The release of a Canadian-American family held hostage by the Haqqani network has cast a spotlight on the lesser-known terror group. It also has raised questions about what the network might have received in return.
The kidnapping of Canadian Joshua Boyle and his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, fits into the group’s pattern of violence on Western targets. Kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2012, the family was kept alive and ultimately freed Wednesday in neighbouring Pakistan.
Their release comes as Pakistan feels increased pressure from the U.S. to annihilate militant groups such as the Haqqani network which is based in North Waziristan, a region of northwest Pakistan along the border with Afgnaistan.
The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said the Haqqanis, combined with the Taliban, pose “the greatest threats to security” in the country. The group — a Taliban offshoot also connected to al-Qaeda — was long said to be shielded by elements within Pakistan’s security establishment.
“Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens,” Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, told a U.S. Senate committee in February.
The release of Boyle and Coleman and their three children could be a sign that insulation is thinning.
In a landmark speech in August, U.S. President Donald Trump spelled out his vision for the region, criticizing Pakistan for harbouring “agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” It signalled a continuation of the Obama administration’s line that Pakistan must do more to root out militant groups.
Pakistan feels U.S. pressure
Escalating tension between the U.S. and Pakistan might have directly led to the hostages’ release, says Sajjan Gohel, of the London-based think-tank Asia-Pacific Foundation.
Pakistan “had to exert that pressure back onto the Haqqanis” to illustrate authorities were taking action, Gohel said.
Trump said the joint U.S.-Pakistani rescue operation was a “positive moment” for the two countries’ relationship. Indeed, the terror group provides a prime target for Pakistan to illustrate its willingness to crack down on criminal organizations.
“This is the group that the U.S. has most focused on,” said Laurel Miller, a foreign policy analyst at the Rand Corporation who served as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. State Department.
Labelled a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2012, the network is now led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The U.S. State Department has posted a $5-million US reward for information related to his arrest. The FBI considers the Haqqani leader a “specially designated global terrorist” linked to a deadly 2008 assault on a Kabul hotel, attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan and the attempted assassination of then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
Beyond that, the Haqqanis are known to have a “diversified set of income streams,” said Miller. The group is said to profit from drug trafficking, as well as conventional businesses such as car dealerships and construction companies.
They’ve made “huge sums of money” from kidnapping Afghans and Pakistanis, said Ahmed Rashid, the author of several books on extremism in the region.
If the Haqqanis “can get their hands on an American, no matter how innocent he may be, that’s the icing on the cake,” he said.
At what price?
The network also uses Western hostages as bargaining chips. In 2014, the Haqqanis freed U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
The group had recently been demanding the release of Sirajuddin Haqqani’s brother from custody in Afghanistan. Statements from U.S. and Pakistani authorities, however, made no mention of a prisoner swap in the case of Boyle and Coleman.
Pakistani authorities called the release an intelligence-driven operation. At a media briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert wouldn’t confirm whether the rescue led to an exchange of gunfire.
“I would be deeply worried and concerned if some deal was made,” said Gohel at the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
Such a deal would embolden the Haqqanis, he said.
Gohel said a prisoner swap involving Afghanistan would be unlikely. The group may have also demanded a ransom, though it’s official U.S. and Canadian government policy not to pay.
The Haqqanis, Gohel warned, “don’t do anything unless there’s a quid pro quo.”