South Asia’s Most Notorious Militant Groups

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

South Asia’s Most Notorious Militant Groups

Ideology, organization, and public support: An analysis of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Haqqani Network.

South Asia’s Most Notorious Militant Groups

Insurgents suspected of being from the Haqqani network are presented to the media at the intelligence agents of Security (NDS) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, May, 30, 2013.

Credit: AP Photo

The Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network are among the most infamous and effective militant organizations that have etched their name in Asian geopolitics. Below is an overview of both groups analyzing their ideology, organizational structure, leadership, and public support.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba

The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was established in 1987 in Pakistan as the armed wing of Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad (the Center for Proselytization and Preaching). They are a religiously motivated armed group focused on liberating Indian-administered Kashmir. Under General Zia ul-Haq’s auspices, LeT found massive support and grew lavishly through the years. This patronage continued until former President Pervez Musharraf banned the group due to international pressure.

The group’s original aim was to rid Afghanistan of the Soviet presence and hence they were one of the Mujahideen groups active in the struggle. After the Soviet withdrawal, they turned their attention to Indian-administered Kashmir, with a goal to wage holy war and unite the entirety of Kashmir with Pakistan. They are well-organized and engage in various social activities on the ground level, which wins them support from certain segments of the population. They are known for their extensive welfare network, which provides social welfare and education to the working class and poor.

In 2002, Musharraf’s government banned the group due to increasing external pressure. This was not surprising as preceding this ban, the LeT was declared a foreign terrorist group by the United States in December 2001. The LeT is believed to have perpetrated the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India, which expanded their notoriety massively around the world.

According to sources, following the ban, the LeT resurfaced using a front called Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the LeT’s charity wing. In 2017, according to the United States, Hafiz Saeed (the group’s leader) and his organization also created a political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML). America’s State Department pronounced the MML as a LeT alias and placed its name on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. Pakistan’s Interior Ministry advised the Election Commission of Pakistan to disallow the registration of the MML due to its ties with militant outfits and also because the group’s patron, Hafiz Saeed, is on the UN’s watch list. The LeT/JuD and its political face, the MML, all have the same ideological inclinations and motivations. The LeT’s role relates to armed struggle while the MML’s ambition is to gain political legitimacy – both bound by the same ideology but differing in approach, as seen in other armed groups.

The LeT is a Sunni group that follows the Islamic interpretation of Ahl-E-Hadith, which is similar to Wahhabism and Salafism. Jihad and tableegh (preaching) are central precepts of the group, with the main objective being the liberation and merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. This ideological alignment with the interests of the Pakistani state differentiates LeT from Deobandi groups. The LeT’s political wing, the MML, surfaced seamlessly, without any dissent in its rank-and-file, in 2017.

The structure of the LeT is extremely centralized and organized – this is true for all its wings: militant, political, and charity. Unlike various other militant groups in South Asia, who have casual and disorganized command and control structures, the LeT’s organizational structure is precise and hierarchic in nature, which reflects upon its commitment. The group is modeled after a military system: a “supreme commander” and “deputy supreme leader” head the military wing, both of whom report directly to Hafiz Saeed. Under them are “divisional commanders” and their deputies and further beneath them are “district commanders,” who control districts. The group also divides and subdivides itself based on different tasks. For example, the welfare department is further diversified into a medical camp, dispensary, ambulance services, and hospital. It is alleged that they have recruitment centers across Azad Kashmir as well as some areas of Pakistan. The centralization of the group also offers rapid relief to victims of natural disasters. For example, after the 2005 earthquake, about 2,000 JuD volunteers spread across northern Pakistan and set up medical camps, highlighting the organization’s effective and quick disaster response.

Leadership is concentrated in a few hands, with Hafiz Saeed being the spiritual mentor of both the LeT and JuD. The core leadership consists of Saeed and his deputies, who supervise different aspects of the group’s charitable and functional operations. Prominent leaders include Zaki Ur Rehman, who is the supreme commander for the Kashmir theater, and Rehman Makki who is the second in command of the group. Saeed’s control is unchallenged and he has enforced tight control ever since he co-founded the group. He and his colleagues are well respected and their authority is absolute – when a decision is made from the top, it is obeyed without resistance.

The group enjoys a decent amount of public support in a few areas of the country. The people who favor them seem to do so because of their charity and social work in their areas. In addition to having a well-established network of educational facilities across the country, JuD offers blood banks, mobile clinics, and ambulance services. In areas where the government has failed to provide health facilities, the JuD has organized free medical camps. As already mentioned, the group’s well-organized structure allows for quick relief when hard-to-reach areas are affected by natural disasters. During the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir, JuD’s camp was the first and most visible in the region’s capital of Muzaffarabad. Conversely, they also provide cheap and even free educational services to the poor, which further strengthens their reputation among the people. The group operates hundreds of schools and madrassas in the country. Therefore, the JuD’s social welfare activities help them expand their influence on the poor – this consequently increases their influence on society, which provides them a foundation to promote their ideology and align certain population segments to their objectives.

The Haqqani Network

The Haqqani Network (HN), although officially incorporated under the larger Taliban umbrella and the Quetta Shura, maintains distinct lines of operations and command and control. The network is primarily based in Afghanistan and also allegedly in the tribal belt of Pakistan, from where they target Afghan and international forces. The group first emerged in the late 1970s and was led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the famed Mujahideen leader. It rose in prominence during the Afghan-Soviet War as a Mujahideen force. It was supported by Pakistan in order to install a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s but it was banned by the country in 2015. Currently, the group is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is extremely influential in the Taliban circles.

On May 31, 2017, in the group’s largest attack, HN detonated a car bomb killing 150 and wounding nearly 500 in Afghanistan. The group is one of the most important and dangerous elements under the Taliban umbrella.

The Taliban have often been characterized as a divided and fragmented movement encompassing disparate groups with diverse aims and lacking unified leadership or a clear organizational structure. This has been exacerbated since Mullah Omar’s death. Today, the Shuras that showed some semblance of unity in the past have become disjointed – meaning some Shuras are cordial with some, while holding grudges against others. Even the Shuras’ policies, actions, and organizational structures differ from each other (for example some are pro-negotiations while others are not). The original leadership of the Taliban gathered in the Quetta Shura, but in more contemporary times, this Shura has struggled to maintain its grip over its “regional commands” of Peshawar, Mashhad, and Miran Shah. Within this diversified network of segregated groups is the Haqqani Network, comprised of the Miran Shah Shura.

The group is well organized and has been lethal in its attacks on Afghani and international forces in Afghanistan. America has alleged that the group operates from the tribal belt of Pakistan, specifically Miran Shah in North Waziristan Agency (although Pakistan refutes this). The group maintained private autonomy even when Mullah Omar was alive, but since his death, their influence has grown further. They exert complete influence on the Miran Shah Shura; have significant control on the Peshawar Shura; and even control key commissions in the Quetta Shura. This makes them the chief group among the modern-day Taliban. The Haqqanis’ influence can be gathered from the fact that the Taliban have demanded the release of Anas Haqqani, younger brother of Sirjauddin, in the recent negotiations with the Americans – which the Americans and Afghanis did in November 2019

The Haqqani ideology, similar to that of other groups within the Taliban, follows the Deobandi interpretation of Islam and focuses on jihad to expel Western forces in Afghanistan and re-impose Taliban rule. For the Haqqanis, the methodology to realize their ideology has generally been via armed struggle. The current emir of the Taliban, albeit not nearly as widely accepted as Mullah Omar, Hibatullah Akhundzada, is pro-negotiations but the Haqqanis are generally seen as favoring a military-centric approach.

Although the organizational structure of the Taliban is decentralized, the Haqqani Network enjoys a centralized system. Out of all the Shuras of the Taliban, only the Miran Shah Shura (which is exclusively composed of the Haqqanis) is a homogenous organization under absolutely unified leadership of the Haqqani network. The core structure of the Haqqani network is mainly familial and hierarchical. The hierarchy is as follows: Tier 1 are the senior Haqqani commanders (they provide finances and strategic guidance); Tier 2 are senior local commanders who are present in Afghanistan (in charge of districts); Tier 3 are locally based group leaders (handle recruiting, logistics, etc.); Tier 4 is comprised of the core fighters (ideological fighters); and Tier 5 are the cash fighters (mercenaries).

The founder of the group was Jalaluddin Haqqani, a veteran anti-Soviet mujahideen commander who was a valuable CIA asset and later a minister in the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Since the group is bound by familial ties, it is not surprising the group is currently led by his son, Sirajuddin, who is not only the most influential person in the Haqqani network but is the second in command of the entire Taliban behind only the emir. Sirajuddin is the current deputy of the Taliban emir and was made so to avoid dissent as many in the group sought for him to be positioned as the new emir of the Taliban. Favoring a centralized and militarist approach, Sirajuddin opposes the use of finances on nonmilitary functions such as clinics, courts, and so on. Jihad is the principal tenet of victory, according to his stance. Sirajuddin’s sphere of influence goes well beyond the Haqqani Network itself. The leader’s influence can be estimated by the fact that he not only leads the HN (Miran Shah Shura), but is also deputy in the Quetta Shura (comprised of the leadership of the Talban) in which he controls all key commissions, such as military and finance. Other top leaders include Haji Mali Khan, an uncle of Sirajuddin, who was released in a prisoner swap in November 2019 along with Anas Haqqani.

The public support for the Taliban as a whole and the Haqqani Network is low in Afghanistan. According to “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2016” in which 12,658 people participated from all 34 provinces, 93 percent reported that encountering the Taliban was their worst nightmare. The Haqqanis’ stronghold in Afghanistan is the Loya-Paktia region (consisting of the provinces of Pakita, Paktika, Khost, and some parts of Ghazni). It could be argued that they have some support within this region as historically Sirjauddin’s father provided security and resources to the people here – Sirajuddin, however, has not. Sirajuddin’s control of Loya-Paktia is via military might and through the manipulation of the locals’ grievances over lack of governance and civilian casualties. The same Afghan survey (cited above), however, shows that in Paktika, where in previous years people reported lower levels of fear of Taliban encounters, the proportion of people expressing “no fear” of the Taliban increased to 18.9 percent. This could be due to people not fearing the Taliban since they might have some loyalties to the Haqqani Network. Sirajuddin might not enjoy the respect of the people the way that his father did, but this does not mean that support is nonexistent in these areas — especially since the Haqqanis are known to pay substantial quantities of money in exchange for assistance from the Loya-Paktia locals. Nonetheless, their public support can still not be considered substantial.

Unlike the LeT, the Haqqanis are not known for providing social welfare facilities to the public around Afghanistan. As mentioned, the Haqqanis are military-hardened warriors and generally, the current leadership seeks to primarily increase the funds for their military campaigns. The HN remain a significant military threat but their and the Taliban’s support in Afghanistan remains low — according to polls, at least.

Sarmad Ishfaq works as a research fellow for the Lahore Centre for Peace Research. He completed his Master’s in International Studies from the University of Wollongong in Dubai. He has several publications in peer-reviewed journals and magazines in the areas of counterterrorism/terrorism and the geopolitics of South Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council.