What is the Haqqani network linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

Islamist faction founded by lionised anti-Soviet fighter seemingly playing security role in new Afghanistan

Related video: Crowds run from Taliban gunfire an hour before airport bomb blasts

Who are they?

The Haqqani Network is a Pashtun Islamist faction operating in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, taking its name from the “almost mythic” guerrila fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani.

A member of the Zadran tribe from the Paktiya province, the group’s founder was educated in a strict fundamentalist madrassa before rising to prominence in 1975 when he led a failed attempt to oust Afghan president Mohammad Daud Khan.

Thereafter, Haqqani developed a reputation as a feared commander of the mujahideen in the 1980s during the Afghan War against the Soviet Union.

He is understood to have worked closely with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the conflict, orchestrating the flow of fighters and resources from Pakistan and reaching out for additional support to the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf.

After the mujahideen recaptured Kabul from the Russians, Haqqani served as minister for justice in the interim cabinet, allying with the Taliban - formed from fellow ex-resistance fighters - before the group duly seized control of Afghanistan and implemented an authoritarian and oppressive reign that lasted until the US-led invasion at the outset of the War on Terror and finally fell in December 2001.

Jalaluddin Haqqani was the Taliban government’s minister for tribal and border affairs during that time.

How are they connected to al-Qaeda?

During his quest for allies on the Gulf in the 1980s, Haqqani first met the Saudi militant Osama Bin Laden, the future leader of al-Qaeda who used Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a base from which to plot his terror organistion’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001.

The US National Counterterrorism Center’s International Terrorism Guide describes Haqqani as one of Bin Laden’s “closest mentors” in al-Qaeda’s formative years.

American cruise missiles targeted Haqqani’s base in August 1998 in a failed attempt to kill Bin Laden. Several militants were wiped out in that attack but the al-Qaeda man’s escape would have dire consequences.

Following the US military victory over the Taliban in 2001 in retaliation for 9/11, its fighters were dispersed to the winds before reforming as insurgent forces.

Haqqani’s acolytes - originally convening in Loya-Paktia before expanding their reach towards Kabul from 2005 - were no exception, although their ageing leader (who died from Parkinson’s disease in September 2018 at 72) was soon replaced at the helm by his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has overseen a number of commando raids and bombings on sites around captial in the intervening 20 years of conflict and unrest.

Notable atrocities attributed to the network include two major suicide bombings - in 2008 and 2009 - against the Indian Embassy in Kabul in which 70 people died and the June 2011 assault on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel.

The group was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US in 2012, in part because of its own actions and in part because of its association with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is described by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) as “more extreme than his father and maintains closer ties to al-Qaeda and other foreign extremists in Pakistan”.

The activities of the Haqqani proved a source of conflict between the US and Pakistan, with the former accusing the latter of sheltering the group in North Waziristan, an accusation it has persistently denied.

“The Pakistani Army has consistently refused to launch a military operation in North Waziristan despite the presence of al-Qaeda senior leadership,” says the ISW.

“Elements within the Pakistani security establishment continue to view the Haqqani Network as a useful ally and proxy force to represent their interests in Afghanistan. To this end, Haqqani forces have repeatedly targeted Indian infrastructure and construction projects in Afghanistan.”

Why are we asking this now?

The Haqqani Network retains close ties to the Taliban, with Sirajuddin Haqqani even becoming the latter’s deputy leader in 2015, and are thought to be playing a security role in the new Afghanistan, once more under Islamist control since the presidential palace was seized on 12 August.

Speaking to The Independent’s Kim Sengupta in Kabul last month, asylum seeker Rafi Mohammed Abdullah said he had encountered Haqqani men guarding the Hamid Karzai International Airport and reported: “They would not even look at our documents, when I pleaded with them to do so, one of them began hitting me.”

As fear and uncertainty again reigns over the country and thousands attempt to flee, attention is turning to who will be the key figures leading the new Taliban regime, with co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of another co-founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, primed to take over.

Another name causing concern is that of Khalil Haqqani, a senior Haqqani Network commander and nephew of Sirajuddin Haqqani, blacklisted by the UN with a $5m US  bounty on his head.

His personal notoriety and his group’s attacks against India might give the Taliban pause for thought, however, if it is at all serious about maintaining the moderate front it has so far presented to the West in pursuit of international recognition as a legitimate governing council.

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