KHAR, Pakistan – Pakistan is investigating whether the son of the founder of the powerful Haqqani militant network, which has been blamed for high-profile attacks and kidnappings in Afghanistan, was killed in a U.S. drone strike this week, officials said Saturday.
If confirmed, the death of Badruddin Haqqani, who has been described as the network's day-to-day operations commander, would mark a major blow to the organization founded by his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and viewed by the U.S. as a powerful enemy in neighboring Afghanistan.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials said Saturday they are 90 percent certain Badruddin was killed Tuesday in North Waziristan in an American missile attack. They said their information was based on reports received from their agents in the field but acknowledged they haven't spoken to anyone who has seen the body.
A senior Taliban commander said a U.S. drone strike killed Badruddin. There was no independent confirmation, and the U.S. does not comment publicly on the controversial drone program, which is widely reviled by the Pakistani public and has been a source of tension with Islamabad.
All spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the news.
The areas where the American drone strikes generally occur are extremely remote and dangerous, making it difficult for reporters or others to verify a particular person's death.
Badruddin is considered a vital part of the Haqqani structure and is believed to have played an active role in kidnappings, extortion and high-profile operations in Afghanistan. He is believed to be the network's day-to-day operations commander, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.
Replacing him would be a challenge but not impossible, said Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The question would be whether anyone would be as trusted, as well-placed, would have forged the kind of longstanding connections and would have the kind of pedigree that he has," said Markey. "This is a big hit if it's true but it's not going to put them out of business."
The U.S. State Department has designated Badruddin, along with his father and brothers — Nasiruddin and Sirajuddin — as terrorists. The State Department said in May 2011 that Badruddin sits on the Miram Shah Shura, a group that controls all Haqqani network activities and coordinates attacks in southeastern Afghanistan.
Badruddin is also believed to have been responsible for the 2008 kidnapping of New York Times reporter, David Rohde, the department said.
"During his captivity, Badruddin forced Rohde to make videos and write letters demanding money and a prisoner exchange as conditions for his release. Badruddin threatened Rohde's two Afghan companions in order to compel him to cooperate, and threatened to kill all three of them if his demands were not met," the State Department said.
After their father effectively retired in 2005, Badruddin and his brother Sirajuddin expanded the network into kidnapping and extortion, both highly profitable for the organization, according to a recent report by the West Point, N.Y.-based Combating Terrorism Center. Afghan intelligence authorities have released intercepts of Badruddin orchestrating an attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in 2011, the CTC said.
The U.S. has long viewed the Haqqani network as one of the biggest threats to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as the country's long term stability. The group has shown little interest in negotiating with the Washington, and has pulled off some of the highest-profile and most complex attacks in Afghanistan, although not necessarily the most deadly.
The U.S. faults Islamabad for what it says is a failure to go after the group, which has essentially made its base in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, which borders Afghanistan.
Pakistan has said its forces, which have been fighting an insurgency that has already cost more than 30,000 Pakistani lives, are overstretched and unable to launch an attack in North Waziristan. Recently U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Pakistani officials indicated that they would carry out an operation in North Waziristan soon but there has been no indication that a large-scale operation is in the offing.
It's unclear whether the U.S. received any assistance from the Pakistani military in tracking down Badruddin. If they had cooperated on the hit, it would mark a significant improvement in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The strike came the same week that NATO forces in Afghanistan killed a senior Pakistani Taliban commander operating in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long been pushing the U.S. and NATO to do more to combat Pakistani Taliban militants that it says use Afghanistan as a safe haven.
However, moving against the Haqqanis would be an about-face for Pakistan, which is believed to view its relationship with the network as important in helping shape Afghanistan after American and other international troops leave. The Pakistani military also faces the risk that if the Haqqanis are challenged, they will likely turn their considerable resources and expertise to attacking Pakistani targets, something the network has rarely done.
Santana reported from Islamabad.