A gunman riding a motorbike on Monday outside a bread store near Islamabad, Pakistan, shot dead Nasiruddin Haqqani, the son of notorious Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani and a fundraiser for terrorism in the region. His death is sending shockwaves through the country.
Nasiruddin’s death is unusual in many ways, the biggest being the method. Normally jihadist leaders of his stature are killed in drone strikes, as were other Haqqani Network militants like his brother Badruddin last year. Those strikes, however, are usually in North Waziristan, the Haqqani’s base of operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. Nasiruddin was killed far from there, seemingly living near the capital.
The death should be hugely embarrassing for the government of Pakistan, which has fended off accusations for years that it shelters the Haqqani terror group. Last year, a leaked report from the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan revealed that NATO believes the Pakistani security services are directly supporting the Haqqani’s brutal campaign of violence inside Afghanistan.
“Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad,” the report said. A Frontline documentary, published in 2011, also interviewed Taliban fighters who said they relied on the shelter and support of the Pakistani government.
Nasiruddin’s death mirrors the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden at a compound up the road from a military academy in Abbottabad, highlighting just how openly some jihadist militants live in Pakistan.
And just today, Omar Quraishi, opinion editor of Pakistani newspaper The Express, tweeted this image of an anti-drone rally organized by Jama’at-ud-Dawa, a legal organization that nevertheless created Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group. In the crowd are also flags from Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, which is the renamed version of the banned terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.
There recently has been a wave of attacks against senior militants in Pakistan. Last month, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban — a related but distinct jihadist network in the northwest — was killed in an American drone strike. His death prompted many elites to mourn, including failed prime minister candidate Imran Khan, who threatened to close NATO supply lines over the incident.
Haqqani militants are a “steady presence” in Islamabad, says C. Christine Fair, South Asia studies professor at Georgetown University. The Pakistani government often says it lacks the means to enter North Waziristan, where the Haqqani Network is based. But, Fair said, “This shooting makes it clear that one does not need to go to Waziristan” to strike at them.
Rumors abound at who killed Nasiruddin. The most common is that his death is related to a familial squabble he had with a cousin, Ishaq, whom Nasiruddin suspected of working with Afghan intelligence officials. Some rumors hint that the Central Intelligence Agency, which runs the drone program, is behind it. But a motorbike shooting would be rare for the CIA, which tends to prefer the cleanliness and deniability of drones. When CIA contractor Raymond Davis was caught in a traffic accident in Lahore in 2011, and then shot dead two Pakistani citizens, the country erupted into terrifying uproar. It was only the deft maneuvering of “blood money” that allowed him to leave Pakistan with his head, and the incident even threatened the success of the Bin Laden raid.
Looking ahead, Nasiruddin’s death is going to have a big effect on his terrorist group. “His death is a significant blow,” says Stephen Tankel, assistant professor at American University. The Haqqani Network has reportedly been facing a rising tide of internal discontent in its Afghanistan redoubts; losing their most effective moneyman and liaison to other insurgent groups is sure to hurt the group’s standing and ability to carry out future attacks.
The Haqqanis also hold Army Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan. It is unclear whether Berghdal’s fortunes will be affected by Nasiruddin’s death, but should the group falter, it could.
And there is another angle to consider: what remains of the peace process. “Nasruddin represented the Haqqani Network in Doha during efforts last year to set up a Taliban office for peace talks,” Tankel says.
While the identity of Nasiruddin’s assassin will play a role, Pakistani elites are increasingly focused on some sort of peace negotiations with the jihadists and worry targeted killings will imperil any hope of success. When Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud was killed last month, just days before he was scheduled to begin negotiating with the government, Pakistani media was filled with the lament that his death had also killed the entire peace process.
The Afghan and Pakistani peace processes are separate, though clearly related. The Haqqanis have never struck inside Pakistan, but their close relationship to the Pakistani state means Pakistan will play a major role in any future Afghan peace deal with the Haqqanis. From the other side, Pakistani militants often hide over the border inside Afghanistan, prompting the occasional artillery exchange, and making Afghanistan just as important to Pakistan’s internal deliberations about the insurgency.
It is that twisted codependence between Afghan and Pakistani security that is so difficult for anyone to unravel. It makes both countries acutely vulnerable to disruptions in the militant groups hiding across their shared border. Almost regardless of who really killed Nasiruddin, his death is sure to complicate an already complicated war, and leave its prospects even less certain than they were before.