KABUL, Afghanistan — When U.S. guards frog-marched Abdul Salam Zaeef through the cellblocks of Guantanamo, detainees would roar his name, "Mullah Zaeef! Mullah Zaeef!"
Zaeef, in shackles, looked at the guards and smiled.
"The soldiers told me, 'You are the king of this prison,' " he later recalled.
Zaeef is the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, famous for his defiant news conferences after 9-11, in which he said the militant Islamist group would never surrender Osama bin Laden.
Pakistani intelligence officers dragged him out of his house in Islamabad in late December 2001 or January 2002 and took him to Peshawar. "Your Excellency, you are no longer Your Excellency," he recalled one of them saying.
The Pakistanis handed him over to U.S. troops, who he said threw a sack over his head and pushed him into a helicopter. The Americans flew him to a warship, where he was held for about a week in a small cell that reminded him of a dog kennel, he said.
"I was afraid about what would happen to me," Zaeef said in an interview in Kabul, wearing slightly crooked gold-rimmed glasses and speaking in a near-whisper. "I didn't know if it was a dream or not. I never imagined this would happen to me."
Yet from mid-2002 till September 2005 at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef became a leader again. He helped orchestrate hunger strikes and exploit the missteps of a U.S. detention system that often captured the wrong men, mistreated them, then incarcerated them indefinitely without legal recourse.
The insurgency he helped launch in Guantanamo capitalized on the Americans' ignorance of Islamic customs and a pattern of interrupting prayers, shaving off prisoners' beards and searching their copies of the Quran.
U.S. officials didn't respond to repeated requests for comments about Zaeef's role at the camp, but former detainees from Europe to Central Asia spoke of him with reverence that bordered on hero worship.
"People would scream when they saw him: They said, 'We will send you our prayers,' " said Munir Naseer, a Pakistani.
A Kuwaiti bragged that he once lived in a cell next to Zaeef and touched his hand. An Afghan said that men in his cellblock relied on Zaeef's advice about everything from prayer to protest. A Jordanian said that Zaeef often brokered deals between the American military and angry detainees. A Chinese Uighur called Zaeef the "president of Guantanamo."
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, WINTER 2002
His back hunched, Zaeef clomped through the cold mud that surrounded the detainees' tents, lugging the plastic buckets the men used as toilets. He'd get to a large metal drum, heft a bucket in the air and pour out the excrement and urine, trying not to let it splash him in the face.
"Every time the buckets filled up with urine or feces, the guards told Mullah Zaeef to go empty it," said Mohammed Omar, a teenage Pakistani who was held at Kandahar in early 2002. "They made him and another big Taliban guy do this."
If U.S. soldiers could make a Taliban mullah lug everyone else's feces to the "burn buckets," the foul-smelling drums used to dispose of human waste, there could be no question about who was in charge.
To many of Zaeef's fellow detainees, he looked old and tired, sloshing around in the mud with the rest of them and sleeping in a tent with more than a dozen other men, surrounded by bales of concertina wire and soldiers.
Asadullah Jan, a Pakistani who was imprisoned at Kandahar in early 2002, said the guards zeroed in on Zaeef.
"One time, Abdul Salam was leading prayers," Jan said. "A guard came over and started talking with him. Abdul Salam said, 'Come back in 10 minutes; we're praying.' The guard called on his radio and said that Abdul Salam wouldn't talk. A group of soldiers came down, and in the middle of prayers they came behind him, put their boots on his neck and beat him."
Before he was sent to Kandahar, Zaeef spent a month or two in detention at Bagram Air Base, and he said he was treated brutally there, too.
"The cursing, the punching, the kicking, it was continuous," he said.
It was at Kandahar, however, that Zaeef began to learn how to run a prison from the inside.
At first, the detainees weren't allowed to pray aloud, but then camp officials decided to let each tent have a prayer leader.
"Under the excuse of azzam" — the Muslim call to prayer — "they would spread information between detainees," said Khalid Pashtun, who served as a liaison between the local Afghan government and U.S. forces at the camp. "The prayer leaders (such as Zaeef) would be saying, 'Be careful in interrogation; keep to your story until the end.' "
Zaeef wasn't like many of the other prisoners whom the U.S. and its Afghan allies had swept up. A few years earlier, he'd flown into the Kandahar Airfield as a senior government official. Now he was there as a prisoner.
He was born in Kandahar province in the late 1960s and adopted by his uncle after he was orphaned at age 7. Zaeef's family fled to Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but he returned to Kandahar as a teenager to fight the Soviets with the mujahedeen, Islamic holy warriors. He was known for taking textbooks to the trenches.
Zaeef returned to Quetta, Pakistan, to finish his studies in a madrassa, an Islamic religious school. He focused on Islamic banking and sharia, Islamic law, then went to work as a bookkeeper for a local trading company.
In the early 1990s, Zaeef said, former mujahedeen fighters enlisted his help to fight corrupt warlords in Kandahar, and he took part in the initial meetings of the Taliban. He became a trusted counselor to senior Taliban leaders after the Islamist movement took control of Kandahar in 1994.
Wahid Mujdah, a former Taliban diplomat, said Zaeef was "very, very close" to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, "who had a lot of confidence in him."
As Zaeef told a reporter: "I did not join the Taliban, I helped start it."
After the Taliban swept north to Kabul and seized control of most of the country in 1996, Zaeef helped organize the country's Islamic courts in Kandahar, then moved to Herat to oversee the banking system. He then was brought to Kabul for a succession of Cabinet jobs, such as deputy minister of mining and minister of transportation.
The U.S. military claimed that he'd played a role in directing al Qaida and the Taliban on the battlefield. "In the beginning of the Taliban's rise to power, operational commanders of the Taliban and al Qaida forces in the Shomali and Kabul regions of Afghanistan reported to the detainee (Zaeef) as the deputy of defense for the Taliban," said a summary of evidence prepared for Zaeef's military tribunal.
GUANTANAMO, SUMMER 2002
When he arrived at Guantanamo in the spring or summer of 2002, Zaeef was exhausted from the harsh treatment he'd received at Kandahar and Bagram.
He slept as often as he could and was just another detainee, Internment Serial Number 306. He got up when the guards came, and shuffled off in his orange prison clothes and flip-flops to answer questions about the Taliban leadership.
"He was very weak, physically, when I saw him at Guantanamo," said Mohammed Saduq, an Afghan who'd commanded Zaeef during the fight against the Soviets. "It is very difficult to know the inside of a man, and it's hard to say how it affected him — going from an ambassador to being in a cage — but he told me in Guantanamo that he was suffering badly."
The rules at Guantanamo, Zaeef said, reminded him of Bagram. The men weren't supposed to talk in their cells. They were supposed to say "please" and "sir" when they addressed the guards. In Guantanamo, however, the guards weren't beating the men, he said, and prisoners could speak up.
"After a month, we decided we could not accept these extremist measures. We must react," Zaeef said. "So we began shouting to each other. The soldiers came and asked if we were talking to each other. We said, 'Yes, we are not dogs.' We began throwing water at them, spitting at them; we said, 'If you want to kill us, fine.' "
A high-ranking officer came and spoke to the detainees, Zaeef said. The rules were rescinded. It was a victory in a game of inches.
As the months passed, Zaeef recovered his strength. He said that he began to look around the camp more on his daily trips to interrogations or medical checkups.
In a way, Zaeef said, he was encouraged by what he saw. Interrogators raised their voices from time to time, but they never hit him. Detainees were able to pass messages from one end of a cellblock to the other, and to call out greetings and reports of their last interrogations, none of which the guards could understand.
Slowly, Zaeef realized that it was the sort of place where a man could wage a campaign.
"The soldiers who pushed us got spit at, peed on or had (feces) thrown at them," said Adil Kamil al Wadi, a Bahraini. "It would scare them. They would run to the medic for a shot."
When the soldiers came back from the medic, Wadi said, they'd go to the cell of the detainee and beat him until he no longer could stand.
Zaeef joined a small group of Taliban and al Qaida leaders who were issuing orders and gathering reports; because he spoke fluent Arabic, Pashto and Dari, he could serve as a conduit among Arab, Pakistani and Afghan detainees. His English gave him further power, allowing him to represent those groups in conversations with U.S. military officers.
"We chose the leaders of the blocks," Zaeef said. "If the detainees had any problems, they had to speak with the block leader, who would talk with the block NCO" — the senior enlisted military-police soldier on duty — "and if they could not resolve the issue, they would send a message to us, the leaders of the camp."
U.S. military officers at Guantanamo acknowledged that detainees organized themselves into groups.
Zaeef knew the script. In the 1980s, a central rallying cry for the Islamic warriors who battled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — with crucial American support — was that the Soviets were brutal infidels.
Cellblock leaders began spreading messages to the men around them: We must not tolerate these conditions; it's time for a hunger strike. Rumors that guards had mistreated the Quran often accompanied the messages.
Zaeef claimed to a reporter that he'd witnessed several instances of Quran abuse. However, an Afghan former detainee who was at Guantanamo said the stories that Zaeef and others spread — such as soldiers stomping on a Quran — were lies.
The hunger strikes were reported all over the world. Aid groups and defense lawyers pointed to them as proof of Guantanamo's appalling conditions.
Eventually, officials at Guantanamo handed out surgical masks for detainees to hang from the walls of their cells as cradles for their Qurans, to keep them off the floor. Guards were ordered to be quiet during prayers, and orange cones with the letter "P" were placed in corridors during prayer time. Detainees were allowed to wear skull caps, as prescribed by Islamic tradition. Guards were told never to touch prisoners' Qurans and to log every allegation of abuse.
Men such as Zaeef responded by growing more assertive. They wanted more than small wins.
GUANTANAMO TO KABUL, SEPTEMBER 2005
In June 2005, detainees at Guantanamo staged their biggest hunger strike yet: As many as 100 men refused to eat.
Prison authorities gathered detainee leaders and discussed their demands. Zaeef represented Afghans and Pakistanis, joining detainee representatives from several other nations.
After consulting with detainees in the cellblocks, Zaeef and the other leaders produced a list of demands that included Geneva Convention rights, court trials, less time in isolation cells, better treatment from the guards and so on.
However, the meetings among the detainees broke down before negotiations with U.S. authorities could proceed, Zaeef said, because the detainees worried that the Americans were eavesdropping to find out who their cellblock leaders were.
Zaeef was released that September.
He's been home for more than two years now, under house arrest by the Afghan government, which relaxes and tightens its control according to his public remarks. Calling on a radio program for the Taliban to regain at least part of their ruling power, for instance, meant that he wasn't permitted to receive visitors for several weeks.
Two guards usually stand out front, next to a faded red door and a sentry house.
Sitting in his reception room, Zaeef sometimes brags about his years at Guantanamo.
He likes to tell about the time guards came to have his beard shaved.
"I refused. I was punching them; I was fighting them," he says. "Then they threw gas (canisters) into my cell. I put my clothes to my mouth and fought them when they came in."
The guards overtook him, dragged him off and shaved him. But for Zaeef, that wasn't the point: He'd resisted.
Asked whether his time at Guantanamo had changed him, Zaeef said that it only further convinced him that America was the enemy of Islam.
He gets regular news reports about the Taliban's brutal campaign to reassert itself in southern Afghanistan.
So, as he did for more than 1,000 days in Guantanamo, he sits and waits for his next chance at power.
(Wichita Eagle photographer Travis Heying contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008