Taliban's secretive Haqqani Network leader finally shows his face

US-designated terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani attends passing-out parade of police recruits in Kabul

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One of the Taliban's most secretive leaders, whose only picture on US "most wanted" lists is a grainy semi-covered profile, was photographed openly for the first time on Saturday at a passing-out parade for new Afghan police recruits.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the feared Haqqani Network, had previously only been photographed clearly from behind. He was appointed interior minister in the Taliban government after the hardline militants seized power in Afghanistan last August.

"For your satisfaction and for building your trust... I am appearing in the media in a public meeting with you," he said in a speech at the parade.

Before the Taliban's return, Haqqani was the most senior of three deputies to leader Hibatullah Akhundzada.

Akhundzada has not been seen in public for years, and many Afghan analysts believe he may not even be alive.

The Haqqani Newtork is a powerful subset of the Taliban that has been blamed for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years since a US-led invasion toppled the group from power in 2001.

The United States has offered a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to his arrest, saying he was responsible for a string of terror attacks.

Pictures of Haqqani were being widely shared on social media on Saturday by Taliban officials who had previously posted photographs that did not show his face, or only if it had been digitally blurred.

At the police parade on Saturday, Haqqani was dressed like many of the senior Taliban officials — very heavily bearded and wearing a black turban and white shawl.

He said he was showing his face so "you could know how much value we have with our leadership".

Haqqani's appearance also suggests the Taliban have grown even more confident of their hold on the country since seizing power on August 15, two weeks before the last US-led foreign forces left.

Several diplomats attended the parade, including Pakistan's ambassador, even though no country has officially recognised the new Taliban regime.

Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani reviews new Afghan police recruits during a graduation ceremony at the police academy in Kabul on March 5.  AFP

The Haqqani Network, founded in the 1970s by Jalaluddin Haqqani, was heavily supported by the CIA during the mujahideen war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to be in his 40s, is his son. He succeeded Jalaluddin following his death in 2018.

The latter was blamed for the deadly 2008 attack on Kabul's Serena Hotel that killed six people, as well as at least one assassination attempt against former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The FBI Rewards for Justice programme says he maintains "close ties" to Al Qaeda, and "is a specially designated global terrorist".

He is reported to have been the target of several US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the rugged terrain between them that is the heartland of the Haqqani Network.

He was also credited as the author of a New York Times opinion piece in 2020 titled "What We, the Taliban, Want", sparking controversy the newspaper had given "terrorists" a public platform.

Updated: March 05, 2022, 1:55 PM
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