Who is Sirajuddin Haqqani? The Taliban warlord now in the spotlight

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Who is Sirajuddin Haqqani? The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri puts the spotlight on a powerful Taliban warlord

As the Taliban has sought to present a kinder, gentler image to a skeptical outside world, its deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has often served as the movement’s public face. Given that his family name is synonymous with jihadi terrorism and he carries a $10 million price on his head from the U.S. government, he was not exactly the most obvious choice for this role.

Nevertheless, it was Haqqani whose byline appeared in the New York Times in February 2020, shortly before the Taliban signed the so-called Doha Agreement with the Trump administration, paving the way for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Haqqani’s message for American readers: “I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop.”

In May of this year, Haqqani, who until recently had almost never been seen in public aside from a few grainy photos, sat down with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, assuring her that “our land will not be used as a [terrorist] threat to anyone.”

And just last week, he reiterated in an interview with an Indian TV network that “as far as al-Qaeda is concerned, it has no presence in Afghanistan.”

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Then, on July 31, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, at a guesthouse in Kabul owned by a top aide to ... Sirajuddin Haqqani.

“It’s really just striking hubris, striking cockiness on the part of both Zawahiri and Siraj,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution, told Grid. The successor to Osama bin Laden, a man who had stayed one step ahead of American spies and drones for decades, was not hiding away in a tribal village in the mountains but lounging on a balcony in the Afghan capital. And the faction led by Haqqani — the same Taliban leader who had repeatedly assured the world that his movement had no more links to terrorists or al-Qaeda — appears to have been, according to U.S. and U.N. officials, at least aware of and more likely directly facilitating his presence there.

Haqqani has made no public appearances since al-Zawahiri’s killing. And the fallout of the assassination is still developing. But it has already cast a spotlight on one of the most powerful, and most contradictory, men in Afghanistan.

The Haqqani Network

The movement known as the Haqqani Network, born decades ago in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, is named for Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who died in 2018. The elder Haqqani first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a prominent leader of the Mujahideen, the rebel group that fought the Soviet military in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen received generous support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — and Jalaluddin Haqqani was a leading beneficiary of that aid. CIA officers who worked with Haqqani at the time celebrated him for his fundraising skills and tribal connections, and his ability to “kill Russians like you wouldn’t believe.” He was once photographed with U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson.

It was during this period that Haqqani forged connections with fellow mujahid Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda’s first Afghan training camp was established in Haqqani territory.

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The Haqqanis joined up with the Taliban when the movement took over Afghanistan in 1996, though they have always maintained an independent power structure within the movement. Jalaluddin served as a minister in the first Taliban government. After the 9/11 attacks, the onetime CIA asset refused U.S. demands to turn over bin Laden, saying he couldn’t give up the al-Qaeda leader to “infidel invaders.”

After the Taliban was ousted in 2001, the Haqqanis took on a prominent role in the insurgency fighting the international occupation and are credited with introducing suicide bombing in Afghanistan. According to U.S. intelligence services, the Haqqanis were behind some of the most high-profile and deadliest incidents during the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

In 2012, the Haqqani Network was formally designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, which blames it for the killing of hundreds of U.S. soldiers. Notably, the U.S. never took that step with the Taliban itself. The Haqqanis have derived their power from their ties to international jihadist movements as well as their reported ongoing ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services. In 2011, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, described the Haqqanis as a “veritable arm of Pakistan’s ISI.”

The Haqqanis’ fighters are also noted for their relative competence and professionalism. Omar Sadr, an Afghan political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, told Grid, “If you look at the arrangements of their forces, their militias, you’ll realize that the Haqqanis are much more organized, trained, disciplined, compared to other factions of Taliban.”

For all their ruthlessness, the Haqqanis also have a pragmatic side, or at least a calculating side, experts say. Case in point: Sirajuddin’s brother Anas Haqqani was part of the team that negotiated with U.S. diplomats in Qatar leading up to the Doha Agreement, which, among other stipulations, required the Taliban to cut its ties with al-Qaeda.

“It’s pretty remarkable how they’re able to flip the switch between hardcore suicide attacks and then being kind of open to intra-Afghan dialogue and things like that,” Colin P. Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Group, told Grid.

Son on the rise

Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is likely in his late 40s or early 50s, is thought to be a somewhat more flamboyant figure than his father, who groomed him to lead the movement. The son has been described as very interested in his clothes and personal appearance. Husain Haqqani (no relation), the Pakistani commentator and former ambassador to the U.S., once described him as “a mix of Tony Soprano and Che Guevara.”

He’s also more globally minded than his father and has expanded the Haqqani network’s ties to international groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group that carried out the deadly assault on Mumbai in 2008. In 2015, after death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he was named as one of the two top deputies to the movement’s new head, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. He is wanted for questioning by the FBI in connection with a number of crimes, including a 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people — one of them a U.S. citizen — and a plot to assassinate former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

When the Taliban recaptured Kabul last year, Haqqani was named acting interior minister. But Asfandyar Mir, senior expert at the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Grid that the title only partly describes his role. “He is in charge of security, broadly considered, especially in Kabul,” Mir said. “Kabul is controlled and managed by his people. The intelligence arm of the Taliban reports to him. And he also speaks to the international community.”

In addition to his media appearances, this outreach has included meetings with visiting diplomatic delegations from China and India.


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It’s not as surprising as it may seem that someone with Haqqani’s background is being put forward to represent the Taliban to a wary outside world. The movement is known for its hardline fundamentalist views, particularly when it comes to women. Haqqani is hardly a liberal, but Brookings’ Felbab-Brown notes that “on the social issues, he does not come with the kind of doctrine and preconceptions” as other Taliban commanders.

During his CNN interview, for instance, Haqqani told Amanpour that “there is no one who opposes women’s education” in Afghanistan, and that girls would be allowed back into secondary school once some logistical issues were worked out. As Grid has reported, the Taliban has made almost no movement toward making good on that pledge.

Knives out for the Haqqanis?

Mir believes that al-Zawahiri’s killing will damage Haqqani’s credibility not only with the foreign governments he has met with, but with the international jihadi movement. “There are lots of jihadi groups in Afghanistan and outside who will say that this was the most important jihadi sheikh of our time and a great leader and you failed to protect him,” Mir said.

Meanwhile, as integral as they are to the Taliban power structures, the Haqqanis are not always well liked by the movement’s other factions. Last September, shortly after the Taliban retook power, an argument between Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani — Sirajuddin’s uncle, now minister of refugees — and Taliban cofounder Mullah Baradar reportedly turned into a fistfight between their supporters inside the presidential palace.

Sadr told Grid that the dispute between the Haqqanis and other factions “is not ideological. You can’t say this one is moderate, and that one is a hardliner. The dispute is over who has more access to the government and its resources.” With the al-Zawahiri killing, the Haqqanis’ rivals might sense an opening.

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The Taliban’s designated representative to the United Nations has denied that his government had any knowledge that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul. This is not credible: The Haqqanis are not the only Taliban faction with known ties to al-Qaeda, and it’s hard to believe other leaders were entirely in the dark. Still, it could give the Afghan regime some plausible deniability to suggest that the Haqqanis were freelancing.

Whatever the fate of Haqqani and the network that bears his name, the Soufan Group’s Clarke told Grid that one thing we should not expect is for the Taliban to finally cut its ties with al-Qaeda.

“Al-Qaeda needs the safe haven and Haqqani and the Taliban need the manpower,” he said. “They need each other.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

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Taliban