Timothy Weeks now supports dialogue with the militant group as a way to end the years-long Afghan conflict.
“Please call me Jibra’il,” said Timothy Weeks when TRT World recently approached him for an interview over Signal, the encrypted messaging app everyone is switching to these days.
Weeks, a 52-year-old English language teacher, is a former Taliban hostage who spent three and a half years in captivity — most of that time shackled in a small windowless room.
His formal Muslim name, Jibra’il Omar, is a reflection of his belief that an archangel was looking over him during his imprisonment.
He, along with a fellow American teacher, Kevin King, was released in late 2019 in exchange for three Taliban commanders who were in the custody of Afghan forces. That prisoner swap led to the first-ever peace talks between the Kabul administration and the militant group.
More than 150,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict, which began following the US invasion of Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, according to the UN.
As the peace talks drag on in Doha, the Taliban continue to stage devastating attacks, including suicide bombings, against Afghan government forces.
Amid this carnage, Weeks is among those who has seen the ugly side of the Taliban. He has also witnessed what he calls the perseverance and unshakable faith of its fighters.
His story is of a devout Christian man who wanted, as a teacher, to do good for beaten-down people. Instead, he was dragged off with an AK-47 to his back. And now he looks back at the entire experience as Allah’s will.
Weeks said he had a happy childhood growing up in the Australian countryside of Wagga Wagga, known for producing sportsmen including Shane Warne, who dazzled the world of cricket with his spin bowling.
“It’s all sheep and wheat...vast and expansive landscape,” he says about the region..
His earliest recollection of hearing about Afghanistan goes back to his family home where he spent countless days playing alongside a river with his two younger siblings.
“My father’s mother had a Persian carpet on the wall. It depicted a scene in a Middle Eastern country. It could either be from Iran or Afghanistan,” he said.
The embroidered picture showed a royal court with kings and princes huddled together with their bows and hunting dogs. “She used to tell me stories using those characters. So it was like a picture book for me.”
An avid traveller, Weeks spent 20 years as an English language teacher in Thailand, Palestine and Timor Leste after completing his post-graduate degree in education from Cambridge University, UK.
After coming across an advertisement for a job at the American University of Afghanistan, he applied and was accepted.
Flying from Dubai to Kabul in 2016, he could see the imposing mountains rising up on the horizon and the barren landscape all around.
Weeks was assigned the task of designing a language course for Afghan police officers. But he never got that far. Just a few weeks after his arrival he and Kevin were abducted outside the university gate by a four-man gang.
“I was taken away exactly 33 days 3 hour and 3 minutes after my arrival — something like that,” he said with a laugh.
To the mountains and beyond
On the night of August 9, 2016, Weeks and Kevin’s bus had hardly emerged from the university gate when it came to a screeching halt.
Weeks was knocked out after his head struck the seat in front of him. When he regained consciousness a little while later, he saw a man in military fatigues, strapped with what he later realised was a suicide vest.
The two academics were huddled in a car which sped across Kabul. “We stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was deserted and rocky and I thought they would execute me so I refused to get out,” said Weeks.
Over the next eight hours, the kidnappers, along with the two hostages, hiked over rocky terrain. Weeks said he was lucky to be wearing boots. “Kevin, who’s older than me, and a bit overweight, had real difficulty walking.”
They were put into another car and drove to a desolate location. After a few days, the gang handed hostages over to the Taliban.
Weeks said that after his release the CIA officials told him during a briefing in Washington that three of the four initial kidnappers had been arrested. One was killed. He doesn’t know how much the Taliban paid the gang but there have been numerous cases where criminals have abducted foreigners in Afghanistan for ransom.
Over the next 3.5 years, Weeks and Kevin were shifted to various locations 33 times. He has no way to confirm it, but he reckons they were kept in various towns or villages on both sides of the border including in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal region.
“One of the places where they took us reminded me of Switzerland with its mountains and tiny villages, the winding roads, and incredible snowfall. I later looked up the pictures and they look like Waziristan,” he said.
The most stressful moments were during hasty relocation rushes. That was also when Taliban militants would beat Weeks the most. “At times we were in Toyota pickup trucks for 20 hours under a pile of blankets, winding through backroads.”
Violent Taliban outbursts were usually a result of confusion in interpreting the orders.
“Most of the time we didn't understand what they wanted us to do. It was particularly difficult for Kevin because he’s partially deaf. So you can imagine the difficulty when it’s 4 in the morning, helicopters have come in, you are getting instructions in whispers, your head covered in a balaclava, and you are in chains.
“The guards were really paranoid when it was time to move. I would whisper to Kevin but he wouldn't understand. He’d ask again, I’d repeat and the guards would beat me.”
Later on, Weeks picked up enough Pashto to have a basic conversation with the guards.
The US Navy Seals made at least two rescue attempts, he said. They came close during one operation when they were being held in Ghazni, a city in Afghanistan.
“We were in a compound when the Seals came, there was a lot of machine gun fire and dust. Of course the Taliban didn’t tell us it was the Navy Seals. They said it was Daesh (IS).”
Early on in his ordeal, Weeks was told by one of the Taliban commanders that he would walk free within ten days. But Australia, like the US, has a policy of not paying ransom, and his captivity turned into months and then into years.
In June 2017, the Taliban released a video of Weeks in which he could be seen asking the Australian government for help, saying he was alone and scared.
A reward follows punishment
Those were challenging times for Weeks. A Taliban commander would regularly beat him — probably as a reaction to the killing of Taliban fighters in one of the botched rescue operations.
He was continually kept in iron chains unlike Kevin who was left off the hook because of his age and health issues. “I had to keep the floor clean and wash the clothes. If the clothes were dirty they’d beat me up. They gave me a bucket of icy cold water to wash them in the middle of winters.”
There were plagues of mice and ants that can give “you an anaphylactic shock.”
But after a year, the guard’s attitudes began to change. The hostages were moved to a relatively nicer cell, which had a window and for the first time, Weeks could see the mountains.
“Our condition had become quite bad. I was 55 kilos and Kevin was not much heavier. He looked like a skeleton.” The Taliban were probably hoping for an exchange and realised that the poor condition of the hostages would invite bad press, he said.
From a monotonous diet of eggplants and rice, the prisoners were now offered grapes and pomegranates from nearby fields. That was a big relief for Weeks.
He recalled the time when he grew so tired of surviving on a diet of green peas for days, begging the guards for a few eggs. “They’d claim that they were eating the same stuff as we did. But that wasn’t true. I could smell them making eggs in the morning.”
That wasn’t very Islamic of the Taliban guards.
“After all, isn’t it in a Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) that the Sahaba (Prophet’s companions) gave the same bread to prisoners of war that they ate themselves?”
Bored with the routine, Weeks asked the guards to get him some books. “I was starved for literature.” The only books in English they brought were Islamic texts printed in Karachi’s Urdu Bazar. Weeks devoured them - especially the exegesis of the Koran.
One morning he saw four Taliban militants carrying in an exercise bicycle. The change in the behaviour of the guards and his improved circumstances made Weeks realise how lucky he was, he said.
“I had to show my gratitude (to God). I needed to do something,” Weeks recalled telling himself. He began contemplating accepting Islam in captivity.
But why Islam? Couldn’t he have shown his gratitude while remaining a good Christian? In his own words, his family members including his nieces and nephews are active members of the church back home in Australia.
“Yes, I could have given my thanks by remaining a Christian. But one of the things I was absolutely dumbstruck by was the faith of the Taliban. They had unfathomable, unshakable faith that we do not see in the western world.”
Gradually, Weeks picked up how to perform daily prayers and the ablutions before them. On May 5, 2018, he formally converted.
“I thought the Taliban guards would be overjoyed but they threatened to kill me instead.”
Weeks said his ordeal ended as abruptly as it had begun. He and Kevin were released in November 2019. The US military sent two Black Hawk helicopters to bring them home.
“Out of a big dust cloud came six special forces and they walked towards us and one of them stepped towards me and he just put his arm around me and he held me and he said, ‘Are you OK?’ And then he walked me back to the Black Hawk,” he said soon after his release.
“From the moment I sighted both Black Hawk helicopters and was placed in the hands of special forces, I knew my long and tortuous ordeal had come to an end.”
Over the past year, Weeks has been actively backing the peace efforts via his Twitter account. But his tweets, most of them in Pashto, are tilted in favour of the militant group. His Twitter handle carries the picture of the Taliban flag. He calls the group by its official name, the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, which the militants use to legitimise themselves.
People often accuse him of suffering from Stockholm syndrome and that he has been overwhelmed by his years as a prisoner.
“Of course I am affected, I have chronic severe PTSD. But I have seen some of the top psychologists and they have not diagnosed me with Stockholm syndrome.”
Weeks said he has no love for the Taliban and at times hated the way he was treated. “I knew very well that one word from the commander and the guards would have executed me.”
While held hostage, Weeks’ mother died. Soon after his release, he was diagnosed with advanced-stage prostate cancer and has undergone seven surgeries in the past 10 months.
“People who call me a Taliban puppet do not understand what I have gone through in terms of health and personal loss.”
These days, Weeks is working as a part-time activist trying to help Afghan refugees in other countries such as Turkey. In pictures, he could be seen wearing the traditional Pashtun cap during his travels.
His ex university colleague, Kevin, has kept a low profile since they were released.
Weeks said he doesn’t condone the violence perpetuated by the Taliban.
“I have made a commitment to support the Taliban in the negotiations, not in the violence or suicide bombings. I have absolutely no support for that. I am trying to do my best to ensure they remain on the negotiating table.
“If I can just have the tiniest part in bringing peace to Afghanistan then I will be happy.”
Last year, Weeks traveled to Doha, Qatar, to attend the first session of the peace talks between the Taliban and the US on invitation of the militant group. “I had made a promise to myself to highlight the issue of prisoners of war after my release,” he said about his decision to attend the meeting.
There he met Anas Haqqani, a Taliban commander who was released in exchange for Weeks and Kevin. “We were exchanged to build trust. So it was just logical for me to meet him.”
Anas, who is the younger brother of Sirajuddin, the leader of the dreaded Haqqani Network, came to the airport to receive him. “I was quite overwhelmed to see him. I judge him as a man who has been through an ordeal similar to mine — in fact a lot worse. We connect as prisoners. We talk about things which occurred during our incarceration like lack of sleep.”
In Doha, high ranking Taliban officials approached Weeks with apologies.
“It was nice but it doesn’t change the fact that I went through hell,” he said.
“But I guess if I hadn’t gone through all that trouble, I wouldn’t have accepted Islam.”