A German national has been arrested with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s insurgency-racked Helmand province, Afghan officials said, one of the only Europeans found among the militants throughout the 16-year war.
The man, who calls himself Abdul Wadood and was pictured wearing a black turban with a long, reddish beard, identified himself as a German resident of Frankfurt and spoke German, provincial officials and the Afghan army have said.
He was serving as an adviser to Maulavi Nasir, the commander of the Taliban’s elite “Red Unit” in Helmand, said Abdul Qadeer Bahadurzai, a spokesman for the 215th Army Corps—a claim that was also made by a local police chief.
The Taliban’s Red Units serve as the insurgents’ special forces and have carried out many fatal attacks on the Afghan army and police.
Bahadurzai told AFP on Thursday the man has no identity card or passport. There was no immediate statement from German officials in Kabul or Berlin.
Afghan commandos aided by the air force arrested the man during a raid on a Taliban mine-making center in Gereshk district on Monday, officials said, adding that he was taken first to Camp Bastion and then on to Kandahar.
“This is the first time a European national has been arrested in Helmand,” Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor, told AFP.
It is also believed to be one of the first times any European has been detained with the Taliban in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in late 2001.
International forces fighting in the country have spoken in the past of hearing European accents on intercepted Taliban radio transmissions, and in 2009 NATO forces reportedly killed an unidentified insurgent with a tattoo of English football team Aston Villa. But—unlike with international jihadist groups such as the Islamic State group or Al Qaeda—citizens of Western nations are almost unknown among the Taliban ranks, with most foreigners hailing from Pakistan, Central Asia or Arab nations.
Perhaps the most famous Western fighter was John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” who was captured in Afghanistan and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2002.
In the photographs shared by the Afghan military the man, who appears to be in his 40s, is flanked by two members of the Afghan special forces dressed in combat gear and with night vision goggles pulled up onto their helmets. He is dressed in a traditional Afghan long shirt and wide trousers worn under a khaki military jacket.
Bahadurzai said three suspects were detained in total during the raid. “Three Kalashnikovs, one machine gun, four walkie-talkies and dozens of landmines were confiscated from them,” he added.
The German man, he said, spent four years in the city of Quetta in neighboring Pakistan, long believed to be a refuge for Taliban militants. The man also spent one year in Afghanistan’s Paktia province near the Pakistani border, and one year with the Red Unit in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand, Bahadurzai said.
It was not clear if the information had been confirmed by Afghan officials.
German newspaper Die Welt reported on Thursday that the man was a convert to Islam called “Thomas K” from Rhineland-Palatinate, near Frankfurt. It said he had been known to authorities since 2009, and had traveled to Afghanistan in 2013 to join the Taliban, adding that German police had warned Kabul in 2014 that he could carry out a suicide attack targeting foreign interests.
The man’s arrest came as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday unveiled a plan to open peace talks with the Taliban, including eventually recognizing them as a political party, days after the militants called for direct negotiations with the U.S.
The apparent openness by both sides to some form of negotiations came as civilian casualties have soared in recent months in the conflict that has been described by U.S. officials as a “stalemate.”