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

Afghanistan’s interior minister seems to have been sheltering the head of al-Qaeda.

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

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.

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.”

“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

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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