If Osama bin Laden likes being in the global spotlight, he's likely a bit depressed in his hideout these days. The leader of the al-Qaida terrorist organization hasn't made an appearance on the evening news for quite some time. What's more, the Taliban no longer need bin Laden as a figurehead. Western intelligence agencies warn that the Taliban now have "their own star" in their struggle against Western soldiers and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. The new nightmare from the Hindu Kush Mountains is called Mullah Dadullah. He sports a pitch black beard, always wears a military jacket and these days, he is omnipresent in the media.
Bloodthirsty propaganda is everywhere in northern Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. Virtually every CD salesman in Peshawar is selling the latest films released by the Taliban leader. "Oh, you want the Dadullah tapes," says one. "They're very popular right now." He disappears for barely a minute and then returns with an entire stack. He charges about 3 ($4) per film. Those who buy several get a discount. But he doesn't want his picture taken. He says Pakistani police already causes him enough trouble when they find terror DVDs in the suitcases of journalists at the airport.
The images on these DVDs reveal the Taliban's self confidence and new professionalism. The films herald a bloody spring in Afghanistan, one in which Western troops will face a newly strengthened Taliban army under a re-organized leadership. Well armed and better logistically organized than ever before, the Taliban are preparing for their fight against the hated NATO troops, whose alliance has recently shown signs of internal division. "They say it will be the decisive summer," says a man who occasionally drinks tea with the Taliban commanders.
Western intelligence agencies believe the Taliban have used the winter to thoroughly tighten their organizational structure. Some Taliban commanders are even reporting that Taliban leader Mullah Omar -- who disappeared from the scene entirely for years -- is once again writing letters to his supporters, congratulating successful commanders and the parents of suicide bombers and reminding militants of their "Islamic duties" via audio recordings. For years, one-eyed Omar had disappeared without a trace -- likely afraid of being tracked down by the CIA.
But Mullah Omar seems to be feeling more secure these days -- as does Mullah Dadullah, who only recently outlined his vision for the coming months. Behaving almost like any normal politician, he invited al-Jazeera journalists to visit him in the mountains. His words were alarming despite being full of rhetoric and propaganda. Dadullah said he commands 6,000 men who have volunteered for suicide attacks, and that their offensive is "imminent." He added that some of his men are already set off on their mission, which he described as a "bloodbath for the occupiers." This week's symbolic attack on US Vice President Dick Cheney is reason to fear that Dadullah is issuing more than just empty threats.
Dadullah's films serve to provide the Taliban with present-day legends. They're professionally produced in al-Sahab, the Taliban's media center in Qetta, southern Pakistan. Hundreds of Taliban fighters are seen performing military exercises with machine guns. Then they fire grenade-launchers -- of which they seem to have plenty. Every shot is accompanied by a chorus of voices emphatically shouting: "God is great!" Next, the films show footage of wrecked US military vehicles. "We will hit them again," a voice-over announces triumphantly.
Perhaps the main message conveyed by these films, however, is that the Taliban is no longer afraid of being chased down. Only some of the militants' faces have been pixelated. Many others give their full names as they sign up for the holy war. Almost all the DVDs feature footage of the brutal execution of alleged CIA spies. The "helpers of the infidels" have their heads removed while still alive. About 250 such murders have occurred in recent months.
Mostly, however, the films show the new hero -- the new face of resistance. Mullah Dudallah, a stocky man, about 40 years old, is worshipped like a saint. Although he lost a leg in battle during the 1990s, he is seen vigorously pacing up a mountain with his fighters. Once at the top, he can't resist firing a rocket into the distance himself. Then he kneels down to pray with his men, his AK-47 next to him the whole time. The sun sets blood-red behind the mountains. It's hard to imagine a more effective propaganda film.
Legends surrounding the new Taliban figurehead
Mullah Abdullah has been a genuine nightmare for the foreign troops and intelligence agencies in Afghanistan for quite some time. The videos are analyzed with a meticulousness that matches their menacing character. "We know from experience that many of his pronouncements are not propaganda," says one Western anti-terrorism agent. "He's carried out most of his threats." Dadullah already threatened a wave of suicide attacks in 2006. No one took him seriously at first. By the end of 2006, the CIA's statisticians counted about 139 such attacks throughout the country -- five times more than in 2005. 2007 could be even bloodier.
More than anything, it is Dadullah's biography that has propelled him to the Taliban leadership. He escaped a trap organized by the warlord Dostum following the US invasion: Dostum lured thousands of Taliban to northern Afghanistan, near Kunduz, and massacred them. Legend has it that Dadullah escaped on horseback. Then he spent several years devoting himself to rebuilding and re-arming the Taliban. He's now considered the top commander in the region surrounding the provincial capital Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban have gained the upper hand there, more or less controlling the area despite many losses.
Dadullah's merciless violence fascinates many of his younger followers, who already respect him as a great authority. When they kidnapped a South American worker in late 2006, they turned to him for advice. His instructions were clear, and it wasn't long before the hostage's massacred corpse was found. Such violence impresses young would-be holy warriors.
Not long ago, the United States unwittingly contributed to the Dadullah legend. After an operation in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, intelligence agents told the media that Dadullah and one of his closest followers had been killed. It only took half a day for him to appear on al-Jazeera via satellite phone. "He can always be reached somehow and loves to play with journalists," says Afghanistan expert Rahimullah Yusufzai, who himself sometimes speaks to Dadullah. The Taliban leader doesn't seem concerned that the signals from the Thuraya phones he uses can be traced. He feels invincible.
NATO expects a rough year
Experts on the conflict believe the new Taliban tactic will cause serious difficulties for NATO. "If suicide attacks are carried out all over the country, it becomes difficult to decide on how to allocate troops," Pakistani Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid points out. NATO could quickly be demoralized, like the United States in Iraq, since it is already internally divided and disposes of no military reserves, much less a rapid reaction force. "2007 will be a very serious year," Rashid predicts.
In a reaction to the wave of Taliban propaganda, NATO generals have announced their own offensive. The message from Kabul is that the troops will not wait for the Taliban to attack. Rather, they will strike hard themselves. Whether that will be enough to master the onslaught of suicide attacks is doubtful. "The Taliban don't need more training camps or military camps for their new strategy," Rashid fears. The only remaining option would be that of attacking presumed houses of the fighters, which would cost civilian lives.
Such attacks merely provide the Taliban with new recruits for their struggle. In the fall of 2006, US military officer Chris Cavoli concluded from his experiences in Kunar province that: "Every Afghan killed by a bomb leads to two new militants, regardless of whether the person killed is a civilian or a militant." This means a military offensive against Mullah Dadullah's men would only serve the interests of the new Taliban hero.
"Our sources will never run dry," he says self-confidently in one of his many propaganda films.