He was a lowly drug smuggler, neighbours and relatives say, then ventured into contracting, seeking a slice of the billions of dollars the US-led coalition was funnelling into construction projects in Afghanistan.
But he began to show off his wealth in recent years, after establishing a base in Russia, though how he earned those riches remained mysterious. On his regular trips home to northern Afghanistan, he drove the latest-model cars, protected by bodyguards, and his house was recently upgraded to a four-storey villa.
Now Rahmatullah Azizi stands as a central piece of a puzzle rocking Washington, named in US intelligence reports and confirmed by Afghan officials as a key middleman who for years handed out money from a Russian military intelligence unit to reward Taliban-linked fighters for targeting US troops in Afghanistan. As security agencies connected the dots of the bounty scheme and narrowed in on him, they carried out sweeping raids to arrest dozens of his relatives and associates about six months ago but discovered that Azizi had sneaked out of Afghanistan and was likely back in Russia. What they did find in one of his homes, in Kabul, was about half a million dollars.
American and Afghan officials for years have maintained that Russia was running clandestine operations to undermine the US mission in Afghanistan and aid the Taliban.
But they only recently concluded a Russian spy agency was paying bounties for killing coalition troops, including Americans, which the Kremlin and the Taliban have denied.
According to officials briefed on the matter, US intelligence officials believe the programme is run by Unit 29155, an arm of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU that has carried out assassinations and other operations overseas.
That a conduit for the payments would be someone like Azizi — tied to the US reconstruction effort, enmeshed in the regional netherworld but not prominent enough to attract outside attention — speaks to the depth of Russia's reach into the increasingly complicated Afghan battlefield, exploiting a nexus of crime and terror to strike blows with years of deniability.
The public revelation last week of that conclusion has touched off a political firestorm in Washington. White House officials said at first that President Donald Trump was never briefed on the matter, but it emerged that the intelligence assessment was included in a written briefing to the president in late February, if not earlier.
As Democratic and Republican officials have expressed alarm at the news, and the administration's lack of action in response, the White House has insisted that the information was uncertain.
Details of Azizi's role in the bounty scheme were confirmed through a dozen interviews that included US and Afghan officials aware of the intelligence and the raids that led to it; his neighbours and friends; and business associates of the middle men arrested on suspicion of involvement. All spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.
US intelligence reports named Azizi as a key middleman between the GRU and militants linked to the Taliban who carried out the attacks. He was among those who collected the cash in Russia, which intelligence files described as multiple payments of "hundreds of thousands of dollars". Those files were among the materials provided to Congress this week.
Through a layered and complex Hawala system — an informal way to transfer money — he delivered it to Afghanistan for the missions, the files say. The transfers were often sliced into smaller amounts that routed through several countries before arriving in Afghanistan, associates of the arrested businessmen said.
Afghan officials said prizes of as much as US$100,000 per killed soldier were offered for American and coalition targets.
Just how the money was dispersed to militants carrying out attacks for the Taliban, and at what level the coordination occurred, remains unclear. But officials say the network had grown increasingly ambitious and was in communication with more senior levels in Taliban military ranks to discuss potential targets.
About six months ago, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, raided the offices of several Hawala businessmen in Kabul, the capital, and in Kunduz, in the north, who were believed to be associated with the bounty scheme, making more than a dozen arrests.
"The target of the operation was Rahmat, who was going back-and-forth to Russia for a long time and said he worked there, but no one knew what he did," said Safiullah Amiry, deputy head of Kunduz provincial council, referring to Azizi. But by the time the raid took place, "Rahmat had fled".
"From what I heard from security officials, the money had come from Russia through Rahmat," he added.
Russia was initially seen as cooperating with US efforts after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, as its interests in defeating al-Qaida, an international Islamic terror group, aligned with those of the United States.
But in recent years, as the two powers clashed elsewhere, the Kremlin grew wary of the prolonged US presence and moved closer to the Taliban, hedging its bets on who would take power in a post-American Afghanistan.
The Russians also saw an opportunity for long-awaited payback for the Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the Red Army withdrew after being unable to defeat a US-backed insurgency.
Russia has walked a fine balance in recent years, eager to bloody the American nose but wary of Afghanistan collapsing into chaos that could spill over its borders. Publicly, Russia has admitted only to information-sharing with the Taliban in fighting the Islamic State in Afghanistan, a common foe.
The US conclusion in 2019 that the Russians were sending bounty money to the Taliban came at a delicate time in the conflict, just as the United States was deep into negotiations with the insurgents over a deal to withdraw the remaining American troops from the country.
Some of the attacks believed to be part of the bounty scheme were carried out around the time the Trump administration was actively reaching out to Russia for cooperation on those peace talks. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy leading the talks, repeatedly met Russian officials to build consensus around the US endgame.
The Afghan battlefield is saturated with smaller terrorist groups in addition to the Taliban, who are still responsible for the majority of the violence. Criminal networks, profiteers and terror training experts also freelance their services — often to several groups at the same time.
Azizi, who neighbours and relatives said is in his 40s, thrived in that convoluted, murky environment.
A friend who has known him since his early days in Kunduz, as well as later in Russia, said he had started smuggling small shipments of drugs into Iran in his 20s, but that venture not very successful. He had returned to northern Afghanistan, and somehow won contracts from the US-led coalition forces to build stretches of a couple roads in Kunduz, before making his way to Russia.
None of those interviewed who know Azizi were surprised when his associates were raided about six months ago and one of his brothers taken into custody with the half-million dollars. As one of his friends put it, he had gone from "not even having a blanket" to having multiple houses, fancy cars and security escorts.
Written by: Mujib Mashal, Eric Schmitt, Najim Rahim and Rukmini Callimachi
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES