KABUL, Afghanistan - The son of the founder of the powerful Haqqani network was been killed in an airstrike in Pakistan, Afghanistan's intelligence agency said Sunday, providing the first public confirmation of rumors that have been swirling for days about the key member of a militant group the U.S. considers one of the most dangerous in the region.
The Taliban rejected reports of Badruddin Haqqani's death, however, saying that he was alive and well in Afghanistan.
Haqqani's death would be a serious blow to the organization founded by his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani. The group, which has ties to both the Taliban and al-Qaida, has been blamed for a series of high-profile attacks and kidnappings in Afghanistan, particularly in and around the capital city of Kabul, and poses perhaps the biggest threat to stability in the country.
Shafiqullah Tahiri, the spokesman for Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security intelligence agency, said Haqqani was killed last week in an airstrike in Pakistan. He did not provide any further details, and would not say what information the agency's operatives were basing their conclusion on.
U.S. officials have declined comment on the reports.
But Tahiri's account is similar to one provided Saturday by a senior Taliban leader who said Haqqani was killed in a drone strike. It also hews closely to a version provided by Pakistani officials who said Saturday that they were 90 percent sure the militant commander was killed in a missile attack Tuesday in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region.
The Taliban, who are closely allied with the Haqqani network, rejected all reports of Haqqani's death.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said Haqqani is alive and in good health in Afghanistan.
"A number of media have reported that Badruddin Haqqani has been killed. We would like to inform all media that this rumor is not correct," Mujahid said in the email to reporters late Saturday. "Badruddin Haqqani is in the country and is occupied with his operational responsibilities. He is alive and healthy. The rumor about him being killed is more propaganda of the enemy."
In a telephone call with The Associated Press on Sunday Mujahid again maintained that Haqqani was alive.
The territory where the American drone strikes generally occur are in Pakistan's remote and dangerous tribal regions, making it difficult for reporters or others to verify a particular person's death. And the U.S. does not comment publicly on its drone program, which is widely reviled by the Pakistani public and has been a source of tension with Islamabad.
The al-Qaida-allied Haqqani tribe runs a mafia-like smuggling operation and occasionally turns to terrorism with the aim of controlling its territory in eastern Afghanistan. The Haqqanis use Pakistani towns to plan, train and arm themselves with guns and explosives, cross into Afghanistan to attack NATO and Afghan forces, then retreat back across the border to safety.
Badruddin is considered a vital part of the Haqqani structure and is believed to have played an active role in kidnappings, extortion and high-profile operations in Afghanistan. Tahiri said that Haqqani's responsibilities included arranging foreign suicide bombers, maintaining relations with other insurgent groups, recruiting Pakistani Taliban fighters for the Haqqani group and overseeing operations in southeastern Afghanistan and in Kabul.
"He was the mastermind of the organized suicide attacks in Kabul," Tahiri said, referring to a number of high-profile strikes in the Afghan capital targeting everything from hotels to Western embassies. Every time there has been a highly complex attack in Kabul involving coordination between multiple insurgents, American officials have pointed the finger at the Haqqanis.
In the latest such attack in June, gunmen stormed a lakeside hotel outside of Kabul and opened fire on Afghans having dinner, killing 18 people. The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan quickly attributed the attack to the Haqqani network, which has long operated as a sort of arm of the Taliban in the eastern part of the country.
Still, there are likely people waiting in the wings to replace Badruddin, said former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, now an opposition leader.
"They are going to find another person to replace him. What I know is that his elder brother, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is playing a larger role in the Haqqani network," Saleh said in an interview on Afghanistan's Tolo television. He said until the group's ability to operate across Afghanistan and Pakistan is limited, "killing their commanders or leaders will have its effect, but not that large of an effect."
The U.S. State Department has designated Badruddin, along with his father and brothers - Nasiruddin and Sirajuddin - as terrorists. The State Department said in May 2011 that Badruddin sits on the Miram Shah Shura, a group that controls all Haqqani network activities and coordinates attacks in southeastern Afghanistan.
Badruddin is also believed to have been responsible for the 2008 kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde, the department said.
After their father effectively retired in 2005, Badruddin and his brother Sirajuddin expanded the network into kidnapping and extortion, both highly profitable for the organization, according to a recent report by the West Point, N.Y.-based Combating Terrorism Center. Afghan intelligence authorities have released intercepts of Badruddin orchestrating an attack against the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul in 2011, the CTC said.
The U.S. has long viewed the Haqqani network as one of the biggest threats to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as the country's long term stability. The group has shown little interest in negotiating with the Washington, and has pulled off some of the highest-profile and most complex attacks in Afghanistan, although not necessarily the most deadly.