Several Haqqani leaders have left Kabul for hideouts in southwestern Afghanistan since the assassination of al-Zawahiri, according to a former director of Afghanistan’s spy agency.
Sirajuddin Haqqani has not responded to allegations that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri lived under his protection in Kabul, and has not appeared in public since al-Zawahiri was reported killed, but Sirajuddin Haqqani still carries a $10 million bounty on his head for his alleged terrorist activities.
The 42-year-old Taliban interior minister and leader of the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the Taliban movement, is not the only designated terrorist in his extended family. His uncle, Khalil Haqqani, also a Cabinet minister in the Taliban’s Afghanistan leadership, and his younger brother, Aziz Haqqani, each has a reward of $5 million offered by the U.S. government in return for information that will lead to their arrest.
Yahya Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s close aide and brother-in-law, has no monetary reward for his arrest but was designated a global terrorist by the U.S. government in February 2014.
The Haqqanis are wanted for their alleged involvement in the execution and organizing of a series of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan over the past several years.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is accused of planning the Jan. 14, 2008, attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed six people including U.S. citizen Thor David Hesla. In March 2008, the U.S. Department of State designated Sirajuddin Haqqani a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
In February 2008, Khalil Haqqani was given the same designation. Among other terrorist activities, Khalil Haqqani is accused of aiding al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan with fighters, weapons and financial resources.
Until the Taliban seized Kabul last August, the Haqqanis were living so secretively that there were no pictures of Sirajuddin and Khalil.
Boasting of their “Allah-aided” victory against an invading superpower, the U.S., both Khalil and Sirajuddin Haqqani now appear in front of cameras acting as the liberators of Kabul.
Return to hiding?
But several Haqqani network leaders, including Sirajuddin, have left Kabul for hideouts in southwestern Afghanistan since the assassination of al-Zawahiri, according to Rahmatullah Nabil, a former director of Afghanistan’s spy agency.
He told VOA that Sirajuddin Haqqani was last seen in several short videos tweeted by the Taliban’s interior ministry on August 1 in which he is seen greeting and talking with people in rural parts of Afghanistan’s Paktia Province.
“After the attack on al-Zawahiri, Siraj had gone to Paktia and all his closest aides have gone into hiding and are not seen in the interior ministry. Siraj is fearful for his relations and policies before and after the attack,” Nabil told VOA.
The Taliban have said they had no knowledge of al-Zawahiri’s residence in the heart of Kabul, less than a kilometer from the Taliban’s intelligence agency.
U.S. officials, however, dispute that.
“There were senior members of the Haqqani Network that were aware,” John Kirby, a White House spokesperson, told reporters when asked if the Taliban knew about al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.
U.S. officials say they will not allow the Taliban to once again turn Afghanistan into a hub for international terrorists.
“If we have credible evidence that a terrorist [is] operating in Afghanistan or anywhere else, the president will take action to defend this country and the American people,” Kirby said on Tuesday.
VOA asked the White House and the National Security Council whether leaders of the Haqqani Network might qualify as targets for U.S. counterterror strikes, but the White House responded that it had nothing to add.
Nabil, the former Afghan intelligence official who closely worked with U.S. intelligence agencies, said the Haqqanis could fall on the U.S. target list.
“Given the depth of Taliban, particularly the Haqqani branch’s ties to other terrorist groups, which are unbreakable, it is likely that U.S. will target them, and Siraj Haqqani will not be an exception,” Nabil said.
While the U.S. has not hit Taliban targets over the past year, a U.S. drone strike in 2016 killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a former Taliban leader, in southwest Pakistan near the Afghan border.
“I don’t believe the U.S. will conduct any strike against Taliban leadership in the short term; this goes against the interests of the current policy of the U.S. in the region, which is limited to preventing the use of Afghan soil as a harbor for terrorist organizations that want to attack the U.S. and its allies,” Riccardo Valle, an independent researcher on jihadism and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told VOA.
By harboring al-Zawahiri in Kabul, U.S. officials say, the Taliban violated their commitment in the Doha Agreement that they will not allow any terrorist groups or individuals, including members of al-Qaida, to operate in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have accused the Taliban, specifically the Haqqani Network, of violating the agreement by allowing al-Zawahiri in Kabul, adding another item in the U.S.’ terrorism case against Sirajuddin Haqqani and his top collaborators.
– Akmal Dawi, VOA.