Qayyum Zakir: the Afghanistan Taliban's rising mastermind
Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantánamo detainee, is considered to be the day-to-day leader of the Afghanistan Taliban insurgency. A look at his rise to power based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former associates.
(Page 2 of 3)
Mullah Raouf became the commander for the Taliban's Central Corps, and Zakir was one of his key deputies.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Zakir commanded an important reserve brigade of more than 1,000 soldiers that operated out of the current presidential palace. It was heavily involved in the fight against the opposing Northern Alliance, an assemblage of warlords led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just before the 9/11 attacks.
Born Abdul Qayyum, his nom de guerre on the Taliban's walkie-talkie network was "Zakir," a name that stuck as stories of his military prowess grew. He became known as a skilled tactician, more than once rescuing surrounded Taliban troops using audacious moves behind enemy lines.
"He was a legendary battlefield commander," recalls Mullah Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander and now a member of parliament. "His fame brought him to the attention of Mullah Omar, and the two became close over time."
Zakir's troops, known as the Helmandi Brigade, inspired fear across the country. The brigade acted as a Taliban special forces of sorts, used for daring raids and to keep the conventional troops focused on the demands of battle.
"They were true believers," says Gul Wazir, a Taliban commander who has been fighting since that era. "Sometimes when the fighting became too difficult and people on the front lines wanted to flee, they would capture us and bring us back to the front lines."
Driven by ideology
His associates paint a picture of Zakir as a highly ideological fighter, in contrast to some Taliban who may have fought for material gain.
"He was very well versed in sharia [Islamic] law and always followed the orders of his leaders and ulema," or religious clerics, says a tribal elder and former Taliban commander who fought alongside Zakir.
Zakir was injured numerous times, including in one attack in the late 1990s where a bomb killed four of his close friends and injured him severely. This sparked a period of depression that would resurface in the coming years. At times, he would become suddenly morose and withdrawn mid-conversation. Occasionally, he even dropped out of all activities.
But he repeatedly returned to the battlefield, leading Taliban troops in the north – until one day in late 2001.
Amid the US bombing campaign meant to topple the Taliban government, close to 10 besieged top Taliban commanders met in secret. These included Zakir, Raouf, and Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban leader of legendary brutality. According to two people present at the meeting, all but Dadullah voted to surrender, possibly out of the expectation that they would be released and allowed to go home.
Time in Guantánamo
Zakir and Raouf gave themselves up to the forces of Gen. Rashid Dostum, who turned them over to the Americans, who sent them to Guantánamo.
Under American control, the pair pretended to be low-ranking conscripts – Zakir gave US interrogators a false name, "Ghulam Rasoul." He portrayed himself as a country boy who went to Kabul "just to see the city" before being pressed into service on the front lines, according to a summary of transcripts from his review board at Guantánamo, which became public as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Many analysts consider Zakir to be one of the most important figures in the Taliban's southern chain of command. With northern roots, he is young, charismatic, and leads the Helmandi Brigade, considered to be the most daring of the Taliban troops. He may also be influential on negotiations with opposing forces.