In the Footsteps of Zarqawi

If you hoped his June 7 death might be the end of the line for Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, you really don't want to see the newest recruitment videos for the Taliban. Although they never mention the Jordanian-born terrorist by name, the echoes of his Internet videos--and his sheer viciousness--are unmistakable and chilling. The star is Mullah Dadullah Akhund, a one-legged guerrilla commander in southern Afghanistan who now seems bent on matching or exceeding Zarqawi's ugly reputation.

In one scene, the black-turbaned Taliban commander, posing for the camera in a southern Afghan moonscape, blasts away at an unseen target with a heavy machine gun. Another sequence has him doling out his blessings to a succession of young men being sent to carry out suicide bombings in Afghan cities and near military bases. The most revolting footage shows a gang of Dadullah's thugs slitting the throats, one by one, of six Afghans they accuse of spying for the Americans. As each head is severed, it is grabbed and placed facing the camera, atop the torso of the victim's sprawled corpse.

This year's armed push by the Taliban has been the biggest and bloodiest since they lost Kabul in 2001, and Dadullah is believed to be spearheading it. The surge of suicide bombings, school burnings and guerrilla ambushes has killed more than 100 Afghan civilians and at least 40 Coalition soldiers, including 24 U.S. troops. For the first time in memory, Taliban guerrillas under Dadullah have succeeded in capturing government installations in the remote south, if only for brief periods. (Some of those raids are documented in the new recruitment videos, obtained by NEWSWEEK from an Afghan involved in making copies for distribution.) Villagers say that ever-increasing numbers of Taliban fighters are roaming the countryside, entering villages at night--sometimes even in broad daylight--and warning the inhabitants not to cooperate with the Americans or their allies, on pain of death.

Dadullah's own men don't want to risk his anger. Mullah Ghul Agha, who identifies himself as Dadullah's third in command, spoke to NEWSWEEK recently in an apple orchard on a small farm in Helmand province's Barakzai district. He says his boss's disposition swings abruptly from cheerfulness to rage: "For two hours he can be in a good humor, then suddenly he changes into a dark mood that can last for hours," Agha says. No one dares to cross or contradict Dadullah. "He would kill anyone for not obeying orders," says Agha. "I certainly would not want to face Dadullah on the battlefield."

Dadullah built a reputation for cruelty as a Taliban field commander in the 1990s. He lost his leg to a land mine in 1995, the year before the Taliban took Kabul, but he returned from the hospital in Karachi with a prosthetic limb and meaner than ever, fighting his way to become one of the Taliban's three deputy defense ministers. His name became so identified with atrocities that Taliban radio would report he was engaged in battles even when he was not, as a ploy to unnerve opposing forces.

He specialized in brutal assignments. One, in 1998, was to pacify the ethnic minority Hazaras, a Shiite group in Bamian province. Dadullah's tactics were so ruthless--he massacred hundreds of Hazara civilians--that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar relieved him of his command. Even so, a year later Dadullah was back in the field, leading a major drive against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in far-north Kunduz province and reportedly slaughtering Tajik and Uzbek noncombatants by the hundreds.

Savagery failed him during the U.S. invasion in late 2001. Agha and other Taliban sources say he abandoned his troops, paid $150,000 to a Northern Alliance commander for safe passage and escaped to Pakistan, where he and other Taliban survivors slowly rebuilt their forces. By 2003, when he was named to Mullah Omar's 10-man advisory council, he was leading frequent guerrilla raids across the border into Afghanistan. That's about when the beheadings and suicide bombings began, Afghans say.

This year Dadullah returned to Afghanistan to stay. He operates mostly in Helmand province, Agha says, but he never spends the whole night in one place, fearing U.S. airstrikes. (This is especially true since May, when the Coalition launched Operation Mountain Thrust to retake southern Afghanistan.) His two wives and three children remain in Pakistan, in the strongly pro-Taliban city of Quetta, according to Agha. Dadullah claims to have roughly 12,000 fighters on the ground, although U.S. commanders say he has roughly half that number at most. He recently told an interviewer from Al-Jazeera television that he has 200 suicide bombers awaiting his orders. In one of the propaganda videos, Dadullah signs a slip of paper and hands it to a fresh-faced young man sitting on the floor beside him. The video identifies the youngster as "suicide bomber 116."

Like all of Mullah Omar's top commanders, Dadullah has complete operational freedom. The Taliban leader likes to send only morale-building messages, not orders. That means Dadullah can choose the kind of battles he loves--big, aggressive operations. Such tactics can be costly. Agha describes how Dadullah recently administered a tongue-lashing to a subordinate in Kandahar province for being too cautious. "Why aren't you fighting?" Dadullah shouted into his satellite phone. "Are you not a Muslim?" The lieutenant hastily summoned his fighters to the village of Tolokar. Their unusual movements gave them away, and a U.S. airstrike blasted the guerrillas before they could go into action. Approximately 70 Taliban died, together with 35 civilians.

U.S. commanders downplay the importance of individual enemy leaders. They say the way to win the war is to focus on the big picture, not on personalities. "Our objective is to separate the enemy from the people and to establish an enduring security presence," says Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division. "I don't see Dadullah as a big deal," he adds. "Our view is he's another Taliban who has a dark vision for the future of Afghanistan. He's basically a coward influencing younger Taliban to burn schools and kill civilians."

Like Zarqawi, Dadullah has developed a personal passion for killing--but his young recruits seem only too happy to help him. Their country's fratricidal war started before many of them were born. Sooner or later, Dadullah may just push his luck too far on the battlefield. But even then, someone, somewhere, will almost surely pick up his mantle.