Pakistani Taliban has its work cut out
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - Pakistani authorities, having been embarrassed in the past over
false claims, have not yet conclusively stated that Hakeemullah Mehsud, the
leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Taliban Movement of Pakistan),
was killed in a United States drone attack in the South Waziristan tribal area
A senior Pakistani security official has been quoted as saying that Mehsud had
"probably been killed" along with about 12 militants in Shaktoee, a village
close to the border with North Waziristan, but that the matter was being
The intense speculation over the fate of Mehsud, who has a 50 million rupee
(US$600,000) bounty on his head, obscures the broader and more important fact
that the TTP has in recent
months evolved from being a Pakistani-centric outfit into an important
component of al-Qaeda's regional plans.
As a result, its structures have been radically changed and any vacuum left by
the death of Mehsud, if he is indeed dead, will more easily be filled and the
impact of his loss will be far less severe than would have been the case under
the former more rigid and hierarchical TTP.
Mehsud, who is in his late 20s, was appointed head of the TTP in late August
2009 to replace Baitullah Mehsud, who several days earlier had been reported
killed in a drone attack. The TTP at the time denied Baitullah's death, but the
elevation of Hakeemullah appeared to contradict these claims.
On September 5, Pakistan forces claimed they had captured a man who confessed
to killing Hakeemullah, but this proved to be untrue when Hakeemullah
subsequently met some reporters to personally debunk the story. Hakeemullah's
aides still insist that he survived the latest drone attack.
Baitullah Mehsud's death was a pivotal moment for the TTP. In a matter of
months, what had been a tribal outfit allied with the Afghan Taliban became
allied with al-Qaeda and moved from being a Pakistani outfit to becoming an
important component of al-Qaeda's regional plans.
The TTP was created in December 2007 as an umbrella organization for several
pro-Taliban Pakistani militant groups. This is still true, but Baitullah
Mehsud's death and subsequent extensive military operations in South Waziristan
against militants forced the TTP to spread out from its focused base into
several other tribal areas.
At this point, its members became intimately exposed to the organizational
structures of al-Qaeda, and widespread integration followed, including with
al-Qaeda's ideology related to the Takfeeri school of thought, which deems
fellow Muslims of a different strain of Islam to be heretics and therefore open
Al-Qaeda members first moved to Pakistan's tribal areas in numbers following
the ouster of the Taliban by the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in
late 2001. The Pakistani tribal insurgency became closely knitted with al-Qaeda
ideologues. However, the relationship never moved beyond one of coordination.
For instance, the slain Nek Mohammad was financed and trained by al-Qaeda (see
Asia Times Online's series on
Waziristan), and al-Qaeda's group Jundallah carried out attacks on the
Pakistani military in support of tribal insurgents.
Nonetheless, until the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP's ownership was
tightly in the hands of the tribal insurgents. Baitullah even did things that
upset al-Qaeda, but it could not stop him because while Baitullah was
respectful towards al-Qaeda, he was never under its command.
After Baitullah's death, al-Qaeda moved quickly to prevent the installation of
Taliban leader Mullah Omar's favorite, Mufti Waliur Rahman Mehsud, as TTP
chief. Rahman Mehsud, a cleric, was a member of the pro-Pakistani establishment
Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam Fazlur Rahman group.
Instead, Hakeemullah Mehsud, a known hardliner and an ally of the anti-Shi'ite
militant group Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, was promoted from being Baitullah's deputy.
He had proved himself as a powerful commander in Orakzai Agency, Khyber Agency
and Darra Adam Khel in North-West Frontier Province.
Several other Pakistani Taliban commanders had been close to al-Qaeda's ranks,
but Hakeemullah Mehsud was perhaps the first to fully absorb - and spread - the
Takfeeri school of thought. His operations reflected this in that he
increasingly turned his attentions to the cities, where ordinary people became
The attacks included those on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008
(before Mehsud was TTP chief), which killed at least 40 people and wounded
another 200; Moon Market in Lahore last December, where 42 people were killed
and 135 injured; and the Parade Lane Mosque in Rawalpindi, also in December, in
which at least 35 people were killed and dozens injured, including army
officers and their children.
The TTP has brushed aside criticism that civilians are being killed, saying
that they are people who have given up their faith and become supporters of the
American war in the region. This attitude has its roots in the beliefs of the
Takfir wal-Hijra Islamist group, which emerged in Egypt in the 1960s. One of
its tenets is that the ends justify any means and that killing other Muslims
can be justified.
Along with Hakeemullah Mehsud, other hardline commanders emerged, such as the
brutal Qari Hussain Ahmed Mehsud, the chief of suicide bombers. The militants
who had moved from South Waziristan, mainly to North Waziristan and Orakzai
Agency, practically abandoned their "Pakistani" dispensation as they moved
closer to al-Qaeda or its allied groups.
A suicide attack this year on a US Central Intelligence Agency base in Khost
province in Afghanistan, in which several top agents were killed, is an example
in which several North Waziristan-based groups joined hands. These included
al-Qaeda's Lashkar al-Zil (Shadow Army), headed by Ilyas Kashmiri and
Unlike Baitullah Mehsud, Hakeemullah never saw himself as a tribal warlord of
any particular region; he moved around a lot, never staying in one place for
If Hakeemullah is dead, Qari Hussain Ahmed Mehsud, 22, is likely to take over
his position, which is now centered on spreading the Takfeeri ideology and
which calls for attacks from Kabul to Karachi. Qari Hussain has already
personally undertaken such work in Swat and other Pakistani tribal areas.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com