A Taliban fighter holds a poster of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani Network. Image Source: The National, US.
There is little contention over the fact that Al-Qaeda’s attack on U.S. soil in September 2001 tops the list of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history. However, despite the group’s deadly reputation that spurred decades of ongoing research and counterterrorism policies, the international community often overlooks another significant terrorist group in contemporary history—the Haqqani Network. A Pakistan-Afghanistan-based terrorist organization, the Haqqani Network continues to play a subtle, yet strong hand across prominent Islamist movements across the globe. The Haqqani Network leverages distinct ideological, social, and economic strategies in its operations.
The Origin of the Haqqani Network
While the ‘fourth wave’ of Islamic religious terrorism is linked heavily to the Cold War’s exploitation of the power vacuum in Afghanistan, Jalaluddin Haqqani—the founder of the Haqqani Network—had been developing his ideologies and connections well before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Formalized in the 1970s, the Haqqani Network carried out a wave of Islamist mobilizations in the tribal provinces of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group’s expanded presence and operations filled the power vacuum in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war by institutionalizing their ideology and Jihad as a normative response to real or perceived oppression.
At the core of the group’s ideology is an anti-Western, anti-government, and ‘Sunni Islamic Deobandi’ stance—that believes in adherence to orthodox Islamic principles governed by Shari’a Law and which encourages the use of Jihad to meet the group’s objectives. The Haqqanis strongly oppose external influences within Islam and call for Shari’a to be the law of the land. In theory, though it is difficult to alienate the nexus between ideology, society, and economy, these elements correlate to specific strategies the Haqqanis employ to radicalize and direct global terror operations.
Several key elements enabled the rise and popularity of the Haqqani Network in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Primarily, state sponsorship through financial, military, and logistical support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States against the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan played a principal role in giving the Haqqanis legitimacy. In addition, they benefited from the impenetrable terrain of their places of operation, the support they received from Islamist sympathizers across the world, their efficient mobilization of tribes in the region, and global events like the Soviet-Afghan war that fueled their ideological hold over the people.
In calculating their responses to Muslim subjugation in their immediate neighborhoods of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as their solidarity with the Uighurs, Uzbeks, Palestinians, and Chechens, the Haqqanis strongly appealed to the reigning anti-colonial, anti-Islamic reformation sentiments of the largely uneducated and historically ignored tribal populace. Their ideology played a key role in influencing several Islamist groups and leaders—including Osama Bin Laden, who was under the direct tutelage of Jalaluddin Haqqani before founding Al-Qaeda. Beyond Al-Qaeda’s theological influences like Ibn Taymiyya, it also drew from the ideologies of the Haqqani Network. Therefore, the Haqqani ideology was instrumental in influencing several regional and global Islamist ideologies after the Cold War. Although the Haqqani Network cannot be credited with originating the Salafist Islamist ideology, it played a crucial role in ushering in the new wave of global Islamist terror.
Understanding the Haqqanis’ Social Legitimization Strategies
Though the social nexus of the Haqqani Network initially was to be constrained within the regions in which it operated, its ideological motivations quickly spread beyond the region. As a primarily clan-based organization, the Haqqani Network was well integrated within the tribal societies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which played a key role in its recruitment tactics. The Haqqanis’ primary recruitment base is within their social circles and the various madrasas, or Islamic religious educational institutions. In mediating brief peace agreements among the warring Shia and Sunni tribes in Pakistan, the Haqqanis established a modicum of social legitimacy, which granted them free passage and reign over areas from which to launch their operations and training.
The Haqqanis have also fostered close interpersonal relationships with groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their factions such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and ISIS-K (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan Province). These alliances have helped them in multi-dimensional recruitment and operational efforts, where marriages have been instrumental in bringing together various groups. The International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) analyst Kangil Lee’s analysis of Haqqani’s “loyalty from affiliates and co–operative Jihad” tendencies shows that their relationship with other Jihadi groups worldwide is profound and enduring. In addition, the Haqqanis also supply its militants who have been trained in their camps to fight alongside these groups for their respective causes. As Devin Lurie at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service described, “the Haqqanis’ most beneficial role is as a conduit for other group’s operations.” Through their close network of strategic alliances and the social legitimacy derived from their operations, the Haqqanis have established a free-flowing network of resources and logistical support that enables terror operations in several parts of the world, a testament to their socio-ideological victory.
The degree of enmeshment among these groups is a clear indication of why such alliances are bound to spell trouble for modern counterterrorism efforts. Strategically, the Haqqanis continue to adapt their socio-ideological strategies of “hybridizing extremism”—simultaneously tackling both underlying ethno-nationalist and Islamist sentiments—to ensure their stronghold over the populace.The relevance of their social impact continues to be felt even today as counterterrorism efforts are closely enmeshed with counter-radicalization efforts that seek to address and reform the underlying social and ideological causes of radicalization. Additionally, in facilitating cross-border training and mentorship, along with providing logistical and financial support, the Haqqanis continue to legitimize themselves among other Islamist groups and society at large.
An Economic Stronghold
On the economic front, the Haqqanis have been able to exploit the political—and, by extension, economic—instability in the regions they operate by raising funds and redistributing them among the various groups they cooperate with. In addition to the various donations they receive from madrasas and Islamist sympathizers across the globe, the Haqqanis have also benefited from state sponsorship by different countries—including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan—throughout their operative history.
During and after the Cold War, Haqqani activities were unofficially regarded as an extension of Pakistan’s foreign policy to contain Afghanistan and India. As a result, they receive direct funding from Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Though official sources from Pakistan deny these claims, their close relationship with the ISI and the Pakistani government enables them to maintain a ‘safe haven’ in Pakistan. Over the years, numerous sources have criticized the Pakistani government for directly and indirectly sanctioning most of the group’s activities. Pakistan’s long and tumultuous internal history of governmental and administrative instability, coupled with its relationship with several terror outfits as an unofficial extension of its foreign policy, poses significant challenges to counterterrorism efforts in the region. Continued financial support to these groups may advance Pakistan’s fall from grace in the international community and further complicate the government’s stability and legitimacy within the country.
One of the most dangerous factors in the Haqqanis’ economic journey is the transition from foreign aid dependence to generating their own sources of income. They have established various legal and illegal businesses in the region, and Pakistani oversight of their actions in the Waziristan border region enables them to maintain their economic stronghold over the region. When all else fails, they resort to crimes, including extortion, kidnappings, smuggling, and money laundering. By 2012, bank accounts associated with members or affiliates of the Haqqani Network reflected a collective balance of nearly 300 million dollars. Such a substantive amount poses a threat to the stability of the regions they operate in and counterweights Afghanistan’s GDP of just 20.2 billion dollars that same year. Given that economic strength is often the driving factor for regional influence and operational capabilities, the Haqqani Network’s fixed and continuous source of revenue continues to be a cause for concern, especially in funding terrorism globally.
Ultimately, the money they raised—like their men—is often sent to other Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and local insurgent groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Their transnational economic activities have not only strengthened them financially to independently carry out operations but also established them within a nexus of interdependence with other Islamist groups.
Leveraging Political, Ideological, and Economic Strategies: The 2008 Indian Embassy Bombing
The 2008 Indian Embassy bombing clearly illustrates the Haqqani Network’s successful blending of its ideology, social networks, and economic prowess. In June 2008, a suicide bomb was detonated at the gates of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, claiming the lives of nearly 60 people, including two Indian officials. The attack, orchestrated by the Haqqani Network with support from the ISI and Taliban, intended to target the Embassy and the Indian diplomats present in it.
On the socio-political front, the Haqqanis and their Taliban affiliates in Afghanistan had several reasons to direct an attack towards the Indian State. Chief among these were India’s strengthening relations with the Afghan government, which groups like the Taliban and the Haqqanis strongly opposed. Pakistan also had motive to attack as it was critical of India’s diplomatic and military presence in Afghanistan, which Pakistan viewed as a threat to its national interests in an already tumultuous backdrop of border conflicts with both these countries. Bush Administration intelligence reports indicated a direct involvement of the ISI in instigating the attack. Pakistan’s involvement closely ties in with the Haqqani Network’s ideological goals, further reinforcing the far-reaching implications and influence that the group exercises in the South Asian region.
Though the ideological motivation for the attack was never declared outright, the Haqqanis’ solidarity with the militants in Kashmir is also fueled on religious grounds and was a key contributing factor to its aggression against the Indian State. There has been a long history of insurgency in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where the minority Hindus have often been victims of brutal terrorist attacks and large-scale displacement. Local Islamist militia sees Kashmir as a holy land for Muslims and seeks to establish a ‘Muslim State’ free from the control of the Indian Government. A large presence of the Indian Army in Kashmir poses significant challenges for these militias, and counterinsurgency operations there have been perceived as governmental repression of its largely Muslim population. Internal social and communal discord in Kashmir gives radical groups—including the Haqqanis—an opportunity to insert themselves as a legitimate voice for the marginalized community against a perceived ‘oppressor.’
The intricacies of the Embassy attack also demonstrated the Haqqani Network’s economic motivations and capabilities. The Haqqanis faced a potential financial threat due to Afghanistan’s intention to join the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which would increase its trade relations with India, a key investor and supplier of foreign aid. This development could have posed significant challenges to the various businesses owned by the Haqqanis, who sought to monopolize their activities in the region. Furthermore, the Haqqanis’ economic strength is evident in its choice to target the Indian Embassy, as well as the other attacks it launched the same year, increasing twenty-fold in just one region from 2007.The scale of these attacks required a clear stockpiling of arms and ammunition by the Haqqanis. The bomb detonated at the Indian Embassy intended for a large-scale impact that would bring down the entire building, in addition to claiming several lives. The procurement and execution of such a complex and resource-intensive attack required financial planning and the existence of strong sources of revenue. Other groups with limitations on mass mobilization and steady resource procurement likely could not carry out such an attack, especially due to factional fragmentations within the groups and strong American military involvement in the region.
The Indian Embassy bombing exemplifies the legitimacy that the Haqqani Network derives from its socio-political, ideological, and economic strongholds. Counterterrorism efforts must hence focus equally on isolating the Haqqanis from their related groups and state sponsors because their close relationship with Pakistan means that even with increased military focus on their activities in the region, their financial and logistical support may not cease.
The Contemporary Relevance of the Haqqani Network
While the Haqqanis certainly derive legitimacy from some of their most high-profile attacks—such as the 2008 Indian Embassy and the 2011 NATO Headquarters and American Embassy ones—their significance in contemporary history extends beyond terror operations. Though the seemingly regional activities of the group and its core ideology have been undercut and adapted to the objectives of various Islamist groups that arose later, the spread of its ideologies and the regional instability caused by the Network—in addition to the support it gives and receives from other Islamist organizations—continue to be driving factors in its prolonged existence.
As of 2021, with the return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network has returned to the forefront of political and military leadership. Several of its members are currently serving in key positions within Afghanistan’s government, including the current leader of the group, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was appointed as the Interior Minister and tasked with internal security. In addition, the Haqqanis continue to receive financial and logistical support from Pakistan’s tribes and the ISI, and their relationship with other insurgent groups continues to thrive.
The Haqqani Network remains highly relevant in the contemporary landscape of global terrorism. Firstly, the Haqqanis’ long-standing history and deeply-rooted connections with influential Islamist groups, including the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and various regional insurgents, make them a critical player in the broader Jihadist network. This interconnectedness allows them to serve as a conduit for resources, funds, and fighters, fostering a complex ecosystem of terrorism that transcends geographic boundaries. Secondly, their ideological appeal, rooted in a virulent form of Sunni Islamic extremism, continues to resonate with disaffected individuals and marginalized populations, providing a fertile ground for recruitment and radicalization. Thirdly, their economic strength, which has transitioned from foreign aid dependency to self-generated revenue through legal and illegal businesses, extortion, and other criminal activities, grants them resilience and heightened operational capacities. In essence, the Haqqani Network’s enduring influence underscores the necessity for counterterrorism practitioners to prioritize containment and disruption efforts, as the group’s ability to sustain and perpetuate global terrorism remains undiminished.
As it stands, the Haqqani Network has uniquely positioned itself as a group from which training, funds, and logistics flow multilaterally and whose ideological and operational legacies continue to influence fighters in other terrorist groups. In doing so, it has also established itself as a group that does not lose its significance even when its major operations cease. Today, though the Haqqani Network remains overshadowed by more ‘popular’ terrorist organizations, there is no doubt its presence is felt every time a call for Jihad is raised.
This column was written with suggestions and comments from Georgetown University Professor Christopher Costa.