SITTING on the floor of a house on the outskirts of Kabul, the Haqqani network commander sipped green tea as he calmly explained the chaos his organisation set out to cause with an elaborate plot to blow up Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace.
The operation would have begun with an explosion set off in the grounds by a security guard from Karzai’s home village who had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash to betray him, according to Malim Asrallah, 46, a stocky veteran of 30 years of insurgencies.
The blast would have drawn other guards away from their posts on the perimeter of the palace, in the heart of Kabul.
“After he [the guard] had detonated the explosives, eight truck bombs were meant to hit the different entrances to the palace,” Asrallah said.
Small teams of gunmen would then have arrived to finish off the survivors.
If Karzai had escaped the bombings, which were planned to coincide with a cabinet meeting, these gunmen would have killed him and his most senior ministers, Asrallah concluded with a flourish.
In the event, the plot — which had been planned for nine months — was foiled. Two weeks ago, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) arrested six men for their alleged roles. Among them was the director of microbiology at Kabul University, who is accused of recruiting students and other conspirators.
At the time, the NDS said simply that the plan had been to assassinate the president, perhaps on a trip to one of the provinces.
However, The Sunday Times has pieced together information from Afghan intelligence sources, government officials and the Haqqani network itself to establish that the plot was intended not only to destroy the government, but to trigger prolonged ethnic conflict.
Asrallah’s account, which has been corroborated by NDS sources, reveals that the Haqqani network, Afghanistan’s most lethal and sophisticated insurgent group, was planning simultaneous attacks on the ministries of defence and the interior, and on the headquarters of the NDS itself.
The network also planned to assassinate leaders of the Hazara and Tajik communities, including the governor of Balkh province in the north of the country, with the aim of provoking inter-ethnic war, two senior NDS officials said.
The NDS believes that up to 100 people, including government officials, were involved in the conspiracy. Asrallah put the number even higher.
“We have so many contacts,” he said. “We rely on them to get us inside our targets. We are always trying to recruit officials to get us access to important places. Most of the time we pay them. Everyone can be bought in Afghanistan.”
The encounter with Asrallah was set up through an intermediary who meets Haqqani fighters in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, where the network is based.
The Haqqani network acts as a conduit for Arab jihadists intent on fighting western troops in Afghanistan. It bombed the Indian embassy in 2008, killing the defence attaché and 57 others.
The Haqqanis mounted an assault on Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel last June, when a gun battle lasting seven hours left 20 people dead, and in August attacked the British Council compound, where two members of staff were rescued after 10 hours locked in a safe room as the insurgents tried to break in and kill them.
They are also blamed for a lorry bombing that wounded 77 American soldiers at a military base in Wardak province, near the capital, last month.
Arguably the group’s most spectacular attack was an assault on the US embassy and Nato bases in Kabul on September 13. Insurgents stormed a high-rise building in Kabul from which they launched rocket-propelled grenades and fired machineguns at the embassy, while simultaneously attacking police and intelligence installations. Four suicide bombings and 19 hours later, 22 people lay dead.
The plan to assassinate Karzai was of a different order of magnitude, however. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been poured into the operation, according to Asrallah and the two NDS officials.
The NDS said it had seized laptops from conspirators with access to a $150,000 expense account at a Kabul bank. Lutfullah Mashal, an NDS spokesman, said two men based in North Waziristan — an Egyptian named Safiullah and a man from Bangladesh called Abdullah — had recruited the participants.
It was the most audacious operation of Asrallah’s time with the Haqqani network, which was backed by the CIA against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Asrallah recalled with pride how he had fought the Soviets under Jalaluddin Haqqani, the group’s founder and patriarch. Charlie Wilson, the American congressman who channelled millions of dollars to the Haqqanis during the CIA’s covert war to drive out the Soviets, once described Jalaluddin as “goodness personified”.
“Jalaluddin was a superb commander of men,” said Asrallah, who comes from the southeastern province of Khost on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan and is part of the same clan. “He was brilliant at killing Russians.”
Jalaluddin and his sons have long since fallen from grace, ranking among the most wanted insurgent leaders in Afghanistan.
According to Asrallah, most of the Haqqani network’s financial backing these days comes from Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. A senior Afghan intelligence official said it had raised $4m from this year’s haj alone.
The Haqqanis also force road construction companies to pay for protection in areas under their control, killing workers if they refuse. They are believed to smuggle timber and gems out of Afghanistan as well.
Some intelligence officials believe the network extorts money through kidnapping, while others argue that most of its abductions are politically motivated. The Haqqanis hold the only American serviceman in captivity in Afghanistan, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was seized in 2009.
Asrallah said other groups of insurgents including the Taliban, to which the Haqqanis swear allegiance, pay to use their suicide bombers and highly trained shock troops.
Senior US officials have accused Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI), of supporting the Haqqanis despite their links to Al-Qaeda. Admiral Mike Mullen, until recently chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, called them a “veritable arm” of the ISI.
The group claims to have more than 10,000 fighters and to have killed more Americans than the Taliban. “We are better equipped and better supported than the Taliban. We are more powerful,” said Asrallah.
“The Pakistanis are heavily involved in our operations,” he added. “The relationship is good for both sides: we get money, sanctuary and weapons from Pakistan. And the Pakistanis get to attack America and India.”
Pakistan strongly denies these claims but America is fast intensifying its hunt for Haqqani leaders in the Pakistani tribal areas. The Washington Post reported yesterday that President Barack Obama chaired a national security council meeting on September 29 where the possibility was discussed of a ground operation against Haqqani leaders. The option was “left on the table”, the report said.
Last Thursday, American officials announced that a missile fired from a drone over North Waziristan had killed the political deputy of Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin’s son, who runs the network.
The deputy, Jan Baz Zadran, ran the network’s finances and acquisitions of weapons and ammunition. Two other militants were said to have died. Further strikes on Friday left four insurgents dead.
Analysts and western officials believe Pakistan’s support for the Haqqanis stems in part from fear. There is deep concern among Pakistani generals that India, their arch-enemy, will increase its influence in Afghanistan, threatening Pakistan’s power in the region. But the group is also useful because it diverts jihadist fighters away from Pakistan.
From their base in North Waziristan, senior Haqqani leaders also act as mediators, resolving tribal disputes in the area or negotiating with militant groups on behalf of the Pakistani state, the officials say.
Pakistan’s radical madrasahs and the young Arab volunteers who come for jihad ensure that the network has a steady supply of fighters.
“They [Pakistan] want a strong position in the national political game once Nato leaves,” said a security analyst in eastern Afghanistan who monitors Haqqani activities. “They know that if they can hold out long enough then the Americans will come crawling to them and they’ll be able to get something good.”
Tellingly, the Haqqani strongholds of Paktia and Khost will be among the last to be handed over to Afghan security forces before Nato withdraws in 2014.
“They’re the biggest challenge facing us at the moment,” said an American official. “They are the most effective group out there.”
The NDS concedes that it is already stretched to breaking point by the sheer number of threats it has to deal with.
“We’ve got so many operations being planned that it doesn’t matter how many times they catch us — eventually we will be successful,” Asrallah said. “There are still many more attacks to come. You will see.”