Two of the US helicopter cross-border helicopter strikes that took place last month in Pakistan’s tribal agency of Kurram occurred in an area where Siraj Haqqani, the operational commander of the Haqqani Network, was sheltering. The Pakistani military and government’s severe reaction to the US incursions in Kurram are attributed in part to concern that Siraj, a key asset, was close to being killed in the attack, US intelligence officials and a Pakistani official told The Long War Journal.
The helicopter strikes, which took place on Sept. 27, occurred near the village of Mata Sanger, after US forces pursued Haqqani Network fighters who attacked Combat Outpost Narizah in Khost province in Afghanistan.
The helicopter attacks sparked a major protest from the Pakistani military after two Frontier Corps soldiers were killed. In response, Pakistan closed NATO’s supply lines through the Khyber Pass for more than a week as Taliban forces savaged convoys in Baluchistan and in the northwest, destroying more than 150 fuel and supply trucks.
It is now believed that Siraj Haqqani was in a safe house close to the scene of the helicopter strikes. Siraj, the son of Mujahideen commander Jalaluddin, is said to have relocated to Kurram from Miramshah in North Waziristan after a family member was killed in a US Predator strike. Siraj’s brother Mohammed was killed in a US strike in February, and a military commander named Saifullah Haqqani was killed in a strike in September.
Siraj and other “key guest mujahideen” recently left North Waziristan for Kurram, with the knowledge of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, a US official said. The move occurred sometime in September, officials believe.
Members of the Turi tribe, a Shia tribe in Kurram, as well as members of the Bangash tribe attempted to resist the influx of Haqqani Network fighters into areas run by rival tribes, and clashed with the Haqqanis. Also, the Turis were moving against a stronghold operated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami faction in Spina Shaga.
The Pakistani media characterized these clashes as local sectarian fights over a water dispute, but US and Pakistani officials said this story was cover to allow the Pakistani military to intervene on behalf of the Haqqanis and Hekmatyar, who are viewed as “good Taliban” as they do not fight the Pakistani state. In September and October, multiple accounts of Pakistani helicopter gunships intervening in the “water dispute” were reported in the Pakistani media. The Pakistani military claimed that more than 70 “militants” were killed in the strikes.
The Haqqani Network is now said to be “mediating” between the rival tribes. Khalil and Ibrahim, two sons of Jalaluddin Haqqani, have appeared in Peshawar and Islamabad, to “bring peace to the area,” Dawn reported.
The Turis have battled the Taliban for years, and have fought them to a standstill [see BBC report, The Pakistani tribe that is taking on the Taliban, for more information on the Turis’ struggles in Kurram]. Despite driving the Taliban out of their area, the Turis remain cut off as the Taliban continue attacks along the single road that connects the remote area to the rest of Pakistan. The Turis have not received support from the Pakistani military.
Both the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have maintained a presence in Kurram for years. The tribal agency borders the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Nangarhar, and is an ideal launchpad for attacks into Afghanistan. Allied Pakistani terror groups such as the Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Lashkar-e-Taiba also have used Kurram as a transit point to support their activities in Afghanistan. In 2006, the Sipah-i-Sahaba took control of a mosque in Parachinar, the main town in Kurram, and used it as a forward base for its fighters in Pakistan, but were driven out by the Turis.
Fazl-e-Saeed Haqqani is the local commander for Haqqani Network fighters in Kurram. Hakeemullah Mehsud, the current leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Paksitan, led Taliban forces in Kurram prior to his promotion in 2009. Mullah Toofan, who is considered to be a successor to Hakeemullah, currently leads Taliban forces in Kurram.
Kurram is also thought to be a possible safe haven for al Qaeda’s top leaders. Last week, a NATO official told CNN that Osama bin Laden was hiding in an area between Kurram and the northern district of Chitral in Pakistan’s northwest. Bin Laden is said to be living comfortably and is being aided by members of the ISI.
Background on the Haqqani Network
The Haqqani Network has extensive links with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and its relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency has allowed the network to survive and thrive in its fortress stronghold of North Waziristan. The Haqqanis control large swaths of the tribal area and run a parallel administration with courts, recruiting centers, tax offices, and security forces. They have established multiple training camps and safe houses used by al Qaeda leaders and operatives, as well as by Taliban foot soldiers preparing to fight in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani Network has been implicated in some of the biggest terror attacks in the Afghan capital city of Kabul, including the January 2008 suicide assault on the Serena hotel, the February 2009 assault on Afghan ministries, and the July 2008 and October 2009 suicide attacks against the Indian embassy. American intelligence agencies confronted the Pakistani government with evidence, including communications intercepts, which proved the ISI’s direct involvement in the 2008 Indian embassy bombing. [See LWJ report Pakistan’s Jihad and Threat Matrix report Pakistan backs Afghan Taliban for additional information on the ISI’s complicity in attacks in Afghanistan and the region.]
The Haqqani Network is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin. Jalaluddin is thought to be ill and is considered the patriarch of the network. Siraj runs the daily operations and is the group’s military commander.
Siraj is one of the most wanted Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in the Afghan-Pakistan region. The US military has described Siraj as the primary threat to security in eastern Afghanistan. He is the mastermind of the most deadly attacks inside Afghanistan, including suicide assaults in Kabul, and he is the senior military commander in eastern Afghanistan. He is the leader of the Taliban’s Miramshah Regional Military Shura, one of the Afghan Taliban’s four regional commands [see LWJ report, The Afghan Taliban’s top leaders].
Siraj is considered dangerous not only for his ties with the Afghan Taliban, but also because of his connections with al Qaeda’s central leadership, which extend all the way to Osama bin Laden. Siraj is a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or top council, US intelligence sources told The Long War Journal. In a tape released in April 2010, Siraj admitted that cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda “is at the highest limits.” On March 25, 2009, the US Department of State put out a $5 million bounty for information leading to the capture of Siraj.
The US Treasury recently added Nasiruddin Haqqani, Siraj’s brother, to the list of specially designated global terrorists. Nasiruddin is a key financier and emissary for the Haqqani Network. According to the Treasury, Nasiruddin has traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates between 2004-2009 to carry out fundraising for the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, and the Taliban.
Despite Siraj’s ties with al Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network’s use of suicide attacks, some top US military commanders have stated that Jalaluddin Haqqani, his father, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another supporter of al Qaeda, are “absolutely salvageable” and ripe for negotiations.
“The HIG already have members in Karzai’s government, and it could evolve into a political party, even though Hekmatyar may be providing al Qaeda leaders refuge in Kunar,” Major General Michael Flynn, the top military intelligence official in Afghanistan, told The Atlantic in April 2010. “Hekmatyar has reconcilable ambitions. As for the Haqqani network, I can tell you they are tired of fighting, but are not about to give up. They have lucrative business interests to protect: the road traffic from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Central Asia.”
Sir Graeme Lamb, a senior adviser to General McChrystal, echoed Flynn’s view on Hekmatyar and Haqqani, and discounted the groups’ close ties to al Qaeda.
“Haqqani and Hekmatyar are pragmatists tied to the probability of outcomes,” Lamb also told The Atlantic. “With all the talk of Islamic ideology, this is the land of the deal.”
A Haqqani Network leader known as Zakim Shah serves as the shadow governor of Khost province. Khost, Paktika, and Paktia provinces are the main strongholds of the Haqqani Network in eastern Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network also has a presence in the provinces of Logar, Wardak, Nangarhar, Ghazni, Zabul, and Kabul.
The Haqqani forces in Paktika province are commanded by Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a senior lieutenant to Sirajuddin Haqqani. A US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal that Sangeen also commands forces outside of Paktika and that he has become one of the most dangerous operational commanders in eastern Afghanistan.
Last year, Sangeen took credit for the kidnapping of a US soldier who apparently stepped away from his post at a combat outpost in Paktika on June 30, 2009. US forces in eastern Afghanistan launched a massive manhunt for the soldier, but failed to find him. The soldier is believed to be held across the border in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.
US and Afghan forces hit the Haqqani Network hard in the summer of 2009 during a series of raids in Khost, Paktika, Paktia, Logar, and Zabul. Major battles were fought in mountainous regions as the joint forces assaulted strongly-defended Haqqani Network “fortresses.” The raids failed to dislodge the Haqqani Network from the provinces.
The Haqqani Network has also been heavily targeted by the CIA in the covert air campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Siraj has been the target of multiple Predator strikes. His brother, Mohammed, who served as a military commander, was killed in a February 2010 strike in North Waziristan. Seven of the 17 Predator strikes in the month of September have taken place in territory administered by the Haqqani Network.