Throughout the history of the post-9/11 insurgency in Afghanistan, reports have emphasized the Afghan Taliban’s impressive ability to collect and exploit intelligence effectively. Researchers and media outlets describe the Afghan Taliban as possessing an “impressive intelligence network”[1] which conducts numerous functions such as giving Taliban fighters early warning of U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols, or providing U.S. forces with misleading information.[2] U.S. and ISAF soldiers have been consistently quoted regarding the efficacy of Taliban intelligence operations, stating that “the enemy intelligence network is on top of every move we make,” “there is always someone who can be listening to what we are saying,” and that the group has sources “in many places.”[3] A striking example of the Taliban’s intelligence collection capability occurred last year, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to cancel plans to visit a military outpost in Helmand Province after intercepts indicated that the Taliban was aware of his itinerary.[4]

Given the efficacy of the insurgents’ intelligence operations, detailed analysis of the history, scope, and structure of the Taliban’s intelligence function is crucial for successful counterinsurgency operations, as is an understanding of the collection and counterintelligence tactics it employs, and the aims which it seeks to achieve by the use of intelligence.

Taliban Intelligence Operations Prior to 9/11
Media and government accounts indicate that the Taliban possessed a massive and effective, if somewhat fractious, intelligence apparatus prior to 9/11. It operated in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and was responsible for gathering information on opponents to the regime, as well as covert actions such as bribing Northern Alliance commanders to switch sides and conducting assassinations.[5] Taliban intelligence officials maintained extensive ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),[6] as well as with members of the Pakistani political party Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI)[7] and foreign terrorists. Evidence presented at the administrative review board of former Taliban Deputy Intelligence Minister Abdul Haq Wasiq, who is currently imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, described Wasiq as having “arranged to have an Egyptian Al Qaida member, Hamza Zobir, teach Taliban intelligence officers about intelligence work.”[8]

Accounts of the Taliban’s pre-9/11 intelligence infrastructure indicate that in addition to the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was an important collector of intelligence,[9] with the two ministries sharing information on an informal basis.[10] Contemporary accounts suggest that the Ministry of Intelligence possessed some 20,000 spies and 100,000 informants in 2001, with children or former KHAD agents constituting many of its informants.[11] Informants were reportedly recruited on every city block to monitor neighborhoods, while foreign journalists were closely monitored.[12] The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice reportedly supplemented this with informants in ministries, hospitals, aid agencies, and military units.[13] The Ministry of Intelligence was notorious for detaining suspected spies and Northern Alliance personnel, and using torture tactics such as electric shocks and beatings during interrogations.[14]

The leadership of the Taliban’s intelligence ministry appears to have changed frequently, likely due to Mullah Omar’s commonly described predilection for reshuffling ministerial portfolios.[15] Mullah Khaksar Akhund was described as having been the head of intelligence prior to September 1996,[16] Khairullah Khairkhwa was described by the U.S. State Department as the Taliban’s minister for intelligence in late 1997,[17] and Mullah Hamdullah was listed as intelligence minister in 1998.[18] Qari Ahmadullah, who was later killed in a U.S. airstrike, was the Taliban’s minister for intelligence when 9/11 and Operation Enduring Freedom occurred.[19] Maulawi Mohammad Wali, reportedly a close ally of Mullah Omar, appears to have retained control of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice from 1998-2001.[20] The Taliban enjoyed a number of significant intelligence successes, such as the capture and execution of Pashtun opposition leader Abdul Haq,[21] and the possible uncovering of a U.S. plot to assassinate Usama bin Ladin.[22] At the same time, Taliban intelligence suffered setbacks such as the escape of imprisoned Northern Alliance leader Ismail Khan in 1999,[23] and the failure to detect a former intelligence chief who defected to the Northern Alliance in late 2001 after maintaining a secret dialogue with Ahmad Shah Massoud for several years.[24]

Taliban Intelligence Operations Post-9/11
Operation Enduring Freedom had a major impact on the Taliban’s intelligence services, with numerous key leaders such as Khairullah Khairkhwa, Qari Ahmadullah, and Ahmadullah’s deputy Abdul Haq Wasiq captured or killed by U.S. and Afghan forces.[25] At least some Taliban intelligence personnel, however, managed to evade capture or death, and appear to have assisted in the formation of insurgent efforts.[26] In addition, the ISI provided significant support for fleeing Taliban members (Ahmed Rashid has described how ISI officials “waved” fleeing Taliban fighters across border checkpoints into Pakistan and helped facilitate Mullah Omar’s arrival in Quetta),[27] and lingering pro-Taliban sympathies coupled with grievances against U.S. and ISAF forces helped the Taliban quickly reactivate formidable intelligence networks in southern provinces such as Helmand, and commence plotting attacks.[28]

Military authors have described the Taliban’s current intelligence gathering structure as being one where local Taliban units collect intelligence and share it with neighboring units and the Taliban’s “higher hierarchy,” which provides top-down intelligence support as well.[29] At the same time, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times argued that the Taliban’s decentralized structure makes it difficult for the group to collate and effectively analyze the information gathered; if so, increased U.S. and ISAF efforts against the Taliban’s field commanders are likely to have exacerbated this weakness.[30] In addition to collection efforts by local Taliban units and other personnel who conduct intelligence collection alongside alternative roles,[31] the Taliban possess dedicated intelligence officers.[32] These are deployed to at least the regional and provincial levels, and presumably help facilitate the flow of information and run informant networks.[33] At least one Western official has stated that the Afghan Taliban have a de facto head of intelligence, although the identity of this individual remains unclear.[34] With this in mind, it is reasonable to speculate that Hafiz Abdul Majeed, a member of the Quetta shura with significant intelligence experience, continues to oversee Taliban intelligence efforts to some extent.[35]

The Taliban continue to utilize a wide variety of largely human intelligence and open source intelligence based collection methods, with the group’s signals intelligence capability stunted by an inability to listen in on the heavily encrypted radio transmissions of U.S. troops.[36] As during the pre-9/11 era, village and neighborhood level intelligence networks continue to provide the Taliban with a large quantity of information on U.S. and ISAF movements[37] and potential spies or government collaborators,[38] as well as providing a population control function: fear of the Taliban’s purportedly omnipresent spies is a major factor in many Afghans’ decision to obey the Taliban’s edicts and avoid assisting counterinsurgency efforts.[39] Taliban intelligence efforts focus heavily on Afghan government employees (such as police) and Afghans working for foreign militaries (such as interpreters), who are monitored while entering or departing foreign military bases, and later targeted for intimidation or murder.[40] As noted in many media outlets, the Taliban derive actionable intelligence from informants within military bases, prisons, and in the Afghan security forces, including those hired by military contractors; these have been used to identify informants,[41] provide intelligence on military movements and facilities of interest to the Taliban,[42] and intimidate or coerce other Afghan personnel.[43] The Haqqani network is believed to possess high-ranking informants within Afghan security forces as well.[44] Given a recent spate of attacks against security facilities and the reported collusion of guards in a recent mass escape of Taliban prisoners from a facility in Kandahar city, it is possible that Taliban informants are used to help facilitate direct action as well.[45]

Taliban informants appear to be motivated by multiple factors, including ideological fervor and financial inducements.[46] It is unclear where the Taliban’s dedicated intelligence personnel receive their training, although it is possible that the ISI continues to train some individuals. It should be noted as well that the Afghan Taliban and its close ally the Haqqani network likely obtain information from liaison with the ISI.[47]

As noted above, the Taliban have attempted to exploit open source intelligence to gain useful information on U.S. and ISAF operations, with perhaps the best-known example being the Taliban’s stated intent to search Afghanistan-related reports posted on Wikileaks to uncover possible government informants, following the failure of the Wikileaks organization to remove identifying information about informants such as their names, home villages, and family members.[48] Although the U.S. military later concluded that no intelligence sources had been compromised by the leaked documents,[49] numerous tribal elders in southern Afghanistan reportedly received death threats within days of the Wikileaks release.[50]

The Site Institute has also reported  that the Taliban appear to have attempted to gather information via Twitter, noting that the group’s account was following the Twitter feeds of several U.S. military personnel as of early 2011.[51] One of the individuals followed by the Taliban’s Twitter account was a U.S. Air Force logistics officer, whose Twitter account linked to a personal blog containing discussions of military passenger screening at airports and Afghan military personnel’s unwillingness to wear the trauma plate inserts in their body armor, as well as photos of his base and Afghan National Army counterparts.[52] In addition to social media, Richard Barrett, the coordinator for the Al Qaida Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations, has noted that the Taliban monitor the foreign news media and NGO publications, citing as examples the Taliban’s prompt responses to a UN report on civilian casualties, and articles in Time and the Sunday Telegraph.[53] An International Crisis Group report in 2008 indicated that the Taliban monitor Afghan media and engage in retribution against journalists deemed unsympathetic to its cause;[54] the Taliban’s prompt disavowal of a bloody suicide attack in Jalalabad in February 2011 following the airing of CCTV footage of the attack on Tolo TV indicates that the group continues to monitor Afghan media closely.[55]

As illustrated above, the Taliban utilize its own network of informants in attempts to identify and eliminate suspected spies for the Afghan government and ISAF,[56] and has also occasionally forced cell phone service providers to shut down their networks in southern Afghanistan either after dark or altogether due to the group’s concerns about ISAF informants equipped with cell phones.[57] This phenomenon recently occurred in Helmand, where the Taliban induced private Afghan cellular networks to shut down for two weeks in March-April 2011, affecting nearly a million cell phone users.[58] In addition, the group has made efforts to improve its communication security (COMSEC) regime over the years to deny ISAF access to signals intelligence; Taliban COMSEC tactics now include the use of radio codes, throwaway phones, and shorter range radio communications.[59] Some reports have claimed that the Taliban use Skype for secure communications, although it is unclear how widely this is used.[60] Couriers are also used to avoid U.S. and ISAF signals intelligence efforts,[61] along with use of local business owners to pass along messages.[62]

Looking Forward
The U.S. troop surge and increased counterinsurgency operations under Generals Stanley McCrystal and David Petraeus have had a disproportionate effect on lower and mid-ranking Taliban leadership, degrading their ability to communicate, and possibly to share intelligence in a timely manner.[63] In addition, it remains possible that the defection or desertion of a reported 1,000 Taliban members in recent months may have degraded the Taliban’s intelligence network in specific locations, as well as providing intelligence to U.S., ISAF, and Afghan forces.[64] Should Afghan citizens begin to perceive that the Taliban are in retreat and that their ability to monitor and punish transgressions has diminished, the Taliban’s intelligence collection and early warning capability could be affected further.[65] At the same time, Afghan citizens emboldened by the Taliban’s weakened capabilities and the establishment of the Afghan Local Police program[66] could provide additional intelligence to government forces, a process which ISAF claims is currently underway.[67] Lastly, attempts by NATO to vet army and police recruits,[68] as well as train counterintelligence agents, may help stanch the Taliban’s efforts to infiltrate Afghan security forces.[69]

Although the trends described above provide some grounds for optimism, it is worth noting that the reportedly 1,000 Taliban members who have defected or deserted represent a relatively small fraction of the group’s strength. Furthermore, the majority of these personnel are from Afghanistan’s northern, central, and western regions, which have historically displayed greater antipathy to the Taliban’s cause.[70] Pakistani intelligence has reportedly used the presence of many Taliban commanders’ families in Pakistan to ensure loyalty, while the ability of ISAF and Afghan forces to protect reintegrated Taliban members from reprisal attacks remains uncertain.[71] The issue of the planned withdrawal of U.S. and ISAF forces[72] and subsequent handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government is an additional source of uncertainty for Afghans as well, many of whom doubt their government’s ability to provide effective security without significant foreign assistance,[73] and they may hedge their allegiances accordingly.

Given the aforementioned questions regarding the government’s ability to reconcile Taliban members and protect civilians from reprisals, the effort to degrade the Taliban’s intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities may prove to be a difficult and protracted endeavor.

Ben Brandt is currently a threat analyst in the private sector, prior to which he monitored South Asian extremist issues at the NJ Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, and researched terrorist attack planning methodologies at Booz Allen Hamilton. He holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

[1] Gilles Dorronsoro, “The Taliban’s Winning Strategy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009.

[2] C.J. Chivers, “In Eastern Afghanistan, at War with the Taliban’s Shadowy Rule,” New York Times, February 6, 2011.

[3] James Astill, “Taliban Spies Keep Strong Grip on South,” Guardian, December 11, 2003; Bill Graveland, “Troops Told Loose Lips Can Kill, Taliban Spies Everywhere,” The Canadian Press, 2008; Tim Shipman, “Taliban Have Spies Everywhere,” Daily Mail, August 27, 2010.

[4] Matthew Green, “More on the Taliban Plot to Kill Cameron,” Financial Times, June 10, 2010.

[5] “Report on Fact-Finding Mission to Pakistan to Consider the Security and Human Rights Situation in Afghanistan,” Danish Immigration Service, November 1, 2001; “Taliban Intelligence Chief Killed in US Bombing: Afghan Officials,” Agence France-Presse, January 2, 2002.

[6] Ibid.; B. Raman, “Buddha, Taliban & Gen. Musharraf,” South Asia Analysis Group, June 3, 2001. Raman, a former head of the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, described Taliban intelligence as being “run” by ISI officers. Other reports indicate that Pakistani intelligence officers were heavily involved in training their Taliban counterparts.

[7] Mashal Lutfullah, “Al Qaida Planning Next Phase,” Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 2001.

[8] Summarized transcripts from Abdul Haq Wasiq’s administrative review board, July 18, 2005.

[9] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). Rashid described the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as the Taliban’s most effective intelligence agency.

[10]  “Report on Fact-Finding Mission to Pakistan to Consider the Security and Human Rights Situation in Afghanistan.”

[11] Julian West, “Child-Spy Network a Key Weapon in Intelligence War,” Telegraph, October 31, 2001. The Taliban’s use of children to conduct espionage continues in the post-9/11 era as well. For details, see Alex Crawford, “Ruthless Taliban Using Children As Spies,” Sky News, October 17, 2010.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Taliban Intelligence Head Reported Killed in U.S. Bombing,” CNN, January 2, 2002.

[15] “Afghanistan: The Taliban’s Decision-Making Process and Leadership Structure,” U.S. Embassy Islamabad, December 31, 1998.

[16] “Biographical Data on Mullah (Omar) and the Council of Ministers,” U.S. Department of Defense, November 2001.

[17] “Afghanistan: Taliban Decision-Making and Leadership Structure,” U.S. Embassy Islamabad, December 30, 1997.

[18] “Afghanistan: The Taliban’s Decision-Making Process and Leadership Structure,” U.S. Embassy Islamabad, December 31, 1998.

[19] “Taliban Intelligence Chief Killed in US Bombing: Afghan Officials,” Agence France-Presse, January 2, 2002.

[20] “Terrorism Finance: Updating the Taliban Names Designated under UNSCR 1267,” U.S. SecState Cable, May 2002.

[21] Rahimullah Yusufzai and Tim McGirk, “Taliban Spies: In The Cross Hairs,” Time, November 12, 2001.

[22] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (New York: Knopf, 2006).

[23] Khan was assisted in his escape by a Taliban intelligence officer. See Carlotta Gall, “A Nation Challenged: Warlords,” New York Times, January 27, 2002.

[24] Peter Baker, “Bin Laden Reportedly Used Cash to Curry Taliban Favor,” Washington Post, November 30, 2001.

[25] According to his own account, Ahmadullah had been tasked by Mullah Omar with organizing a guerrilla effort prior to his death. See Mashal Lutfullah, “Al Qaida Planning Next Phase,” Christian Science Monitor, December 28, 2001.

[26] “Taliban Names Anti-U.S. Leadership Council,” Reuters, June 24, 2003; Representative Robert E. Andrews, “Message of the Day,” May 6, 2002.

[27] Tim McGirk, “Rogues No More?” Time, April 29, 2002; Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (New York: Viking Press, 2008).

[28] James Astill, “Taliban Spies Keep Strong Grip on South,” Guardian, December 11, 2003; “Car Blast Kills 4 Near U.S. Afghan Airfield,” Washington Post, April 14, 2003.

[29] Shahid Afsar, Chris Samples and Thomas Wood, “The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis,” Military Review, May-June 2008.

[30] Borzou Daragahi, “Afghan Taliban Intelligence Network Embraces the New,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2011.

[31] Dexter Filkins, “Karzai is Said to Doubt West Can Defeat Taliban,” New York Times, June 11, 2010; “Taliban Member Responsible for Selecting Suicide-Bomb Sites Targeted,” ISAF, December 29, 2010.

[32] Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, “The Dirty Dozen,” Newsweek, April 10, 2011. Additionally, Amrullah  Saleh, the former director of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, and General Hilaluddin Hilal, a former Afghan deputy interior minister, have made reference to “senior Taliban intelligence officials.” For details, see Filkins, as well as “Government’s Writ Extended to 95% of Afghanistan: Saleh,”, March 5, 2008.

[33] Ron Moreau, “Do the Taliban Get PTSD?” Newsweek, December 6, 2010; Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, “How the Taliban Lost Its Swagger,” Newsweek, February 27, 2011.

[34] Daragahi.

[35] Bill Roggio, “The Afghan Taliban’s Top Leaders,” The Long War Journal, February 23, 2010.

[36] Daragahi. It is unclear whether the Taliban conducted signals intelligence collection prior to 9/11. However, given numerous accounts of Northern Alliance personnel listening to Taliban radio frequencies and impersonating Taliban fighters on the radio to gather intelligence during Operation Enduring Freedom, it is reasonable to assume that the Taliban possess a similar capability. For an example of the Northern Alliance’s use of signals intelligence, see “Interview: U.S. Special Forces ODA 555,” PBS Frontline, undated.

[37] One article described members of the Taliban’s informant network using mirrors and smoke signals to provide advance warning of U.S. patrols. See C.J. Chivers, “Afghanistan’s Hidden Taliban Government,” New York Times, February 6, 2011.

[38] Antonio Giustozzi, Decoding the New Taliban (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[39] Gretchen Peters, Crime and Insurgency (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010).

[40] See, for example, Ruhullah Khapalwak and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Kill Afghan Interpreters Working for U.S. and its Allies,” New York Times, July 4, 2006; Chivers, “Afghanistan’s Hidden Taliban Government.”

[41] Carol Grisanti and Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Taliban-style Justice for Alleged U.S. Spies,” NBC News, April 17, 2009.

[42] Chivers, “Afghanistan’s Hidden Taliban Government.”

[43] “Inquiry into The Role and Oversight of Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan,” U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, September 28, 2010.

[44] Matthew Rosenberg, “New Wave of Warlords Bedevils U.S.,” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2010.

[45] NATO has indicated that 10 of the 21 incidents since March 2009 where a purported member of the security forces attacked coalition troops were executed by Taliban members impersonating Afghan government security personnel, while a number of the remaining incidents were related to combat stress. With this in mind, it is possible that Taliban informants in the security forces helped provide attackers with credentials, schedules, and access. See Rahim Faeiz and Lolita Baldor, “9 Americans Dead after Afghan Officer Opens Fire,” Associated Press, April 27, 2011.

[46] Giustozzi; “If you have a problem, the Taliban solves it,” Herald Scotland, January 3, 2009.

[47] Seth Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

[48] Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai, “Taliban Seeks Vengeance in Wake of Wikileaks,” Newsweek, August 2, 2010; Robert Mackey, “Taliban Study WikiLeaks to Hunt Informants,” New York Times, July 30, 2010.

[49] Robert Burns, “Wikileaks: US Says Limited Damage from Leak of Afghan War Logs,” Associated Press, October 15, 2010.

[50] Moreau and Yousafzai, “Taliban Seeks Vengeance in Wake of Wikileaks.”

[51] “Social Jihad Network: Taliban Twitter,” Site Institute, February 21, 2011.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Richard Barrett, “What the Taliban Reads,” wwword, 2009.

[54] “Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?” International Crisis Group, July 24, 2008.

[55] Habib Khan Totakhil and Matthew Rosenberg, “Taliban in PR Scramble After Attacks,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2011.

[56] The Taliban have promulgated rules designed to create a system of due process for the punishment of suspected spies; it is unclear how widely this system is followed, however. See Christopher Dickey, “The Taliban’s Book of Rules,” Newsweek, December 12, 2006.

[57] Night being when U.S. and ISAF forces conduct raids against suspected Taliban members.

[58] Rahim Faiez and Patrick Quinn, “Taliban Turn Cell Phones Back on in Afghanistan,” Associated Press, April 5, 2011. The Taliban’s ability to enforce such a decree despite intensive counterinsurgency operations in Helmand Province raises questions regarding the level of success achieved by such operations.

[59] Rowan Scarborough, “Taliban Outwits U.S. Eavesdroppers,” Human Events, February 16, 2009. In his article, Scarborough quotes a “senior intelligence source” as stating that Iranian agents have advised the Taliban on how to secure its communications.

[60] Antony Savvas, “Taliban Use Skype VoIP Bug to Evade Capture,” Computer Weekly, September 15, 2008.

[61] Afsar et al.

[62] Peters.

[63] Carlotta Gall, “Losses in Pakistani Haven Strain Afghan Taliban,” New York Times, April 1, 2011.

[64] “50 Taliban Surrender to Kandahar Government,” Associated Press, April 13, 2011; Deb Riechmann, “900 Afghan Militants Join Reintegration Program,” Associated Press, February 7, 2010; Yousafzai and Moreau, “How the Taliban Lost its Swagger.”

[65]  It is difficult to assess at present whether the Taliban’s intelligence networks have been degraded significantly at the village level, although recent high-profile attacks have illustrated the group’s continuing ability to develop and exploit intelligence on hard targets such as the Afghan Defense Ministry.

[66] The ALP program serves as an armed community watch designed to maintain security at the village level. There are indications that the program has been beset by logistical problems, as well as concerns that armed ALP members may prove to be an additional source of instability. See, for example, Rob Taylor, “Afghan Local Police Stoke Fears of New-Generation Militia,” Reuters, April 25, 2011. At the same time, at least some reports indicate that the ALP program is a source of concern to the Taliban leadership. For details, see “Afghanistan: Glimmers of Hope,” Economist, May 12, 2011.

[67] Matt Millham, “Coalition, Afghan Forces Continue to Seize Insurgent Weapons,” ISAF HQ Public Affairs, March 10, 2011.

[68] Rahim Faeiz and Heidi Vogt, “Taliban Militant Kills 2 Inside Defense Ministry,” Associated Press, April 18, 2011.

[69] Mohammed Abbas, “West Trains Spies to Hunt Taliban in Afghan Forces,” Reuters, April 12, 2011.

[70] Riechmann.

[71] Ibid.

[72] The recent death of Usama bin Ladin has further aggravated some Afghans’ fears that the United States will seek to withdraw forces from Afghanistan without establishing stable governance first. See Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghans Fear West May See Death as the End,” New York Times, May 2, 2011.

[73] “NATO Pressuring Harper’s 2014 Afghan Withdrawal,” CTV, November 19, 2010. Should the U.S. and Afghan governments reach an accord on establishing permanent bases in Afghanistan after 2014, it may or may not serve to address such concerns.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up