South Asia

Jalaluddin Haqqani: Life and Times of a Jihadist Lynchpin

An Afghan by birth, the leader of the Haqqani Network was the first and foremost Pakistani jihadist proxy who took up arms against the Afghan state in 1973 – long before there was any Soviet or American presence in Afghanistan.

“Son, do you not know who I am?” said in Urdu the man with a henna-dyed beard and the Holy Quran on his lap. Reading the perplexed expression on the young man’s face, he then answered his own question, “I am Jalaluddin Haqqani – Commander Haqqani.”

The year was 1994 when a young sub-inspector of the Punjab police had stopped a convoy of double-cabin vehicles on their way out of the twin cities Islamabad-Rawalpindi, heading towards Peshawar. The young officer had spotted tens of armed men in those trucks and was debating whether he – with his tiny posse – should insist on inspecting the ominous-looking entourage or not. The officer thanked his stars when a wireless message from higher-ups came through, telling him to clear the motorcade without inspection. The officer told me that he still did not know who Haqqani was but waved him through!

Commander Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani was the lynchpin of transnational jihadist terror, with a deadly career spanning 45 years; on September 4, the Afghan Taliban announced his death. The Taliban has not given the exact date or place of death, but it is well-known that Jalaluddin, the founder of what was dubbed as the Haqqani Network (HQN), had been ill and out of commission since 2009 or so. Irrespective of the news that was the Taliban’s attempt to manipulate the news cycle on the eve of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s South Asia visit, Jalaluddin Haqqani was arguably the most lethal brand name in the region. An Afghan by birth, he was the first and foremost Pakistani jihadist proxy who took up arms against the Afghan state in 1973 – long before there was any Soviet or American presence in Afghanistan.

I first read the name Haqqani in wall-chalking outside the Government College Peshawar circa 1982. While there were seven Pakistan-based mujahideen parties that were fighting the USSR-backed Kabul government then, three individual field commander names – Jalaluddin Haqqani, Abdul Haq and Nasrullah Mansur – were frequently seen in such sloganeering.

A fluent Arabic speaker and married to an Arab lady, Haqqani endeared himself to the Saudis and the Gulf sheikhdoms, receiving monetary support from public and private sources there. Credit: Facebook/World Defence Forum

A fluent Arabic speaker and married to an Arab lady, Haqqani endeared himself to the Saudis and the Gulf sheikhdoms, receiving monetary support from public and private sources there. Credit: Facebook/World Defence Forum

Jalaluddin was born in 1939 in the Karezgay village of the Paktia province, in a Zadran Pashtun family. He went to the religious seminary Dar-ul-uloom Haqqaniah in Nowshera, Pakistan from where he graduated as a scholar in 1970. The suffix Haqqani in his name denotes that association and the seminary became the alma mater to thousands of Taliban and other assorted jihadists to come. The patron and principal of the seminary, Maulana Abdul Haq, was contesting the elections for Pakistan’s national assembly that year and Haqqani participated in canvassing campaign for his teacher. He was soon enlisted by the Pakistani army, which was looking to counter Afghanistan’s support for the separatist Pashtun nationalist movement east of the Durand Line.

While the Afghans supported, with the exception of the Faqir of Ipi, the secular Pashtuns, the Pakistani plank was Islamism and jihad, which appealed to the religious bonds over tribal and ethno-national affinity. The urban Afghan Islamists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani were also enlisted by the Pakistani army around the same time and were housed in Peshawar at the time. However, unlike the urban Afghan Islamists, Jalaluddin Haqqani set up shop in North Waziristan, Pakistan just across from Loya (greater) Paktia region, comprising the Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. He later established his own seminary Manba’-al-uloom(the fountainhead of knowledge) in Waziristan. Haqqani’s first jihadist foray was against Sardar Daud Khan, the Afghan president, who was an ardent backer of independent Pashtunistan.

After Daud Khan was toppled in the April 1978 communist revolution, Jalaluddin Haqqani took up arms against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Soviet Union, which had rolled into Afghanistan in support of the new Kabul government. His tribal roots, geographical location at the periphery of a weak Afghan state, sanctuary across the disputed Durand Line in Pakistan, and strong Islamist credentials, made Jalaluddin and his band, formidable insurgents in the field. Pakistan had mandated back then that in order to receive weapons and largesse, all field commanders must be affiliated with one of the seven Peshawar-based mujahideen groups. Haqqani, therefore, was affiliated with Mawlawi Younus Khalis faction of the Hizb-e-Islami, while retaining a complete tribal and operational autonomy, for all practical purposes.

A fluent Arabic speaker and married to an Arab lady, Haqqani endeared himself to the Saudis and the Gulf sheikhdoms, receiving monetary support from public and private sources there. This was a financial network, that his son and heir – born to the Arab wife – Sirajuddin Haqqani would later exploit as well. The US, in its zeal to defeat the Soviets, pumped in money and weapons in the Afghanistan theater, a large chunk of which, including the game-changing Stinger missiles, went to Jalaluddin Haqqani. In fact, some of the US jihad-mongers like the Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, were taken to the Haqqani base at the Zhwara, just a few miles inside Afghanistan, by none other than the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate’s Afghan bureau chief Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf.

In his book, Afghanistan: The Bear Trap, Brigadier Yousaf, who ran the ISI’s Afghanistan operations from 1983-87, has highlighted the extremely close relationship between Haqqani and the Pakistan army. While the Pakistan army had embedded its instructing officers, usually in groups of three, with the mujahideen gangs inside Afghanistan, perhaps the only occasion where it formally crossed over the Durand Line and fought the Afghans and the Soviets directly was in defense of the Haqqani base at Zhwara, which had come under a massive air and ground assault from the Soviet and Afghan forces in April 1986.

Jalaluddin Haqqani was injured as the tunnel complex caved under bombing by the government forces, leaving the ISI scrambling for a backup. Brigadier Yousaf writes:

In desperation, I briefed General Akhtar (Abdur Rahman, the ISI chief) that I proposed asking for Pakistani volunteers from my staff to take in some more Blowpipe missiles. My logistics colonel, who had been in the anti-aircraft artillery, offered his services. He was to be accompanied by several others, including a young captain. General Akhtar agreed, so the team was rushed … within 24 hours they were in Zhwara.

The Blowpipe battery was blown away by the very Soviets and Afghans that it was supposed to pick off. Brigadier Yousaf writes, “it was to turn out to be a duck shoot, in which the ducks won”. While the Pakistani army detachment was neutralized instantly and Zhwara fell to the government forces for some 48 hours, the jihadists captured it again. This battle also marked the formal entry of the Arab jihadists under the tutelage of Abdullah al-Azzam and Osama Bin-Laden, into the Afghan war theater. Azzam and Bin-Laden lead a band of Arab jihadist, from Pakistan, into Afghanistan to defend Zhwara. These same individuals founded Al-Qaeda that stormed the world stage in less than five years. Similarly, several other jihadists including the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) honcho, Hafiz Saeed embedded with Jalaluddin Haqqani to gain battlefield experience. The 2008 Mumbai attack’s mastermindZaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi gained war exposure with the Haqqanis in Urgun, Paktia – a town where the latter had launched their first jihad in 1973. It is said that the ISI director General Hamid Gul’s son also rotated with Jalaluddin Haqqani, to cut his jihadist teeth.

Jalaluddin Haqqani’s band thus served as a nexus not just between the southeastern and northeastern prongs of the Afghan insurgency but also as the incubator for training and fielding translational jihadists like Osama Bin Laden. The latter helped with the construction and repairs of the Zhwara cave and tunnel complex and was rewarded by Jalaluddin with permission to run training camps of his own, a relationship that endured over two decades.

After the Soviet withdrawal, most of the mujahideen commanders fell upon each other to capture Kabul, but Jalaluddin Haqqani remained in his stronghold straddling the Loya Paktia and Waziristan. His seminary in Pakistan continued to churn out jihadists and its media wing was called Manba’-al-jihad or the fountainhead of jihad, after an eponymous publication. When Mullah Omar and his Taliban, backed by the Pakistani army, captured Kabul and drove the mujahideen out, Jalaluddin Haqqani became their minister of frontier affairs but continued to operate out of his base and declined to move to Kabul. Bin-Laden moved on to Africa but later returned and consorted with Mullah Omar. The 9/11 attack by the Al-Qaeda drew the US wrath and massive response toppling Bin Laden’s hosts who refused to give him up. The Taliban, at large, were on the run but the Haqqani faction remained put at its turf.

United Flight 175 crashes into the south tower (L) of the World Trade Center in New York as the north tower burns after being hit by American Flight 11 a short time earlier, in this file photo from September 11, 2001. Credit: Reuters

The 9/11 attack by the Al-Qaeda drew the US wrath and massive response toppling Bin Laden’s hosts who refused to give him up. Credit: Reuters

The geopolitically strategic sanctuary afforded to Jalaluddin Haqqani by his Pakistan army patrons came in handy when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda escaped the US onslaught. Between the winter of 2001 and 2004, tens of thousands of these jihadists hopped over the Durand Line, under the Pakistan army’s watchful eye and were lodged with the Haqqanis and their Pakistani affiliates like Hafiz Gul Bahadur et al. The term HQN gained currency right around that time, first in the US counter-terrorism circles and then became common parlance.

While the Taliban leadership settled in and around the southern Pakistani city, Quetta, its rank and file were spread from the Pashtun areas of Balochistan, to the tribal areas and all the way up to Peshawar, in the northwest frontier. Jalaluddin Haqqani, up in age now, had delegated the day-to-day affairs of his outfit to his son Sirajuddin, who operated out of Miram Shah, North Waziristan and Peshawar. Jalaluddin’s other sons operated from behind the façade of a real estate brokerage in a town called Bhara Kahu, a short drive outside the Pakistani capital, Islamabad while his brothers Ibrahim and Khalil, both jihadists in their own right and their henchmen lived in Rawalpindi at a stone’s throw from the army’s General Headquarters. In 2013, one of Jalaluddin’s sons and the HQN’s financial point-man, Nasiruddin Haqqani, was killed in Islamabad, corroborating the fact that twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi were home to what the US commander, Admiral Mike Mullen had called the “ISI’s veritable arm”.

Under Jalaluddin Haqqan, and with due patronage from the ISI, the HQN became the most lethal outfit in Afghanistan. The post-2003 rise of the Al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and deployment of suicide and car bombings inspired the HQN, which replicated these vicious tactics in Afghanistan. The first suicide bombing in Afghanistan had been carried out by Al-Qaeda’s two Arab operatives, on behalf of the Taliban, to kill Ahmad Shah Massoud. Jalaluddin commissioned and Sirajuddin perfected the morbidly heinous tactic of suicide bombing to unleash a reign of terror in Afghanistan, especially in the capital Kabul. The HQN’s signature was found on nearly every so-called spectacular attack – a complex assault wherein a suicide bomber pulverized the fortifications and a terrorist band followed with automatic weapons to kill and maim more innocents. The Afghans weren’t the only targets. The HQN bombed the Indian embassy in Kabulon July 7, 2008. As an ageing and ailing Jalaluddin withdrew from active jihadist role, his chosen son, Sirajuddin aka Khalifa, took over the reins of the HQN.

The collaboration between the ISI, HQN, the TTP and the al-Qaeda was abundantly clear in the terrorist attack on the 2009 CIA’s forward operating base (FOB) Chapman, in Khost just as the HQN leadership transitioned from the father to the son. A double, or triple, agent – a Jordanian doctor – duped the Americans into believing that he was about to rat out Ayman al-Zawahiri. The ISI is reported to have bankrolled the operation with 200,000 dollars. The TTP’s ringleader Hakeemullah Mehsud released a joint video with the attacker Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, while Sirajuddin Haqqani also tacitly claimed credit for the attack. Analysts were convinced that there was no way that this operation could have occurred without the elder or junior Haqqani’s backing. The transnational jihadist contagion that Jalaluddin had painstakingly sired mutated into a much more virulent strain under the son.

The Haqqanis enterprise ran guns and drugs, carried put kidnappings for ransom, arbitrated local Afghan and even Pakistani disputes, and received Pakistani state largesse and support. The HQN, however, did not have any qualms about harboring the al-Qaeda or the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) jihadists. In fact, while Jalaluddin was still alive, Sirajuddin ran a suicide bombers training school – merely 3 miles away from a Pakistan army garrison in North Waziristan – along with the TTP’s Qari Hussain Mehsud, who was also called the Ustad-e-Fidayeen or teacher of the sacrificing ones. The TTP bombers unleashed death and destruction in tribal and mainland Pakistan. In the Pakistan army’s calculus, the cost of providing sanctuary to the HQN, which in turn provided safe havens to the TTP, was less than the value it brought for the Pakistan army’s Afghan strategy. The HQN was the ISI’s veritable arm and the Afghan Taliban’s sword arm, simultaneously.

Pakistan’s first jihadist quisling, Jalaluddin and the gang he sired, stood between the Americans and a decisive victory in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s game plan in Afghanistan, to this day, remains to bloody the American nose through the HQN proxies and wear the international forces out so that they are forced to negotiate with the Taliban and leave, replicating thus the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US, on its part, has targeted the HQN in an intense drone attack barrage in the Pakistani tribal areas, for years. Dozens of HQN leaders, including several sons of Jalaluddin and the group’s financiers have been killed but just like the Soviets hesitated to chase them across the Durand Line, the Americans have dithered too. Well aware of the US constraints, the Pakistani army has moved the HQN from one tribal territory to the next, setting the Americans up for a whack-a-mole game.

The life and times of the jihadist lynchpin, Jalaluddin Haqqani closely mirror the civil war and strife in Afghanistan and represent the Pakistani policy and tactics in the region. Jalaluddin was Pakistan’s most valued ally in Afghanistan. He epitomised the success and limits of the Pakistani game plan. While he projected brutal power and instilled fear, he never ever commanded popular acclaim among the Afghans. He was always seen as a highlander who sold out to the Pakistani army and was forever beholden to them. Perhaps that is one reason that unlike his erstwhile mujahideen cohorts, Jalaluddin never commanded political power and never vied directly for the Kabul throne. He was feared but not respected or liked within his homeland. His son, Sirajuddin is the second-in-command of the Afghan Taliban and much more formally integrated with the so-called emirate than the jihadist patriarch ever was.

Jalaluddin Haqqani’s trajectory also highlights the objectives and constraints of the world powers, from the Soviet Union to the Americans, when dealing with a terrorist force that enjoys sanctuary and impunity in a sovereign country. Both the USSR and the US first failed to acknowledge the crucial role the trans-border, transnational jihadist terror groups like the HQN played to deny them and the Afghans a decisive victory. And when they did realise the damage such groups cause, the measures they took were too little and too late to mitigate the disaster. A day after his death was announced, there were terror attacks in Kabul killing dozens and testifying to the fact that Jalaluddin Haqqani has poisoned the Afghan waters for the foreseeable future. His is a legacy soaked in Afghan blood.

(Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist; he can be reached via Twitter @mazdaki)