghanistan, they say. The journalists also say they are convinced that they are talking to the same person each time, and have been for the past couple of years.

    No Western journalist has met him in person, except possibly for Nic Robertson of CNN, who conducted an on-camera interview in 2009 with someone who said he was Mr. Mujahid. The man’s face was not shown during the interview.

    “He is around 30, maybe a little younger, bearded but not heavily so,” Mr. Robertson reported. “He is slight but not weak and close to my height — a little over six foot.”

    After that interview was broadcast, the Zabiullah Mujahid whom journalists in Afghanistan had been speaking to by cellphone repudiated it and said the interviewee was an impostor.

    One intelligence analyst said that CNN really had been talking to one of the multiple Zabiullah personalities but that the man’s superiors were upset with the interview and decided to disown it.

    “There’s no way Zabiullah Mujahid could be one person,” the analyst said. “No one person could take that many calls from the media.”

    Mr. Mujahid is at least determined to seem to be one person, and when the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan government’s intelligence service, identified him as Mr. Ismail recently, he was indignant.

    “The liar spokesperson expressed his views about my real name and place of work to provoke me,” he said when reached by cellphone. “The enemies have long tried to arrest me, but if they had such information they could have long ago. I am inside the country and living with other mujahedeen shoulder to shoulder in the jihadi trenches, not in an office nor in a foreign country’s intelligence shelter.”

    An American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss intelligence matters otherwise, disputed that, however. “There’s no question these guys are not in Afghanistan,” he said. “Most of them never have been. The last time they were in Afghanistan was probably six years ago.”

    Mr. Mujahid — or someone using that name — was happy to describe himself during a series of interviews by cellphone. “I am a middle-aged man, married with several children,” he said. “I can’t be more specific about the number because of security reasons. I always move around and never stay in one place due to security threats.”

    The man being interviewed was clearly well educated, and he said he had a master’s degree in religious studies. But he would not name the country he studied in, citing security concerns. Under the Taliban government, he held a low-level job in the Culture and Information Department, he said, and fought alongside the insurgents before becoming a Taliban spokesman “four years ago, more or less.”

    “I used to have a Facebook page, but then the enemy blocked it,” he said. A page with a similar name, Zabiullah Mujahed, is not his, he said. “My name is spelled M-U-J-A-H-I-D.”

    The American official said, “The name became a brand for them.” And he had an answer for journalists who still insisted that there seemed to be just one person on the phone over time. “That it was one person the last couple years, quite possible, but the last nine years, probably not,” the American official said. “We don’t believe there is an individual born with that name who is the person you’ve been talking to for the last couple years.”

    An attack on the Finest Supermarket in Kabul in January was an example of Mr. Mujahid’s effort to be both prompt and plausible. Reached within minutes of that suicide bombing, Mr. Mujahid said he had not heard about it but would check. A few minutes later he called back to confirm that the Taliban had carried it out, and he maintained that the victims were members of the Blackwater security company, now operating under the name Xe Services.

    The victims, in fact, were 14 civilians, including an entire family of six, according to NATO and Afghan government officials. But Xe Services did acknowledge that some of its employees were in the vicinity — though none, the company said, were hurt.

    Mr. Mujahid has taken pains to speak with some moderation, avoiding much of the extremist rhetoric of the Taliban — though NATO troops are always “invaders” and “occupiers,” and Afghan soldiers are invariably “puppets.”

    Out of respect for freedom of the press, the United States military has not retaliated against journalists who quote Mr. Mujahid in their articles. Most journalists do, usually balancing his remarks with other sources (although some Pakistani newspapers will run his claims verbatim).

    Still, Admiral Smith said such fairness sometimes went too far. “With respect,” he said, “prudence may be the best course as media consider the impact of giving a terror group spokesmen a pulpit to reach an audience that would otherwise be outside their reach.”

    Whether Zabiullah Mujahid is one man or many, he or they are actively being sought by the American military. “They’re not at all on a no-hit list; they’re clearly on a target list,” the American official said. Given how easy it is to track cellphone numbers to the nearest tower, however, it seems odd that he is still at large. “Their op-sec is good,” the American official said, referring to operational security, “plus they’re not in this country.”

    Reporting was contributed by Ray Rivera from Kabul and Afghan employees of The New York Times.