‘No longer ‘the University of jihad’ but the University of the Taliban cabinet’: inside Pakistan’s notorious madrasa
“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 to power in neighbouring Afghanistan last month.
Among those with close links to the school, located about 100km from the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan, was 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 for 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 (and 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 position even more, and calls on the west to recognise them in order 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 that more than half a dozen Taliban ministers either attended the madrasa or have sent family members there.
“That means the Taliban think 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.
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 Maulana Hamid Ul-Haq, head of Darul Uloom Haqqania
The day Ul-Haq speaks to The Independent happens to be the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, masterminded by Osama bin Laden, which triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, where Bin Laden was sheltering.
Ul-Haq condemns the horrific attacks, which killed over 2700 people in the States, but claims Osama bin Laden was not responsible for them, saying 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.”
Maulana Hamid Ul-Haq is proud of the connections the Haqqania seminary has with the Taliban (Bel Trew)
The world-infamous madrasa, which 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 assassinated by unknown gunmen in 2018.
Now, twinkling in the sunlight, the new, pink-hued, sprawling campus is home to some 2800 students, the student body now being about half the size it was at its largest.
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 was 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, took 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 $10m American bounty on his head because of his alleged involvement in a 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul, as well as for his ties to al-Qaeda.
Sirajuddin is alleged to have been involved in the 2008 attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul (AFP via Getty)
Ul-Haq confirms that several other ministers studied here, including the Taliban’s minister of education, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, and the minister for refugees, Khalil Haqqani. Other ministers, including deputy prime minister 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 that is 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.
Pakistan 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 when the group 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 with 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, says the madrasa 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 says.
Both experts say that, despite the connections, it has never come to blows with Pakistani 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 schoolchildren in the nearby city of Peshawar, which was claimed by the Taliban’s Pakistan branch, Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). (The TTP also reportedly have connections to the school.)
Instead, in 2018 the Pakistani media reported that the local government had granted the seminary over 277m rupees (around £1m), 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 that 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 in an effort 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 by “the west” to be “a violation of human rights”.
He says he hopes the wider government, when it is announced, will be more inclusive and will have female 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, which 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.
I hope [the Afghan Taliban] will inspire a struggle for a true Islamic system here in Pakistan Maulana Hamid Ul-Haq
Ul-Haq, who also heads up a platform of nearly 20 religious parties, was among the many hardline religious figures in Pakistan who cheered the rapid 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” and “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 this struggle looks 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 had verbally assured Pakistan that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for TTP (or Isis) terror attacks on Pakistani soil. This is particularly urgent after the 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 at the top of his agenda.
The Independent repeatedly pressed the Haqqania seminary on its exact relationship with the TTP, which is banned in Pakistan, but received no clear answer.
However the school, and Ul-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 it in its short-lived peace talks with the government in 2014.
“There are so many people who blame us and label us as the university of terror because they are against Islam,” Ul-Haq insists.
“By labelling us as a ‘terrorist organisation’ campus, they want to scare people off us, and Islam.”
He says the school has played host to the likes of US and Afghan ambassadors, as well as Pakistan’s prime minister, while his father acted in an important mediating role between 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.”