Despite its links to several well known jihadists, the head of Darul Uloom Haqqania is trying to change its image after the Taliban victory, writes Bel Trew in Khyber Paktunkhwa province
“We are no longer to be called ‘the University of jihad’ but the University of the Taliban cabinet,” chuckles the head of Darul Uloom Haqqania, arguably one of the most infamous Islamic seminaries in Pakistan.
Flanked by adoring supporters, one of whom crouches on the floor kissing his legs, Maulana Hamid Ul-Haq jokes about the nickname given by critics who have repeatedly labelled the school a hotbed of radicalisation. This is because its alumni include some of the Taliban’s most powerful and feared leaders, many of whom are on global wanted lists and are now in their new cabinet after the group swept control of neighbouring Afghanistan last month.
Among those with close links to the school, located about 100km from the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan, is the Taliban’s founder Mullah Muhammed Omar, the one-eyed reclusive cleric-warrior who sheltered Osama Bin Laden. The seminary awarded him an honorary doctorate because he brought “peace to Afghanistan and the region” Ul-Haq says.
The biggest names from the notorious Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist group linked to the Taliban, have been taught there, including its founder Jalaluddin Haqqani and Khalil Haqqani, now the Taliban’s minister for refugees. The Taliban’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid is also a graduate.
But despite this Ul-Haq, 54 vehemently rejects the accusations that the school is a factory of violence. The former member of parliament, who now heads up a religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-S), remains deeply proud of the Taliban connections and waxes lyrical about his meetings with Jalahuddin and his son Sirajuddin, the Taliban’s new interior minister (a wanted militant), whom he calls “humble,” “well mannered” and “visionary”.
He sees the Taliban’s surge to power in Afghanistan and the announcement of their interim cabinet, as legitimising their positions even more and calls on the West to recognise them to “prevent more war”.
“We don’t want to be known as the terror or warrior university. We are proud that a number of our alumni are in the Taliban cabinet,” says Ul-Haq, estimating more than half a dozen Taliban ministers either attended the madrassa – or school – or have sent family members there.
“That means the Taliban thinks that these people are visionary, humane and well educated.”
“They were chosen as they know the political ups and downs, they know how to deal with the world,“ he adds beaming.
The day that The Independent interviewed him happened to fall on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden and which triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was sheltering.
Ul-Haq condemns the horrific attacks which killed over 2700 people in the States but claimed Osama bin Laden was not responsible for it and says the US invasion forced the Taliban “to defend themselves”.
And so he says the fact that the 20th anniversary of the attacks occurred when Afghanistan was back in the hands of the Taliban after US-led NATO troops had withdrawn was “a kind of justice.”
“America did not come to spread love and did not give flowers – they came to bomb the region and these men the Taliban were defending themselves,” he adds with force.
“Washington has made the right decision in leaving. It was spending so much money but suffered a lot economically politically and in terms of loss of life of its forces.”
The world-infamous madrassa that teaches a fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam known as Deobandi Islam, was founded by Hamid Ul-Haq’s grandfather – an Islamic scholar called Abdul Ul-Haq – in the weeks after Pakistan won independence from the British in 1947.
Abdul Ul-Haq’s successor was his son Sami Ul-Haq who was known as “the father of the Taliban” a name the family still sees as a badge of honour. Sami was later assassinated by unknown gunmen in 2018.
Now, twinkling in the sunlight, the new pink-hued sprawling campus is home to some 2800 students, about half the size of the student body at its height in the past.
Behind a gate manned by guards armed with Kalashnikovs, streams of men in traditional Islamic dress with prayer rugs slung over their shoulders pour out of the mosque after Saturday morning prayers.
In front of them preserved behind glass windows is a vintage 1940s car with a sign saying it was used by Abdul Ul-Haq in the 1970s as he toured the country making speeches but also as he participated in the movement against (the persecuted) Ahmadiyya religious community, a stark reminder of the ideological leanings of the place. Human Rights Watch says the Ahmadis have been subjected to targeted killings and violence over the decades.
Another reminder, of course,is the list of graduates. Among Darul Uloom Haqqania’s most famous students is Taliban supreme leader Akhtar Mansour, who was Mullah Omar’s successor until he was killed in a 2016 US drone strike in southwest Pakistan.
The notorious Haqqani network and its founder Jalaluddin Haqqani got their names from the school because Jalaluddin studied there. (The Taliban deny the existence of an offshoot Haqqani network, and say Jalaluddin is a top Taliban figure).
Nonetheless, Jalaluddin sent several of his sons here including reportedly (although Ul-Haq denies this) Sirajuddin, the Taliban’s new interior minister. Sirajuddin has a $10 million American bounty on his head because of his alleged involvement in a 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul and his ties to al-Qaeda.
Ul-Haq confirms that several other ministers studied here including the Taliban’s minister of education Abdul Baqi Haqqani and the minister of refugees Khalil Haqqani. Other ministers including deputy prime Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban, sent their sons to the school or had uncles and fathers who studied there.
And so the history of the seminary is one very much tied to the muddy history of conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that share a 2500km border and countless political, religious and cultural connections.
Pakistani experts told The Independent the school gained prominence in the 1980s when it was backed by western intelligence services who paid for its activities as a useful place to cultivate the mujahideen forces fighting the Soviets next door. The same experts say it was later heavily funded by Saudi Arabia and became tied to the Taliban that emerged in the early 1990s from northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
“I interviewed Sami Ul-Haq [Hamid’s father] several times. He boasted of his connection with Osama Bin Laden at one point,” recalls prominent Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussein, who has written several books about Pakistan’s struggle with militant Islam and its relationship to Afghanistan.
“It can be called an ideological centre for the Taliban on both sides of the border. “
Ahmed Rashid who has written several books about the Taliban said the madrassa was also supported by Pakistan in the early 1990s as a way to combat warlords in lands immediately adjacent in neighbouring Afghanistan who had a stranglehold on key trade routes.
At that point it became “world-famous”.
“Students would come from all over the world. It was their first introduction to jihad,’ he said.
Both experts said despite the connections it has never come to blows with Pakistan’s administrations. Its doors have never been closed even when the government vowed to crack down on unlicensed religious schools after a 2014 massacre of over 100 school children in the nearby city of Peshawar which was claimed by Taliban’s Pakistan branch Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). (The TTP also reportedly have connections to the school).
Instead, in 2018 Pakistani media reported that the local government granted the seminary over 277 million rupees (around £1 million), which Prime Minister Imran Khan said was to assure reforms in the syllabus but critics think might have been politically-motivated.
Ahead of an election, which took place in the same year, Ul-Haq’s father Sami and his JUI-S party briefly entered into a pre-election alliance with the prime minister’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party who sort to broaden his support base.
Fast forward to 2021 and the school has taken centre stage again.
“When the Taliban cabinet was announced I congratulated them via phone and requested them to continue very carefully as the world is watching them,” Hamid Ul-Haq tells The Independent, in his office.
He says he warned the Taliban against the immediate application of the strictest Sharia law punishments (giving the example of lashing women) as it might be deemed to be “a violation of human rights by the west”
He says he hopes the wider government when it is announced will be more inclusive and had women members.
“They must be careful so the struggle should not be wasted,” he adds.
And this is the crux of the issue for neighbouring Pakistan that has a tightrope to walk ahead, as it builds ties with the Afghan Taliban administration while trying to contain a domestic terrorism problem in the form of the linked TTP.
Ul-Haq, who also heads up a platform of nearly 20 religious parties, was among many of Pakistan’s hardline religious figures that cheered on the lightning Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, as a victory over Western imperialism and secularism.
Shortly after the Taliban announced the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan he told his followers in a statement that the Taliban had established “unmatched peace and security in Afghanistan,” and should “inspire” a similar change in Pakistan.
“Yes I hope it will inspire a struggle for a true Islamic system here in Pakistan,” he reiterated to The Independent while adding that the struggle should be “democratic, peaceful”.
“Our constitution says there will be Sharia law and all laws will be made under Quranic law but there are still British laws in our country.”
And so the question is what does this struggle look like in practice for Pakistan?
Senior Pakistani security sources told The Independent they were lobbying the Afghan Taliban to cut off ties, isolate and so ultimately defang the Taliban’s Pakistan branch because of its involvement in terrorist activities. Pakistan’s foreign minister told The Independent that the Taliban has verbally assured Pakistan that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for TTP (or Isis) terror attacks on Pakistani soil. This is particularly urgent after a TTP claimed a suicide bombing in the southwestern town of Quetta just two weeks ago.
Pakistan’s spy chief even flew to Kabul, where this issue was allegedly on top of his agency.
The Independent repeatedly pressed the Haqqania seminary on its exact relationship to the TTP which is banned in Pakistan but received no clear answer.
However the school and Haq have repeatedly denied any involvement in terrorist activity.
There are uncomfortable connections. Police investigating the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said her killers (thought to be members of the Pakistan Taliban) had been briefed about the plan in one of the many departments of the madrasa.
The TTP later nominated Sami Ul-Haq, Hamid’s father, to represent its short-lived peace talks with the government in 2014.
“Thee are so many people who blame us and label us as the university of terror because they are against Islam,” Haq insists.
“By labelling us as a ‘terrorist organisation’ campus they want to scare people off us and Islam.”
He says both the school has played host to the likes of US and Afghan ambassadors as well as the country’s prime minister while his father acted in an important mediating role with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban to bring about reconciliation and peace to the region.
“Until his last breath my father played a peaceful role for the whole of humanity,” Ul-Haq insists, adding that he continues that legacy.
As another supporter sits at his feet and begins massaging his leg, Ul-Haq returns to the subject of Afghanistan. He finishes with a warning.
“The hopes of the western world and all of the world will come true now the Taliban are in power. But they must recognise the Taliban government,” he says.
“If they don’t it means the world wants wars for another four decades.”