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Blurred Photos Of Interior Minister Haqqani Raise Questions About What The Taliban Has To Hide


In one of the photos circulated by the Taliban of the October 19 event at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, the face of acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is blurred beyond recognition.

The Taliban has been criticized for including some notoriously shady characters in Afghanistan's acting government, perhaps none more than Sirajuddin Haqqani, a designated terrorist last photographed hiding behind a plant.

In his first public appearance since he was named the Taliban's interior minister in early September, Haqqani on October 19 praised suicide bombers and promised money and land to a packed house of their surviving family members.

In an official photo of the event at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, the target of deadly Taliban attacks in 2011 and 2018, Haqqani can barely be seen sitting behind a strategically placed floral arrangement onstage.

Despite the obvious effort to shroud Haqqani's appearance, closer inspection reveals the most distinct image of Haqqani's face seen in recent years.

Another camera angle shows the events' decorations, VIPs, and Taliban special-forces troops brandishing recently pilfered U.S. military gear much more clearly. That is, except for Haqqani, whose body is shown but whose face has been completely photoshopped out of the scene.

Other photos show every wrinkle and fold on Haqqani's beige shirt, brown vest, and black turban. But aside from his hands, a glimpse of an ear, and traces of his trademark dark beard, Haqqani's face is again either blurred or artfully hidden behind warm embraces with attendees of the event.

The photos mark the second attempt by the Taliban to keep Haqqani's face out of the camera's view since the extremist group seized power on August 15.

During an introductory meeting of the Interior Ministry on September 10, only the back of Haqqani's head can be seen as he addressed his new staff wearing a similar outfit.

The obscured images have blurred the Taliban's attempts to cast itself as a more moderate and transparent version than when it was last in power from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Since regaining power amid the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, the Taliban has waged a public-relations offensive to convince the international community to recognize the group as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan.

Members of a Taliban delegation take part in international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on October 20.
Members of a Taliban delegation take part in international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on October 20.

But the involvement of Haqqani -- who heads the Haqqani network -- has raised serious questions as to the Taliban's commitment to its claims of reform.

The acting interior minister, who is the son of the deceased Haqqani network founder Jalaluddin Haqqani -- is among the FBI's most-wanted fugitives.

The Haqqani network was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2012. The network, the most powerful faction of the Taliban, was blamed for some of the deadliest attacks on foreign troops and Afghan civilians.

The FBI's "wanted" poster for Haqqani.
The FBI's "wanted" poster for Haqqani.

Haqqani is sought for questioning in connection with a suicide attack on Kabul's Serena Hotel -- frequented by foreign diplomats, politicians, and journalists in the past -- that killed six people and injured six others in January 2008.

The site of a bomb blast outside the Serena Hotel in Kabul in January 2008.
The site of a bomb blast outside the Serena Hotel in Kabul in January 2008.

He is also wanted for his alleged involvement in a failed assassination attempt in April 2008 on then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Three people -- including a tribal chief, an Afghan lawmaker, and a 10-year-old girl -- were killed in the well-coordinated attack on a national-day military parade attended by foreign diplomats.

President Hamid Karzai escaped an attempt on his life at a national celebration in April 2008.
President Hamid Karzai escaped an attempt on his life at a national celebration in April 2008.

The attack on the event, held to commemorate the victory of the mujahedin over the Soviet occupation in the 1980s -- was seen as a national embarrassment at a time when the Afghan government was pushing to take responsibility for Kabul's security from foreign troops.

Afghan soldiers take up positions after shots are fired at the Kabul military parade on April 27, 2008.
Afghan soldiers take up positions after shots are fired at the Kabul military parade on April 27, 2008.

As a result of Haqqani's involvement in those attacks, as well as cross-border attacks emanating from Pakistan on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, the United States placed a $10 million bounty on Haqqani's head that remains in effect.

The FBI continues to distribute an old, grainy image of Haqqani, whose age is unknown.

The FBI's circulated photo of Haqqani, undated.
The FBI's circulated photo of Haqqani, undated.

Some on Twitter have speculated that Haqqani's current appearance is being obscured to protect him from those who might want to cash in on the reward money.

Multiple sources in Kabul have told RFE/RL that Haqqani frequently changes location and keeps his movements secret out of fear that Washington will target him using remotely piloted drones.

Others on Twitter have suggested that the Taliban is attempting to portray Haqqani as a divine leader or that the images are being blurred in keeping with the group's previous stance that photography was forbidden under its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government consultant and prominent analyst on the situation in Afghanistan, listed several reasons in comments to RFE/RL.

"The religious reason is that in their previous regime they were opposed to photography," he said, noting that the decision was inspired by Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar. "Another issue is that some of them do not want to be targeted, given the increased threats by Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan at the moment."

The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) militant group claimed a deadly blast at a Kunduz mosque on October 8.
The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) militant group claimed a deadly blast at a Kunduz mosque on October 8.

Finally, Farhadi said, "Haqqani's problem with the United States has not been resolved and he still has a bounty of several million dollars on his head."

Asra Nomani, cofounder of the Pearl Project that investigated the beheading of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, was blunt as to why Haqqani's image is being blurred.

"Sirajuddin Haqqani is a coward," she said in written comments to RFE/RL.

Haqqani is not the only Taliban official working in the shadows. The militant group's newly named supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has only been seen on posters even as government appointments are attributed to him amid reports that he died a year ago.

Taliban militants gather next to a picture of their leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, in Kabul on August 25.
Taliban militants gather next to a picture of their leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, in Kabul on August 25.

And the whereabouts of Mullah Yaqoob Omar, the 30-something son of Mullah Omar who has been named the militant group's caretaker defense minister, is essentially a mystery.

Haqqani's purported appearance in Taliban-issued photographs during a public event honoring "martyrs" makes him appear approachable by comparison.

But his depiction of suicide bombers as "heroes of Islam and the country" during the October 19 event at the Intercontinental Hotel -- where 42 people were killed by Taliban gunmen in 2018 -- fell on deaf ears to those outside the venue.

Family members of suicide attackers met with Haqqani at the October 19 event at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel.
Family members of suicide attackers met with Haqqani at the October 19 event at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel.

Reactions to Haqqani's appearance -- however blurred -- were harsh among Afghans who have been victimized by suicide attacks.

"Thousands of young people and families were killed,” Ibrahim, whose brother Khajeh Isa was killed in a suicide attack in the northwestern Herat Province in 2009, told RFE/RL. “Children, the young, and the old were martyred.”

"We see that today those who committed suicide [bombings] are being honored in the name of martyrdom," said Ibrahim, whose full name has been withheld out of concerns of possible retribution against him. "Unfortunately, this is far from humanity and religion... No conscience accepts that suicide is a part of Islamic law."

Written by Michael Scollon with additional reporting by Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. The names of contributing Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan are being withheld for their safety.

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