Taliban Leaders Are Visiting Their Old Jail Cells Like Tourists

Anas Haqqani spent years in solitary confinement in a US-run prison. Now he's a key figure in the incoming Taliban government in Afghanistan.
September 1, 2021, 5:18pm
Taliban Leaders Are Visiting Their Old Jail Cells Like Tourists
Anas Haqqani, on the centre right of the picture, touring aircraft and vehicles left behind at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Key Taliban negotiator and poetry aficionado Anas Haqqani has visited his old cell at the site of a former U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan, allowing a Taliban-friendly news crew to accompany him to where he spent five years in jail.

The youngest son of one-time anti-Soviet mujahideen commander and al Qaeda ally turned top Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, Anas Haqqani, about 26, was imprisoned at Bagram Air Base after being arrested in a covert CIA mission in Qatar in 2014.

Despite having only been 7 years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks, Haqqani was accused of close ties to al Qaeda based on his father’s friendship with Osama bin Laden, and role in orchestrating attacks on US and Afghan troops, kidnapping reporters and sending deadly suicide bombers at NATO and government targets. 

Sentenced to death by an Afghan court in 2016, Haqqani was eventually released in 2019 as part of a prisoner swap that jump-started negotiations which eventually resulted in the US withdrawal after a 20-year war. After his release, Haqqani served as a key negotiator in those talks, and became noted for his moderate stance on India and Kashmir and love of Pashtun-language poetry. 

His visit to the jail was closely followed by a Taliban-friendly media crew, which showed him praying at the gates before reciting: “Bagram cannot threaten me any longer/Your power is gone/Your gold is gone.”

After Jalaluddin Haqqani’s death three years ago – from old age despite having been hunted by US drones for more than a decade – his oldest surviving son, Sirajuddin, took command of the Haqqani Network – a jihadist insurgent group – and was named deputy of the Taliban itself. 

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Anas Haqqani was released from prison specifically for the talks in a prisoner swap, because of his youth and his lack of a major military role in the family’s Taliban franchise, so that he could serve as a spokesperson and negotiator for his family’s Taliban faction in the talks in Qatar.

The prominent role afforded the Haqqani Network at the Doha talks unsettled the American negotiators initially because of the group’s independent history as a terror organisation close to Bin Laden and al Qaeda. 

Despite four other brothers killed in US-led operations since 2001, Anas Haqqani claims his time in prison mellowed him and made him more sympathetic to his enemies, which helped, he said, during the negotiations.

“On a personal level, I feel sympathy with everyone – that we need to do whatever we can to heal their wounds,” Haqqani told the New York Times last year. “I have seen my own brothers blown up to pieces. I feel the pain, because I have also lost my own.”

But the mild words do little to convince skeptical Afghans and the West that the group responsible for some of the worst terror attacks in Afghanistan and famous for kidnapping journalists and aid workers has changed their stripes. 

“These are bad men, the Haqqanis, I don’t know who they fight for,” said Abdullah, an ex-Taliban commander now living in Greece as a refugee, who had dealings with the group.

“They take young boys in Pakistan and send them to Kabul as suicide bombers, I have seen this with my own eyes,” he said. “They work with al Qaeda and they work for the ISI,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service. 

“They do not want peace, only money and power and maybe something else we do not know,” added Abdullah, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his history with the group.