Apr 8, 2022 - World

American released by Taliban recounts months-long nightmare

Safi Rauf and Sammi Cannold the day after his release on Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar
Safi Rauf and his girlfriend, Sammi Cannold, at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar the day after his release . Photo courtesy of Sammi Cannold.

An American citizen detained by the Taliban says he was wrongfully accused of espionage but that his release can be a case study for U.S. diplomacy with the still-unrecognized Afghan government.

Driving the news: Safi Rauf, 27, whose non-profit helped evacuate thousands of at-risk Afghans during the fall of Kabul — including an interpreter who once helped President Biden — shared new details of his 105-day detention in an interview with Axios.

  • President Biden called Rauf on Thursday, hours after the interview, and invited him and his family to the White House next week, Rauf's girlfriend, Sammi Cannold, told Axios.

Flashback: Rauf was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and came to the U.S. as a teenager. He deployed to Afghanistan for four years as a linguist and cultural adviser embedded with the military and continues to serve as a Navy reservist.

  • Rauf first visited Taliban-controlled Kabul in November while the aid group he founded with his brothers, Human First Coalition, was assessing how to stem the rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
  • He said he worked closely with the U.S. government and the Taliban to provide aid and evacuate Afghans who had documents to leave — and that both entities were "completely on board" with Human First's operations.
  • "We were not sneaking around," he stressed. "These were all people who were approved by the U.S. government."

But Rauf says he earned enemies with his efforts to call out corrupt "middlemen" in Afghanistan's humanitarian aid network, who were exploiting the desperation of Afghan civilians in order to extract cash.

  • Rauf says "bad actors" saw him and his brothers, who were working for free, as a threat to their profiteering.
  • He believes these men conspired to have him and other aid workers detained by telling the Taliban they were spies for foreign governments or working for the Afghan resistance.
Safi Rauf with a former teacher who lost her job and whom he helped on the streets of Kabul
Rauf on the streets of Kabul helping a former teacher who had lost her job . Photo courtesy of Sammi Cannold

On Dec. 18, nine days after Rauf had returned for a second time to help expand operations on the ground, senior officers from the General Directorate of Intelligence came to his hotel and asked to interview all of the foreigners.

  • The officials assured Rauf he'd be released after recording a statement at headquarters. He cooperated, "extremely confident" he had done nothing wrong, and provided all the appropriate paperwork.
  • But instead of being released, Rauf, his brother Anees Khalil and three British nationals were taken to the basement of the building and detained for weeks in rooms that were 8 feet by 8 feet, with no phones, blankets, mattresses or sunlight.

What they're saying: "For the first month, the situation was very depressing. There was no hope," Rauf told Axios in a phone interview from his sister's home in Virginia, six days after his release.

  • Each time it rained, water flooded through the door, Rauf said. The detainees were not allowed to speak to anybody or have visitors.
  • "We thought that nobody was looking for us, nobody knew where we were, and any day they could come put us against the wall with a firing squad and shoot us all," he said. "That thought was always in the back of my head."

About 45 days in, Rauf and his fellow detainees were allowed a phone call by a Taliban interrogator who had been lobbying for their release but faced opposition from other intelligence officers still concerned about the spying allegations.

  • Rauf called his girlfriend and his brother Zabih, who were leading the effort to free the detainees alongside Rauf's colleague Alex Plitsas and State Department official J.P. Feldmayer.
  • They assured Rauf that they were working "day and night" to secure his release, and that a breakthrough was coming soon.
Safi and Anees at Dulles International Airport
Rauf (left) and his brother Anees Khalil arrive at Dulles International Airport, after the former's release. Photo courtesy of Sammi Cannold.

The night of March 31, the Taliban interrogator told Rauf and his brother that they would be released the next morning. He insisted there had been a "misunderstanding" and never any malicious intent.

  • They were escorted to Kabul's airport and met by U.S., British and Qatari officials in a C-17 transport plane.
  • News of their release broke while they were en route to Doha, where Cannold was waiting. He used her phone to call his family back home in Nebraska, having had his own phone confiscated by the Taliban.

There was one more hiccup when the brothers arrived at Dulles International Airport, where they were questioned for four hours by customs agents. Rauf said they "couldn't fathom" his explanation for where he had been.

  • Rauf said he and his family and friends shared a feast that night at his sister's house in Virginia, and laughed and cried together: "It was surreal."

The big picture: Rauf said there are three main messages he's hoping to spread in the wake of his ordeal:

  1. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is unprecedented and needs more attention, with millions on the brink of starvation.
  2. The Taliban must release all hostages, including U.S. citizen Mark Frerichs, in order to have a chance of gaining international legitimacy.
  3. The U.S. should engage in diplomacy with the Taliban, like the two parties did in his case, to advance human rights. Isolating the Taliban is not the answer, he stressed.

What's next: Rauf's work with Human First Coalition is already kicking back into high gear. He plans soon to visit Poland and the U.K. to help Ukrainian refugees.

Go deeper