Navy SEAL’s Savior Mohammad Gulab Marked for Death by Taliban

Jun 24, 2014 at 7:03 AM ET

One of the proudest moments of Mohammad Gulab’s life occurred this past December on a trip to New York City, at a screening of the Hollywood blockbuster Lone Survivor. That’s where he met the actor Mark Wahlberg. The Afghan villager was no film buff. In fact, Lone Survivor was the first motion picture he had ever seen on the big screen.

But speaking with Wahlberg is what Gulab remembers most fondly. The movie’s screenplay was based on the saga of Marcus Luttrell, the retired U.S. Navy SEAL Gulab saved from a Taliban ambush in 2005. Wahlberg starred as Luttrell in the fictionalized version of the story, and he was visibly impressed to meet the SEAL’s real-life savior. “You were the true hero,” the actor said in English. When his interpreter explained what Wahlberg had said, nothing was lost on Gulab. He smiled.

More than six months have passed since that day. Lone Survivor has taken in $125 million at the box office, and Wahlberg’s hero is back in Afghanistan. Only now he isn’t smiling; he’s afraid. Gulab’s just 40, but his beard is streaked with white. The Taliban are actively hunting for him and his family, he says, and he may spend the rest of his life paying for his decision to protect Luttrell.

Gulab has never second-guessed his choice. But in recent months, something seems to have been lost in translation between the two unlikely friends. While visiting the U.S. for a few months last year to help promote the film, Gulab says Luttrell promised to help him move to the United States. But in the end, the Afghan says he spent most of his final month in America alone in a bedroom in California, and was unable to meet with Luttrell before abruptly being sent back to Afghanistan. The retired Navy SEAL repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story, but a family representative offered a different version of events that suggests a tragic misunderstanding. Nevertheless, Gulab feels betrayed by Luttrell, who he says hasn’t returned his calls in months. He still wants to move to America, but worries he’s running out of time. “My life,” he says, “is in worse danger than ever.”

The events that brought these two men together occurred nearly a decade ago. In June 2005, Gulab stumbled upon a stranger at a waterfall near his home in the mountains of Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan. The man—Luttrell—was the only survivor of a four-man recon team that Taliban fighters had ambushed. He’d been shot twice and was bleeding profusely, his back was broken and he had shrapnel wounds in both of his legs.

Gulab immediately knew that the man was American—and that the Taliban were after him. Nevertheless, he took Luttrell into his home and protected him. He considered it his sacred duty under the tribal code of honor known as Pashtunwali, which mandates Pashtuns should protect anyone in need. When the insurgents came to demand that he hand over Luttrell, Gulab refused. The Taliban persisted, alternating between promises of money and threats to murder him and the rest of the village. None of it changed Gulab’s mind. He and his neighbors remained steadfast.

Without phones or radios, the villagers sent a man on foot across the mountains to carry a message to the nearest American base. Several days passed before the helicopters appeared. And as the Americans airlifted Luttrell out of the village, Gulab left, too. Fearing a Taliban reprisal, he and his family relocated to a house in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province. To support his family, Gulab took a job doing odd tasks at the nearby U.S. military base.

And then, crazy as it sounds, the Americans detained the man who risked his life to save Luttrell. The reason: misplaced suspicions that he had collaborated with the enemy. U.S. officials soon realized their mistake and set him free. He was still barred from the base, but the paychecks continued. “There’s no use complaining,” Gulab says. “The Army mindset is the Army mindset.”

The paychecks eventually stopped, but the Taliban’s threats didn’t. Five years ago, an unidentified gunman shot Gulab just outside his house. He suffered only a flesh wound on his leg, but the shooting was a painful reminder that he was a marked man. “I put my life, my family’s life and the lives of my tribesmen at risk,” he says.

Years passed with little contact between Gulab and Luttrell, according to the Afghan. In 2007, with the help of the British thriller writer Patrick Robinson, the Navy Cross recipient ­­­­­­­­­­­­­penned a book about his ordeal, also called Lone Survivor, which became a New York Times bestseller. 

Gulab wasn’t involved in the project. But Luttrell helped the devout Muslim get a visa in 2010 to the U.S. and paid his fare so the two could have a reunion. Gulab spent almost three weeks at the Luttrell family’s ranch in Texas. Neither man had learned to speak the other’s language well, but they bonded by shooting guns on Luttrell’s range. “I love him,” Gulab later said in an interview with 60 Minutes. “He’s my brother.”

Luttrell concurred. “We’re family,” he told the news program. “We’re brothers in blood.”

Gulab returned to Afghanistan, but Universal’s publicity department brought him back to America in August of last year on a five-month visa to join the press run-up to the film’s December release. He was given an advance viewing in a screening room at the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles with the movie’s writer and director, Peter Berg. The Afghan couldn’t understand the dialogue, of course, but got so caught up in the action that he began shouting “Allahu akbar!” meaning “God is the greatest.”

Gulab saw the film three more times and even visited Las Vegas. Other aspects of his U.S. visit, he says, were less pleasant. He says he spent most of his final month in the U.S. cooped up in the California home of Nawaz Rahimi, an Afghan-American interpreter and friend of Luttrell’s who consulted on the film. The two hit it off. Gulab says Rahimi was hired to look after him and the two shared a room in the Rahimi family’s four-bedroom house, where Rahimi’s parents cooked most of Gulab’s meals. “The food was good,” he says. “His parents showed me respect. Rahimi’s family is a very good family.”

But over time, Gulab complained he had no way to travel on his own, and little to do during the day but sit alone in his room. He didn’t understand American television and eventually became lonely and depressed. He had run through most of the $3,000 he brought with him to the States. He missed his family back in Asadabad and didn’t have his own cellphone to talk to them. He felt so trapped at one point that he smashed a window in the house just to get some fresh air. “I felt like a prisoner,” Gulab says. “I don’t have a problem with Rahimi. He’s a good guy. But he’s a grown American man. He would leave the house for seven or eight hours, and I would be alone in the room. I was a stranger in this country, and [Rahimi] was like my eyes and mouth.”

On top of everything else, Gulab says he and Luttrell rarely spoke after the Afghan finished promoting the film in December, leaving Gulab with the impression that “Marcus [had] absolutely disconnected himself.” It’s unclear if Luttrell ever received word that Gulab was trying to reach him, but the family representative says the retired SEAL was extremely busy doing promotional work for the movie during that time.

As the film started to generate buzz, Gulab began to worry what would happen when he returned to Afghanistan. The movie, and his work promoting it, he feared, would only make his enemies more determined. While traveling to Washington, D.C., Gulab says Luttrell introduced him to Kay Granger, a Republican congresswoman from Texas.

Gulab was hoping to stay in America and acquire a green card; he says Granger and Luttrell tried to help him do so, and that the retired SEAL later advised him to seek asylum. But the Afghan decided against it. Gulab was under the impression that if U.S. officials granted his request, he could never return home. He remained hopeful that his friend, Luttrell, could come through. “I was 100 percent sure the U.S. government would give me a green card,” he says. “I sacrificed a lot.”

Unfortunately, Gulab was misinformed. Members of Congress “can only make fluffy letters,” says Michael Wildes, a prominent immigration lawyer who helped Kwame James—the man who subdued the shoe bomber—acquire citizenship. Wildes says Gulab could have ultimately gotten the green card he so badly wanted. Without relatives in the U.S., he wouldn’t have been immediately eligible, but because of his valiant act and the Taliban’s threats, Gulab and his family would likely have received asylum, and then after about a year, could have applied for a green card. Gulab, admits he didn’t understand the process, and if Luttrell tried to correctly explain it, something was lost between the two men. Regardless, what happened next remains muddled.

In January, Gulab says Rahimi told him he could no longer stay at his family’s house in California. The Afghan still had about a month left on his visa, but the Rahimis were moving and said they would no longer have room for him, he says.

Gulab and Rahimi flew to Texas and stayed in a hotel in Houston. Gulab says he was hoping to speak to Luttrell. He wanted to find a job, rent an apartment and wait in the U.S. until he could acquire a green card, and then bring over his family. The next morning, however, Luttrell’s wife and father-in-law showed up and took Gulab shopping. Then they drove him to the airport. Gulab was shocked to be leaving. “I wasn’t ready to go,” he says, “but among my people, if someone tells you you’re no longer welcome, you leave.”

Rahimi did not respond to requests for comment about Gulab’s departure, but the Luttrell family representative says Gulab left voluntarily and Luttrell didn’t understand why. Either way, Luttrell couldn’t be at the airport because he was promoting the movie, the representative adds.

Gulab says he hadn’t seen his friend since the New York premiere, more than a month earlier. He says Luttrell called Rahimi’s phone before takeoff to wish him a pleasant flight. Indeed, in that final conversation, the family representative says Luttrell explained to Gulab that returning home early meant his current visa would automatically expire. Gulab says he felt betrayed: “I told him, ‘Listen…you said you would get me a green card. You made lots of promises that you didn’t keep.’” The Luttrell family representative did not respond to questions about Gulab’s recollection of the conversation, or whether the two have had any contact since.

Even before Gulab’s flight touched down in Kabul, a pirated copy of the movie had already reached the Taliban in Kunar province. And as soon as he was on the ground, the death threats began. Gulab says he has changed phones and SIM cards dozens of times. Somehow the callers always manage to discover his new number. “Soon we will blow you to hell,” they warned.

The callers, Gulab says, told him that the Taliban’s district commander, Mullah Nasrullah, is furious that his fighters have failed to kill him. Weeks ago, Nasrullah reportedly issued a harsh reprimand to his chief of operations in Asadabad, demanding to know why Luttrell’s savior was still alive. “Just send a suicide bomber and hit him,” Nasrullah ordered, the callers told Gulab.

The district commander even phoned once to berate him personally, Gulab says. “The man you protected was an American soldier, not a Muslim,” Nasrullah complained. “There was nothing honorable about what you did.” Gulab disagrees: “I told the commander the man I saved was a human being. The question of honor has nothing to do with his religion. It’s about humanity and self-respect.”

These days, Gulab can spend only a few hours at a time with his family. When darkness falls, he leaves for a secret hideout nearby. If he’s not at home, he thinks, the Taliban’s soldiers are less likely to target his house. He wouldn’t dare own a car even if he could afford one. Taliban bombers could kill him with a remotely triggered improvised explosive device.

The attempts on his life continue despite his caution. On April 5, someone detonated an IED only a few steps away from the path where he was walking.

An even more harrowing incident came days later. At midnight on April 14, a group of men arrived at the house and banged on the front door. Gulab wasn’t there. “Open the door!” the strangers shouted. “We are your neighbors!” The family left it locked. “The noise woke everyone in the house,” says Gulab’s eldest son, 17-year-old Gul Mohammad. “Then the men threw a small bomb at the house.” Although the blast mildly injured one of Gulab’s daughters, the family was too frightened to go outside until daybreak, when they finally took her to the hospital.

The attacks and threats continue. Just last week, on June 16, a sniper’s bullet narrowly missed Gulab, instead wounding a cousin who was walking beside him.

The Afghan’s financial problems are as persistent as the Taliban’s threats. He’s drained what little savings he had and is now borrowing money from friends or accepting their charity. “We get lots of guests who think money just comes to me, as if I’m a cash machine at an American bank,” says Gulab. The Afghan says Luttrell’s co-author, Patrick Robinson, has worked with him on a book to tell his side of the story. But they have yet to conclude a deal with a publisher, and Robinson declined to comment.

Gulab says that last month, someone associated with the Luttrell family offered him $10,000 to stop speaking to Vocativ. Gulab demurred. (The associate did not respond to requests for comment about the alleged offer.) What Gulab wants most is to move to the U.S. and an end to the fear and anxiety that comes with being hunted by the Taliban. “The U.S. Embassy could give him safe haven and facilitate passage [to America],” says Wildes, the immigration lawyer. “[It’s] a delicate but possible endeavor.”

If not to the U.S., then Gulab wishes he could at least afford to move his family to Kabul, where it’s safer. Through Rahimi, he says he has reached out to the retired SEAL for help, but hasn’t heard back. The silence, he says, saddens him and makes him angry. But he still doesn’t regret saving Marcus Luttrell.