KHOST, Afghanistan — A Taliban spokesman whose provocative and taunting media reports have often infuriated Afghan and Western officials firmly denied that he had been captured Monday.
His arrest had been reported by local officials in the Sar Hawza district, in a remote eastern district in Paktika province, along the Pakistan border, where the Taliban have been active. An Afghan government official there reported that the spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, was among suspects detained during joint coalition and Afghan military operations. A second government official in Paktika confirmed the account. Both spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to release the information.
Reached on his usual cellphone number a few hours later, Mujahid angrily denied their accounts. “I am talking to you on the phone right now ,” he told an Afghan reporter who has frequently interviewed him in the past. “I am safe and sound and living in a safe place.”
“Those people who were arrested in Paktika do not belong to us,” Mujahid said. “They are just some innocent civilians, and the forces of the puppet government may have forced the guy to confess and say he is Zabiullah Mujahid.”
“As I said, I am safe and on the run and always looking after myself.”
The reporter said the voice matched that of the man who over the past year has been the spokesman for Taliban activities in eastern and northern Afghanistan.
Afghan officials and those with the international forces operating here have maintained that Mujahid — one of two Taliban spokesmen — is not an individual, but rather a persona used by a number of Taliban insurgents adopting the same name and Afghan cellphone numbers, and operating from Pakistan just across the border.
However, many Afghan journalists he speaks to by telephone maintain that his voice has not changed at least in the past year, suggesting he is a single individual, as he — or his persona — has insisted.
Whether persona or person, Mujahid is regarded even by some of his enemies as an effective communicator, reacting quickly to events and using a variety of new media to get the Taliban’s message out. On Sunday, he sent out in a mass email with what he said was the security plan for the major council, or “loya jirga,” set to begin in Kabul on Wednesday. While officials denied that the document was genuine, if it was a fake, it was an elaborate one. Its wealth of details, like private phone numbers of intelligence officers, made it appear legitimate. The security plan was also posted on a Taliban website.