Reported details of the high-profile prisoner swap that freed Bowe Bergdahl over the weekend are not telling the full story, according to a high-level intelligence official involved in efforts to find and rescue the Army sergeant.
The Haqqani Network, a terrorist group operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, freed Bergdahl on Saturday after holding him captive for five years in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo Bay prison inmates.
A senior intelligence official with intimate knowledge of the years-long effort to locate and rescue Bergdahl told the Washington Free Beacon that the details of that exchange do not add up.
The official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, speculated that a cash ransom was paid to the Haqqani Network to get the group to free the prisoner.
The Obama administration reportedly considered offering cash for his release as late as December 2013. The State Department has repeatedly refused to say whether the deal that released Bergdahl involved any cash payment.
The ransom plan was reportedly abandoned, but the intelligence official insisted that there is reason to believe that cash changed hands as part of the deal.
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“The Haqqanis could give a rat’s ass about prisoners,” the official said, referring to the Haqqani Network, a designated terrorist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were freed in exchange for Bergdahl’s release.
“The people that are holding Bergdahl want[ed] cash and someone paid it to them,” he said.
The theory relies in large measure on a distinction that has been lost in much of the press coverage of the Berdahl deal. A number of news reports on the circumstances surrounding the prisoner exchange have used “Haqqani” and “Taliban” interchangeably.
Experts say that obscures very real differences between the two groups that are key to understanding the deal that freed Bergdahl.
The Taliban is an ideologically committed group, they say, while the Haqqani Network is better understood as a tribal crime syndicate using unrest in the region not to advance an Islamist agenda but to further own financial and political interests.
“When Westerners talk [about the] Taliban, we tend to use it as a generic term,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin, a former Middle East advisor to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “Afghans are more likely to talk about the Haqqani Network versus the Quetta Shura [also known as the Afghan Taliban] versus the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.”
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Four of the five prisoners released from Guantanamo were top Taliban commanders. One western diplomat said their release was “like moving the whole Quetta Shura to Qatar.”
Only one of the freed terrorists, Nabi Omari, was part of the Haqqani Network. But the presence of other more senior Haqqani prisoners at Guantanamo has observers wondering whether the network’s goal in the exchange was actually the release of Gitmo prisoners.
“One of these things doesn’t belong,” the intelligence official said. “If you were to put one of these [freed Taliban prisoners] with Haqqani in a room together, they’d beat the shit out of each other.”
He compared the relationship between the two groups to two sports teams. “You’ve got two teams that both do the same thing but their players are different in how they function,” he explained. “Why would the Redskins pay for a draft pick that goes to the Miami Dolphins? They wouldn’t.”
The official cited his work over the course of a decade dealing with hostage situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Haqqani, he said, “benefits zero from the prisoner exchange. … Based on 10 years of working with those guys, the only thing that would make them move Bergdahl is money.”
The official is not the first to suggest that a ransom was likely paid. Oliver North, who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that freed American hostages in Tehran in exchange for the sale of American weapons to Iran, insisted on Wednesday that cash changed hands.
“Whether the Qataris paid it, or some big oil sheik, or somebody used our petrodollars, there was a ransom paid in cash for each one of them, my guess somewhere in the round numbers of $5 or 6 million to get Bergdahl freed,” North told Newsmax.
Rubin agreed with the assessment, again citing the distinction between the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
“The groups do have links, but if Bergdahl was held by Haqqani and we released Quetta Shura, it seems Bergdahl’s captors were seeking something other than the Taliban prisoners, got paid off, and Obama simply used the trade as an excuse to release master terrorists from Gitmo,” Rubin said.
The theory has not been confirmed—though State has yet to deny it either—but the senior intelligence official expressed concern that the United States may have “enriched a terrorist network.”
“We just funded them for the next 10 years is my guess,” he said.
• Lachlan Markay is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. His Twitter handle is @lachlan. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.