by Michael Hughes
June 11, 2022
Zabihullah Mujahid (ذبیح الله مجاهد) is the Taliban government’s central spokesperson and Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, roles he took on shortly after the Taliban ousted the Ghani administration in August of 2021. A top Taliban spokesperson since 2007, during the war he became internationally recognized as the faceless mouthpiece of the movement’s sophisticated propaganda machine – an apparatus which played a pivotal role in allowing the Taliban to reseize power. His first public appearance after the fall of Kabul put to rest, for the most part, rumors that “Zabiullah Mujahid” was a nom de guerre that represented a composite of several personalities rather than a single individual.
Modern Radical Journalist
Mujahid was born in 1978 in the Gardez District in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktia province. He attended a number of Islamic seminaries in the region in addition to Darul Uloom Haqqania in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, often referred to as the “University of Jihad,” from which many Taliban leaders and commanders graduated. He specialized in Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and went on to secure a master’s degree in religious studies.
He began fighting with the Taliban at the age of 16, just as the movement seized power for the first time in the mid-1990s. At one point during the fighting against the Northern Alliance, Mujahid claimed he was imprisoned for six months by mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces.
Mujahid’s journalism career started up with writing for the Dari portion of the Taliban’s Sarak magazine. He went on to work as a radio anchor in Paktia, delivering Pashto and Dari-language news until 1999. In that same year he was engaged and by 2001 would marry at the age of 23. He would go on to have four children, two sons and two daughters.
Mujahid was formally appointed Taliban spokesperson in January 2007 in the wake of the arrest of his predecessor, Muhammad Hanif. He shared duties with Suhail Shaheen and Yousef Ahmadi.
For years the Taliban treated the media with hostility while the group’s information operations were far from seamless. In addition, the Taliban were plagued by a deluge of inconsistent and unauthorized statements that sometimes emanated from fictitious officials. However, when Mujahid entered the picture the Taliban elevated its communications strategy and enhanced messaging in terms of form, mode, content, and execution. More streamlined, consistent, and controlled, the movement deftly shaped and propagated a narrative that would help undercut Ghani’s legitimacy as a puppet of imperialist foreign forces.
Mujahid regularly communicated with national and foreign journalists via telephone, text, and email, mostly providing them with battlefield updates in addition to claiming, confirming, or denying attacks. Of course, he often passed on what would turn out to be inflated numbers and exaggerated accounts of Taliban conquests, but that was just info-warfare 101.
He adeptly leveraged Twitter to push Taliban messaging and his tweets in both Pashto and English were picked up and published by major outlets across the world. By mid-2022, Mujahid’s Twitter account had nearly 600,000 followers. He also used social media to circulate Taliban videos and spoke on behalf of the movement in several postings on Islamist websites.
Although Mujahid and his media apparatus showed a modern sophistication that impressed foreign audiences throughout the industrialized world, beneath the dazzle lay a seventh-century mentality and religious fanaticism exposed in several notorious quotations through the years.
For example, in a 2007 BBC interview was seen Mujahid’s telling attempt to rationalize the growing number of civilian deaths attributed to the Taliban.
“A lot of people are coming to our suicide bombing center to volunteer. We have a problem with making sure they attack the right targets, avoiding killing civilians. It takes time to train them properly,” he explained.
After the July 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy that left more than 50 dead, Mujahid denied involvement but said the Taliban “wish” they had carried it out “since India has been the enemy of the Islamic Emirate.” U.S. and Afghan intelligence the following month would claim evidence pointed to the Haqqani Network in league with Pakistani spies as the culprits.
And after the seizure of power Mujahid would immediately lose credibility with statements about how Taliban rule would be much different this time around. His claims that the Taliban would take a “moderate” approach with respect to treatment of women, for example, were within hours contradicted by widely reported repressive tactics and human rights abuses.
Strategic Role in Taliban Victory
On August 17, 2021, sitting in the chair of the former Afghan information minister the radicals assassinated just weeks earlier, Mujahid gave the first press conference of the new Taliban government. It was a moment that shined a light on the propaganda machine that had achieved its end game – it had likely reached its pinnacle. Because Mujahid would soon discover that messaging as insurgents in the shadows against a corrupt Western-backed regime was much easier than playing damage control for a government that would violate publicly declared promises regularly in the full light of day.
A direct line can be drawn from Mujahid’s crowning moment at the presser in Kabul to an attempt four years earlier to massage the ego of then-U.S. President Donald Trump, which may have planted the seeds that would ultimately lead to the exit of American and NATO forces from Afghan soil.
In August of 2017, showcasing an advanced grasp of psychology and public relations, Mujahid on behalf of the movement crafted an open letter that sought to prey on the reality TV president’s temperament. The letter, referring to the New York billionaire as a “responsible” leader, calls on Trump to ignore “warmongering” generals and lawmakers and pull American troops from Afghanistan. “History shall remember you as an advocate of peace,” the letter said. “It will bring to an end an inherited war by rectifying the mistakes of former American officials.”
In July 2018, Mujahid with impeccable timing would shine a light on the absurdity of U.S. military claims of “progress,” in the war just as the Pentagon’s own district control data revealed that the Taliban were winning. And he put the onus on Western media to expose the failed Trump strategy.
U.S. and Afghan intelligence officials meanwhile had been trying to undermine Mujahid’s image by pushing conspiracy theories claiming he was either not a real person or a member of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In 2011, U.S. officials told The New York Times they preferred to call him “the Zabihullah persona,” because he was not the same man but a team of Taliban operatives based in a Pakistani call center.
“There’s no way Zabihullah Mujahid could be one person,” one U.S. intelligence analyst said. “No one person could take that many calls from the media.”
The Taliban spokesman would later claim that his “uncanny” ability to evade international and Afghan forces left them so perplexed they figured he must be a “ghost.” He said he lived in Kabul “for a long time, right under everyone’s noses.” He roamed the width and breadth of the country and managed to have first-hand access to the frontline and most up to date information.
“I escaped so many times from their raids and attempts to capture me that they seriously considered that ‘Zabihullah’ was a made-up figure, not a real man who exists,” Mujahid told The Express Tribune in an interview published on September 12, 2021.
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International Crisis Group (ICG). “Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?.” Asia Report No. 158. ICG, 7/24/2008.
Gopalakrishnan, Raju. “Factbox: Taliban seek to present a moderate face as they take control in Afghanistan.” Reuters, 8/15/21. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-seek-present-moderate-face-they-take-control-afghanistan-2021-08-15/
Nordland, Rod. “One Voice or Many for the Taliban, but Pegged to a Single Name.” The New York Times, 6/14/2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/world/asia/15zabiullah.html [accessed 6/10/22]
Yousafzai, Shahabullah. “They Thought I Was a Ghost.” The Express Tribune, 9/12/21. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2319854/they-thought-i-was-a-ghost [accessed 6/9/22]