The U.S. military has taken heat lately for holding and in some cases abusing innocent civilians in its prisons abroad. But at least one Guantanamo detainee, Taliban commander Mullah Shahzada, has proved anything but harmless. Soon after he was released last July--military officials believed there was no cause to hold him--Shahzada seized control of Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan. He recruited fighters by telling harrowing tales of his supposed ill-treatment in the cages of Guantanamo. He proved to be an effective insurgent. A Taliban source told TIME that it was Shahzada who masterminded a jailbreak in Kandahar in October, when 41 Talibs tunneled to freedom as bribed guards turned a blind eye. Several weeks ago, he and his gang nearly took the town of Spin Boldak, a smuggler's haven in the southeast, according to a security source in Kabul. His fighters, that source says, overran Afghan outposts and even planted bombs in the town, but French commandos and Afghan militiamen thwarted the offensive.
Shahzada was finally killed in action three weeks ago. Afghan militia in Kandahar learned from informants where he and two of his comrades were hiding and passed the news to U.S. special forces, who prepared an ambush, according to Razzaq Sherzai, a militia commander whose troops took part in the mission. A memorial service for Shahzada in Quetta, Pakistan, last week drew many Taliban leaders wanted by the U.S., Sherzai says.
But why was Shahzada freed in the first place? The Taliban considers photos un-Islamic, making it difficult to identify its senior commanders. The Pentagon doesn't comment on its Guantanamo detainees, but a Taliban source tells TIME that Shahzada convinced his captors he had been picked up by their Afghan allies only because he was Pashtun, a rival ethnic group. Afghan minister Gul Agha Sherzai, who has helped battle the Taliban, insists that if Afghan officials had been allowed to vet Guantanamo captives, Shahzada would never have been freed. "We know all these Taliban faces," he says. Repeated requests for access, he claims, were turned down.
--By Tim McGirk and Rahimullah Yusufzai