The LA Times reported this morning that Pakistan has been "trying to seed a rapprochement" between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Haqqani insurgent network — obstructed by the Haqqanis’ ties to al-Qaeda. Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud, and Brian Fishman describe what connections, both historical and current, the Haqqani network has with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani group, established contact with Arab fighters very early in the anti-Soviet war. In 1981, American journalist Jere Van Dyk traveled with Haqqani in Afghanistan and was confronted by a fundamentalist Egyptian named Rashid Rochman.[i] Although Rochman was generally disliked by Jalaluddin’s men, who were turned off by his extremism, the mujahideen leader favored the man. Rochman gleefully questioned Van Dyk about the recent assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, an attack that landed future al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri in an Egyptian prison. It seems likely that Jalaluddin understood that relationships with Arabs such as Rochman could be a fundraising boon for his movement. Jalaluddin still maintains ties through marriage to the Persian Gulf, and much of the Haqqani Network’s funding comes through such relationships.[ii] In addition, the movement maintains ties to al-Qaeda and the Uzbek Islamic Jihad Union, and has used its leverage with other militants to protect foreign fighters.[iii]
Osama bin Laden built a relationship with the Haqqanis in the mid-1980s when he spent months along the front lines with Jalaluddin.[iv] The relationship has paid dividends for both parties. In the 1980s, bin Laden’s wealthy family and royal connections in Saudi Arabia would have been indispensable for a mujahideen leader like Jalaluddin, and the elder Haqqani’s military success offered bin Laden the opportunity to exaggerate his own role in those operations. Indeed, bin Laden’s ties to Haqqani were much deeper than those he had with Mullah Omar’s Taliban government, which ultimately operated from Kandahar and Kabul. Jalaluddin and bin Laden had much more in common than bin Laden and the illiterate leader of the Taliban. They had shared history from the anti-Soviet jihad. Jalaluddin spoke Arabic and had an Arab wife. Bin Laden may even emulate some of Jalaluddin’s leadership affectations. The Afghan commander toted a relatively rare AK-74 assault rifle in the early 1980s as a symbol of his leadership; bin Laden was given the same model by a top lieutenant, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, after the Lion’s Den battle in 1987 and subsequently carried it everywhere, including in Sudan.[v]
Al-Qaeda and aligned groups have two main roles in the Haqqani Network: facilitating attacks and providing suicide bombers. Attack facilitation includes providing training, weapons expertise, and arms and funding procurement. Haqqani compounds in and around Miram Shah have housed a number of al-Qaeda weapons stashes.[vi]
In recent years, however, as the Haqqani Network has developed and al-Qaeda’s operational reach has declined, this facilitation role has diminished.[vii] Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Jihad Union, and other groups still provide suicide attackers, however. A number of high-profile assaults in Kabul have used al-Qaeda-trained attackers for commando-style suicide missions. For instance, the attack on the U.N. guesthouse in October 2009 used a number of non-Afghans thought to have been trained by al-Qaeda.[viii]
The Haqqani leadership’s direct contact with al-Qaeda figures is minimal today, however, partly because drone attacks make communications difficult and risky.[ix] Moreover, the relationship is reportedly strained because of the Haqqanis’ ties to the Pakistani state — an enemy of al-Qaeda. Pakistani authorities have conducted a number of raids on Haqqani compounds that house al-Qaeda men and supplies, but Haqqani fighters are often left untouched. This prompted al-Qaeda to grow gradually closer to militants in South Waziristan, such as those led by Baitullah and later Hakimullah Mehsud, who are also at war with the Pakistani government.[x]
It is hard to determine exactly how the Haqqani Network fits ideologically with the al-Qaeda organization. Former and current Haqqani Network commanders say that their movement is closer to the Quetta Shura’s nationalist rhetoric than al-Qaeda’s vision of global jihad, but some members of the group espouse al-Qaeda-like language. The Haqqanis have avoided the anti-Pakistan rhetoric common to al-Qaeda and the TTP. In June 2006, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s office released a letter arguing that attacking Pakistan "is not our policy. Those who agree with us are our friends and those who do not agree and [continue to wage] an undeclared war against Pakistan are neither our friends nor shall we allow them in our ranks."[xi] Sirajuddin Haqqani has gone further, explaining in an interview that he opposed "any attempt by Muslims to launch attacks in non-Muslim countries."[xii] In May 2009, he argued to two French journalists: "It is a mistake to think that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are pursuing the same aim. Al-Qaeda is trying to spread its influence throughout the world. This does not interest us. The Taliban’s aim is to liberate Afghanistan from foreign troops."[xiii]
However, former Haqqani Network commanders say the movement is unlikely to break ties with al-Qaeda unless it is forced to do so by military or diplomatic pressure.[xiv] It is unclear whether all Haqqani Network commanders agree with Sirajuddin’s efforts to separate the group from al-Qaeda. Mullah Sangin, an important field commander, said in an interview with as-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media arm: "We do not see any difference between Taliban and al-Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Usama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen [Mullah Muhammad Omar] and has reassured his leadership again and again. There is no difference between us."[xv] New York Times journalist David Rohde, who was kidnapped by Haqqani supporters and held captive in North Waziristan for seven months before his escape, argued that he
did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of "al-Qaeda lite," a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.
Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with al-Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.[xvi]
Anand Gopal is a Kabul-based journalist who has reported for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets on Afghanistan and the insurgency. He is writing a history of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 (Henry Holt). Mansur Khan Mahsud is the research coordinator for the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. He is from the Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan and has worked with several NGOs and news outlets as a researcher. He holds a masters degree in Pakistan studies from the University of Peshawar. Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. This is excerpted from a longer Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative research paper on militancy in North Waziristan, part of the New America Foundation’s "Battle for Pakistan" series.
[i] Jere Van Dyk, In Afghanistan, Authors’ Choice Press New York, 1983.
[ii] U.S. military intelligence official, AG interview, October 2008.
[iii] Ghani Muhammad, AG interview, February 2010.
[iv] Jamal Ismail in Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know, p. 47.
[v] For Jalaluddin, see: Jere Van Dyk, In Afghanistan; For bin Laden, see: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2006.
[vi] Ibid; "Pakistan Busts Tribal Region’s Biggest al-Qaeda Base" AFP, September 15, 2005.
[viii] Afghan security official, AG interview, November 2009.
[ix] Ghani Muhammad, Malim Jan, AG interviews, February 2010.
[xii] Sirajuddin Haqqani, AG interview, May 2009.
[xiii] Nadia Bletry and Eric de Lavarne, "Obama and Bush are Two Ears of the Same Donkey," Le Journal du Demanche, May 3, 2009,
[xiv] Malim Jan and another former commander who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, AG interview, February 2010.