The South Asia Channel

The Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda

The following is adapted from the introduction of a paper released recently by Don Rassler and Vahid Brown for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, "The Haqqani Nexus and the Evolution of al-Qa’ida." The targeted killing of Osama bin Laden at a compound in the garrison city of Abbottabad, Pakistan has raised a number of important ...

Visual News/Getty Images
Visual News/Getty Images

The following is adapted from the introduction of a paper released recently by Don Rassler and Vahid Brown for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, "The Haqqani Nexus and the Evolution of al-Qa’ida."

The targeted killing of Osama bin Laden at a compound in the garrison city of Abbottabad, Pakistan has raised a number of important questions about the infamous global jihadist’s local connections. It has also highlighted how little is really known about the patrons and supporters that enabled al-Qaeda’s charismatic leader to hide in plain sight, and communicate with his key lieutenants, for so many years. Al-Qaeda’s successful integration into the complex local landscape of Islamist militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is not a recent phenomenon, and since the 1980s Bin Laden’s organization has been dependent on a Network of local supporters to conduct an increasingly global campaign of violence. Indeed, the inception, execution and continuity of al-Qaeda’s global jihad cannot be meaningfully separated from this local dimension, which today remains one of the least studied aspects of the organization’s history. The present report aims to address this gap through an analysis of the history and organizational relationships of the Haqqani Network, a single major constant that, for the entirety of al-Qaeda’s existence, has shaped the latter’s local trajectory in the region.

A great deal of attention has been given to the activities of the Haqqani Network in recent years, with the group having been described as the pivot issue between Pakistan and the United States.[1] The Haqqani Network, as it is commonly called, is an Afghan and Pakistani insurgent group that has its roots in the 1970s.[2] The identity and evolution of the group is intimately tied to its patriarch and historic leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani. Over three decades of conflict the group has played a unique role in the region due to its interpersonal relations, geographic position and strategic approach. Today, the Haqqani Network operates as a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban with primacy in southeastern Afghanistan. Part of the Network’s power also stems from its close ties to Pakistan’s Army and intelligence agencies, which have historically used the group as a proxy to exert influence in Afghanistan and to mediate disputes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Throughout its history the Haqqani Network has operated on and influenced militancy on the local, regional and global levels, the most underappreciated dimension of which is the global character of the Haqqani Network and the central role it has played in the evolution of al-Qaeda and the global jihadist movement. This is a gap of strategic proportions, insofar as the Haqqani Network has been more important to the development and sustainment of al?Qaeda and the global jihad than any other single actor or group. 

Three main factors explain why a more developed understanding of the Haqqani Network’s broad role in this history has remained elusive. First, although recognized as a distinct organization (i.e. a tanzim) by foreign jihadists as early as 1994, the historical evolution of the Haqqani Network has received limited attention.[3] Almost all historical treatments of the group are tangential in nature and rely heavily on secondary sources. Few studies offer unique or granular insights about the evolution of the Haqqani Network, the pre-2001 actions of the group and its long-standing ties with key actors.

Second, the scholarly and counterterrorism communities have narrowly approached the history of al-Qaeda through the lens of Peshawar and Arab precursor organizations, such as Maktab al-Khidamat (Afghan Services Bureau).  Less credence and attention has been given to areas like Loya Paktia and Miram Shah, which functioned (and continue to function) as other centers of gravity for the mobilization and operational development of foreign war volunteers and future members of al-Qaeda.  These areas, and the Haqqani Network’s role in them, were not only more central to the operational development of al-Qaeda than Peshawar, but have also proved to be more enduring over time.  

Third, the history of al-Qaeda has been narrowly approached through Arabic sources, as if the development of al-Qaeda was solely an Arab phenomenon. Less attention has been paid to Pashto and Urdu language material produced by Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups, much of which provides insights into the local context of al-Qaeda’s trajectory and is ripe for study. 

Moreover, for the past three decades, the Haqqani Network has functioned as an enabler for other groups and as the fountainhead (manba’) of local, regional and global militancy.  Although this report explores all three of these militant levels, it emphasizes the Haqqani Network’s impact on transnational militancy. While the Haqqani Network is undoubtedly a sophisticated and dangerous organization in its own right, the group is best understood as a nexus player, tying together a diverse mix of actors central to various conflict Networks. By detailing these ties and exploring how the group functions in this role, we will elucidate and contextualize the history of the Haqqani Network.  

The Haqqani Network’s strategy is pragmatic and the organization is motivated by local concerns and a less visible but firmly held ideological commitment to the philosophy of expansive and global jihad. The Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda function as an interdependent system, and the seeds of global jihad were planted much earlier than previously thought and were nurtured just as much by the Haqqanis as by al-Qaeda, its predecessor organizations and the Arab foreign fighter movement. This history refines the arguments made by others about the al-Qaeda and Taliban relationship and establishes that the threat to U.S. national interests that emerged most fully on 9/11 stemmed from both al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. 

Don Rassler is an Instructor in the Department of Social Sciences and an Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he manages the CTC’s Harmony and South Asian research programs. Vahid Brown is pursuing a PhD in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and is a Research Fellow with the CTC and a senior instructor for the Center’s FBI program.

[1]  "Mullen launches diatribe against ISI," Dawn, 21 April 2011.

[2]  Outside of internal military usage, which was likely somewhat earlier, the appellation first appears in the 9 March 2006 Senate testimony of Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, in which he described the three main components of the Afghan insurgency as the Taliban, the "Haqqani Tribal Network," and Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG). A week later, the U.S. State Department’s Washington File introduced the shortened appellation "Haqqani Network" (David McKeeby, "Partnership Key to Progress in Afghanistan, U.S. General Says," Washington File, 16 March 2006), though the phrase did not enter common usage in the Western press until late 2006, following Anthony Cordesman’s editorial "One War We Can Still Win," New York Times, 13 December 2006.

[3]  Harmony document, AFGP-2002-800581, p. 5, in which the administrator of an al-Qa’ida training camp at the main Haqqani base in Khost writes to al-Qa’ida’s leadership in Sudan (1994) that "the governor of Khost is from the Haqqani organization" and is protecting al-Qa’ida from attacks by one of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s commanders.

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