Veteran jihadi Qari Saif ullah Akhter’s death : a big victory of Afghan security forces
Dr Farhan Zahid
Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).
In the first week of January, the Afghan Security forces killed Qari Saif ullah Akhter in a gun-battle in Birmil area of Paktika province, while he was fighting alongside Afghan Taliban. Death of Qari Saif in Afghanistan is indeed a severe blow to his jihadi organization Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI) in particular and jihadi movements in South Asia in general.
Akhter was a veteran jihadi who started his career from early days of Afghan War (1979-89) immediately after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. HuJi came into being in 1983 with the efforts of Maulana Irshad Ahmad, Qari Saif ullah Akhter and Fazal ur Rehman Khalil establishing the organization in support of Afghan Mujahedeen. Akhter was a graduate of Binori Town madrasa in Karachi, known for producing jihadi commanders, where he studied under the guidance of jihadi ideologue Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai.
HuJI’s branches were established in India, Burma and Bangladesh after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989; HuJI turned its attention to Indian Kashmir Islamist insurgency. Establishment of HuJI was the very step towards of local Pakistani (especially ethnic Punjabis) joining the Afghan War against the Soviet and Afghan forces. Previously most of Afghan Mujahedeen commanders were either Afghans or Pashtuns from Pakistan. HuJI had its origins from Deobandi seminary Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia Banori Town in Karachi where chief cleric Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai openly professed jihad against the Soviets in 1980.
After the death of Irshad Ahmed, while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in 1985, Akhter took over HuJI. He turned the organization’s structure and made its regional franchises within years. Fazal ur Rehman Khalil left to form its own organization, Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM). Khalil took oath with Osama Bin Laden in 1998 when Laden proclaimed his Fatwa against ‘Jews and Crusaders’ and declared war against the west and America.
Qari Saif was also part of the attempted coup against the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995. In collusion with renegade Islamist generals Zaheer ul Islam Abbasi and Mostansir Billah, he joined hands to topple the Bhutto government, though all of them were arrested even before they launched their operation (aka Operation Khilafat) and declared Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan as per the intended plan. Qari became state witness and somehow managed to avert the punishment. His next venture was aligning his organization with Afghan Taliban in 1996, right after the takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban militia. During Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (1996-2001) Qari Saif served as close advisor to Taliban Supreme leader Mullah Omar and also worked as a judge. His fighters who came along him to Afghanistan in order to work with Afghan Taliban were called ‘Punjabi Taliban’.
Slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her autobiography accused Lt General (retired) Hamid Gul of hiring Akhter and HuJi to assassinate her. She accused Akhter and his organization HuJI for attempting to launch a coup in 1995 in collusion with Islamist generals, and also accused him for suicide attack against her procession in October 2007. 
Amir Rana also highlighted the role of HuJI in bringing about violent Islamic revolution in Pakistan in his book on Pakistani radical Islamist jihadist groups, “Harkatul Jehadul Islami has tried many times to bring about a revolution in Pakistan. In 1995, when Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi and Brigadier Munstansir Billah planned a mutiny against GHQ (General Headquarters of Pakistan Army located in Rawalpindi, 20 kilometers from capital Islamabad) Qari Saifullah Akhter, the amir of HuJI (then part of Harkatul Ansar), was part of the plan and was supposed to help with manpower and funds.” 
Veteran Pakistani journalist Khaled Ahmed describes HuJI as the most lethal Islamist terrorist group whose leader had close relations with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and at times acted as his advisor and right hand man. Akhter because of his Afghan War era relations with Al-Qaeda played a pivotal role in bringing Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership close to each other and in developing strong ties between the two. Ahmed further said, “Three Taliban ministers and 22 judges belonged to the Harkat. In difficult times, the Harkat fighters stood together with Mulla Umar. Approximately 300 of them were killed fighting the Northern Alliance, after which Mulla Umar was pleased to give Harkat the permission to build six more maskars in Kandahar, Kabul and Khost, where the Taliban army and police also received military training. From its base in Afghanistan, Harkat launched its campaigns inside Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya.” 
Scores of HuJI activists lost their lives while fighting against Northern Alliance during Taliban regime, clearly stating its affiliation with Al-Qaeda. It was Al-Qaeda during 1996-2001 periods that provided a separate battalion of non-Afghans under ‘Brigade-055′ that fought alongside Taliban forces at northern fronts. 
Death of veteran Mujahedeen leader Qari Saif ullah Akhter is indeed a big blow for militant Islamist movements in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Akhter had the charisma and acceptance on both sides of the border and his organization had branches in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma. He was close to Al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Punjabi Taliban groups in Pakistan. At times, he used his influence to reconcile warring factions, and resolved disputes among the Taliban groups. He was one of the few jihadi leaders acknowledged for his experiences and repute in the whole region. He was 57 years old and perhaps visiting Afghanistan to resolve some disputes between Taliban groups at fighting against the Afghan security forces. On the other hand Akhter’s killing is a big victory for Afghan security forces as his stay in Afghanistan might have ushered in more troubles.
-  Khaled Ahmed, “Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its Links to the Middle East”, Oxford University Press, 2011, p.134
-  For more details, see autobiography of Benazir Bhutto, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, Harper Perennial, New York, 2008
-  Rana: A to Z of Jihadi Organizations in Pakistan, p.272
-  Khalid Ahmed, The biggest militia we know nothing about, The Friday Times, Lahore, May, 20, 2002
-  For more details about Al-Qaeda’s Brigade-055 see Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The World’s Most Unstable Region and Threat to Global Security, Penguin Books, London, 2007