ISLAMABAD (AP) — The death of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of Afghanistan's outlawed militant network that bears his name, is unlikely to weaken the group that is considered the most formidable of the Taliban's fighting forces.
The Taliban said Haqqani died Monday at age 71 after reports of years of ill health, including Parkinson's disease. Because of his infirmity, stewardship of the organization had been given to one of his 12 sons, Sirajuddin, whose military prowess is credited with plotting and carrying out some of more audacious attacks assigned to the network.
The younger Haqqani is also deputy head of the Taliban, who have waged increasingly sophisticated and coordinated attacks against Afghanistan's struggling security forces. Washington's own watchdog in a recent report said nearly half of Afghanistan is either under the control of the Taliban or influenced by the religious militia.
Jalaluddin Haqqani, once hailed as a freedom fighter by U.S. President Ronald Reagan for opposing the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan during the Cold War, had been paralyzed for the past 10 years, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Reports of his death were widespread in 2015, and he had not been heard from in several years.
In announcing his death, Mujahed called Haqqani a religious scholar and exemplary warrior. The United States declared the Haqqani network a terrorist organization in 2012, and it has been one of the fiercest opponents for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The elder Haqqani's death is not expected to affect the network's military might or strategy.
One of the most resilient of Afghanistan's insurgents, Haqqani joined the Taliban when they overran Kabul in September 1996, expelling feuding fighters whose battles left the capital in ruins.
Haqqani was among the Afghan mujahedeen, or holy warriors, that the United States backed to fight the former Soviet Union's invading army that entered Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a pro-Moscow communist government. Haqqani was praised by the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson as "goodness personified." After 10 years in Afghanistan, Moscow negotiated an exit from the country in an agreement that eventually led to the collapse of Kabul's government and a takeover by the mujahedeen.
Declassified U.S. cables called Haqqani a "moderate socialist" who did not embrace the Taliban's strict rules that denied education to girls. "Haqqani functions more in the military area, and is not a force in setting Taliban political or social issues," the cables read.
Born in 1947 into the powerful Zardran tribe that dominates southeastern Afghanistan's Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces, Haqqani was a close friend of Osama bin Laden, who often took refuge in his camps outside Khost.
Haqqani's association with Pakistan dates back to his early years, when he studied a conservative form of Islam at the Darulaman Haqqania madrassa, or religious school, in northwestern Pakistan. The school's top cleric, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, once said in an AP interview that Haqqani was a serious student.
Haqqani's rigid interpretation of Islam launched him on the road to insurgency in the early 1970s when he returned to Afghanistan to open a madrassa and organized a movement against Afghanistan's monarch, King Zahir Shah, according to unclassified U.S. documents that tracked Haqqani's militant career.
Forced to leave Afghanistan because of his agitation against the monarchy, which was eventually overthrown, Haqqani set up a madrassa in Miran Shah, in Pakistan's North Waziristan.
During the 1980s, Haqqani's military prowess in Afghanistan brought him attention from the United States and Pakistan. He received both money and weapons from the U.S.
While the Soviet Union poured in men and money, weapons were sent to Pakistan by the U.S. and several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Suitcases full of cash were delivered to the mujahedeen through Pakistan,
Fighters from the Muslim world were recruited to fight the Soviets, and bin Laden was among the first to sign up. Many of the Arab fighters were drawn toward Haqqani because he was an Arabic speaker and a ferocious warrior. Those who remain in Afghanistan, including the new head of al-Qaida, Ayman al Zawahri, are believed to be protected by the Haqqani network, and they are believed to help fund it.
Haqqani developed close ties with Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, as well as Pakistani militant groups, many of whom were being groomed by the ISI to fight neighbor India in the disputed Kashmir region.
After the Russians left and Afghanistan's communist government fell, Haqqani served briefly as justice minister. He soon abandoned the mujahedeen government, frustrated by relentless infighting, and returned to Khost where he maintained close contact with militants, including bin Laden.
After taking power in September 1996, the Taliban embraced Haqqani for his military skills, according to a declassified 1998 cable from the U.S. Embassy. That cable also said Haqqani "is close buddies with many Arab and Pakistani Islamists."
In August 1998, U.S. cruise missiles targeted Haqqani's base in a failed attempt to kill bin Laden. Several Pakistani militants affiliated with the Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen group were killed in that attack.
Following 9/11 and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, the Taliban were routed from Kabul and Haqqani was ordered by Mullah Omar to move the Arab fighters to safety.
"It makes me sad that he is no longer among us," Fazlur Rehman Khalil, co-founder of the outlawed Harakat-ul Mujahedeen, said Tuesday. Khalil lives freely on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, currently promoting a fatwa, or religious edict, banning militant violence in Pakistan.
After his death was announced, the Haqqani family released a statement that said security issues prevented the holding of communal prayers for him and instead urged his followers to gather in mosques and "jihadi" centers around the country and offer prayers in his name.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed.