By Munir Ahmad and Rohan Sullivan Associated Press
ISLAMABAD — A suspected CIA missile attack has killed the brother of one of the Afghan Taliban’s most feared commanders, Pakistan intelligence officials said today, the latest in a series of strikes against the heart of the insurgent movement’s leadership.
Siraj Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani group faction, was the apparent target of the Thursday attack in a village in the North Waziristan area near the Afghan border, two officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. Haqqani’s brother, Mohammed Haqqani, and three others were killed, the officials said.
The Haqqani network is an autonomous faction of the Afghan Taliban, which maintains close ties to al-Qaida. The U.S. military in Afghanistan believe the Haqqani network, which operates in eastern Afghanistan, is among the most fanatical insurgent groups and is responsible for several high-profile attacks in Kabul, including last year’s assault against a guesthouse full of U.N. workers in which 11 people died.
The group also has a history of links to Pakistani intelligence, which protected them because the group does not stage attacks on Pakistani soil.
Raids during the past two weeks on Pakistan have battered Taliban militants who for years have used the country as a haven from U.S.-led forces fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan. The group has been weakened just as international forces launched a major offensive in Afghanistan.
Stepped-up missile attacks from unmanned U.S. drone aircraft have added to pressure on the militants.
The latest missile strike Thursday apparently targeted Siraj Haqqani, a senior figure in an al-Qaida-linked network based in the northwest tribal region on the Afghan border. Two CIA missiles slammed into a SUV that he owned, but he was not inside. However, his brother, Mohammed Haqqani, was in the vehicle and was killed, two Pakistani intelligence officials told The Associated Press.
A local commander of Pakistani Taliban confirmed the account, saying that Mohammed Haqqani died in the attack with three of his associates. A relative from Haqqani’s family said his funeral was today, attended by hundreds of residents and relatives.
Both the intelligence officials and the Taliban commander spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to talk to media on the record. The relative also declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information.
The Haqqani network is an autonomous militant group that nonetheless has ties to al-Qaida and technically pledges allegiance to Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar. The group also has a history of links to Pakistani intelligence that some suspect continue today.
The U.S. considers the network one of the biggest threats to its operations in Afghanistan, and has pressed Pakistan to move against the Haqqanis in their sanctuary in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan has held off on any major operation, but may be aiding the U.S. missile campaign.
The network’s leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was a respected commander and key U.S. and Pakistani ally in resisting the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1980s and 1990s, Haqqani also hosted Saudi fighters including Osama bin Laden. That hospitality is believed to still extend to al-Qaida and other foreign fighters on both sides of the border.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, believed to be in his 60s or older, is said to be too ill to do much now, and his son Siraj is running the network. Little is known of Mohammed Haqqani’s role in the network, though he is considered more junior to his brother. The group is alleged to make its money through kidnappings, extortion and other crime in at least three eastern Afghan provinces.
The strike at the heart of the Haqqani network closely follows the arrests in Pakistan of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second only to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and of Taliban “shadow governors” for two Afghan provinces.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Pakistani authorities were questioning Baradar and the two other Taliban. He said they would not be turned over to the U.S.
If it is determined they have broken Pakistani law, they will be brought before the courts, he said.
“But at the most if they have not done anything, then they will go back to the country of origin, not to USA,” Malik told reporters.
Pakistani authorities working with the CIA arrested Baradar about two weeks ago in Karachi, Pakistani and U.S. officials have said. The shadow governors — Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz province and Mullah Mohammad in Baghlan province — were arrested around the same time, Afghan officials said.
A series of raids by Pakistani forces have followed, netting senior al-Qaida-linked militants as well as lower-level operatives. U.S. communication intercepts helped Pakistani forces in some raids, Pakistani officials said.
Two intelligence officials said today that nearly three dozen suspects had been arrested since Baradar’s capture in the Pakistani provinces of Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab — some of them because of information gleaned from the Taliban leader. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to media.
Taliban spokesmen have denied the arrests of the senior figures, accusing NATO of spreading propaganda to undermine the morale of Taliban fighters holding out in Marjah against the biggest NATO military operation of the eight-year war. Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan troops are battling militants in the Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province, a center of the militants’ supply and drug-smuggling network.