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Ex-Taliban spy raking in aid money

With his fondness for American rap music and Beyoncé, Fareed Hidayati, sporting cropped hair, a clean-shaven face and speaking in a thick British accent does not seem like a typical Taliban spy.

world Updated: May 15, 2011 01:57 IST

With his fondness for American rap music and Beyoncé, Fareed Hidayati, sporting cropped hair, a clean-shaven face and speaking in a thick British accent does not seem like a typical Taliban spy.

He drives around Kabul in the Taliban's favourite vehicle, the Toyota Corolla -- but his car is customised with 1,000-watt speakers, bright red aluminium rims and seat cushions displaying the arms of Arsenal football club.

No surprise then, that this former Taliban turned his back on his rebel brothers, and now manages contracts -- some worth more than a million dollars -- for US-funded developers rebuilding the war-torn nation.

Born and raised in Wardak province, the Taliban's stronghold southwest of Kabul, Hidayati was always a hustler who knew how to navigate the troubled world of local Pashtun politics and government connections, his friends say.

The chameleon's success has mirrored the turbulent changes in power in Afghanistan over the past decade, from austere Taliban fundamentalism to the flow of billions of dollars through the Western-backed state.

Speaking with striking urban English that would not be out of place in a Birmingham pub, he says he always stood out as different in his remote rural home -- for example, he took daily showers and looked after his hair.

"They told me, you're a foreigner!" he jokes.

A chorus of R&B star Beyoncé echoes from his car in Khoshal Khan, a maze of alleys situated at the foot of the mountains in the far southwest of Kabul where women are scarce and most men wear long beards.

"I also have Britney Spears, Rihanna, 50 Cent...," offers Hidayati, sitting behind the wheel in jeans and a tight t-shirt, a silver chain around his neck, bracelet on his wrist and two gold and emerald rings decorating his fingers.

It has been ten years since Hidayati, now 32, worked as a spy for the Taliban regime, which ruled from 1996 until late 2001, imposing a strict form of Islamic law where long beards were compulsory and music was forbidden.

In 1997, with the Taliban in power and bored with his medical studies in Kabul, a friend suggested that Hidayati start spying on diplomats and foreign NGOs.

He says he accepted for one reason: "It was the best way to protect my family."

But he says he could never embrace the fundamentalists' cause and admits that despite his job he was "not very religious" and he frequently broke the rules.

"We drank, we smoked hashish together.... It was easy to trick the Taliban, they were not very smart," he smiles.

"He's very clever. He was always smarter than the others," says Sharif, one of his childhood friends from Jaghatu, a conservative Pashtun district of Wardak province.

After the Taliban regime fell, Hidayati feared capture by warlords and fled to Turkey. Getting by on wits alone, he says he managed to raise $9,000 to buy a fake German passport. He flew on to Hamburg, and then England.

In the plane headed for Birmingham city, on the advice of the man who smuggled him there, he tore his passport into confetti so that the authorities could not identify where he had come from.

"He told me that if they couldn't find a passport on me, they would have nowhere to send me back to," he says.

In Birmingham, he says, he was granted political asylum and scholarships that allowed him to study English and computer science in Birmingham, and commerce in Oxford.

In 2007, he was offered UK residency, but though he recalls his days in Britain fondly, he says he knew he had to return home to Afghanistan and his mother.

"I am her favorite son, and she had already negotiated my engagement," he says.

On his return, he worked for a time with cousins of President Hamid Karzai, before founding his own company in 2009.

It has been a lucrative move for Hidayati, who has been taking advantage of vast foreign aid flows into the country by employing 1,200 men to build bridges, roads and schools for US contractors, even in provinces such as Wardak and Ghazi, partly controlled by Taliban militants.

He says he has returned to a country "gripped by the madness of war" and "run by mafia", claiming that he does not bribe Taliban rebels himself, despite his local competitors admitting it is impossible to work without doing so.

Now he is the father of 22-month-old baby boy Sahil and has cut ties with the Taliban's exiled leaders, claiming he refused an offer to rejoin them in 2007.

One day in his new job, he says, Taliban bandits approached him on a building site to rob him.

He says he parked his red Corolla, grabbed an assault rifle and fired into the air.

"They all ran away like sheep!" he laughs.