Drone death would hit Pakistani Taliban hard
By Abubakar Siddique
The death of a key Pakistani Taliban commander tied to high-profile terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be a major blow to the extremist movement's operations.
Wali-ur Rehman Mehsud, the deputy commander of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is believed to have been killed in a drone strike carried out by the United States in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan in the early hours of May 29. RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported Mehsud's killing in the village of Chashmapul, North Waziristan, based on local and TTP sources. Mehsud was
second in command to TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud.
Mehsud's death and the reported deaths of up to five other militants in the strike have not been officially confirmed by the TTP or the Pakistani government. If true, the TTP would be deprived of a key strategist and operative capable of navigating Pakistani politics, raising funds, and carrying out major attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.
Rehman was the alleged mastermind of the September 2008 attack on the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, in which more than 50 people were killed. He was also linked to the December 2009 attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan in which seven CIA employees were killed.
In 2010 the US government, noting his attacks against US personnel, offered rewards of up to US$5 million for information identifying his location.
The 42-year-old was among a handful of TTP leaders with formal religious credentials and, as a former member of the prominent Islamist party Jamiat-e Ulam-e Islam, was seen as having political influence.
A revered figure
Retired Pakistani Brigadier-General Mehmood Shah followed Rehman's ascendancy within the TTP's hierarchy. He notes that TTP members referred to Rehman as "Maulvi" and "Mufti" - titles bestowed because of his religious education and authority.
"His loss means that the Taliban have lost a key symbolic figure whose understanding of religious issues was very important," Shah says. "Now they don't have anyone among their ranks that they can turn to to interpret complex issues of Islamic jurisprudence."
RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Sailab Mehsud says Rehman was revered among the ranks of the TTP because of his close association with the group's founder, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in 2009.
Rehman was a native of Waziristan and came from the Mehsud tribe that inhabits the South Waziristan tribal district.
According to Mehsud, Rehman was a relatively mature figure in an organization mostly made up of young fighters. This gave him the authority and clout to resolve differences within the TTP's ranks.
"It is possible that his death will fan the differences among various Taliban factions," he says. "This is because his faction within the ... [TTP] seems to have no figure capable of checking and controlling their differences and dealings with other Taliban groups."
Strong tensions developed between Rehman and current TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in 2009 over the group's leadership. But the two reportedly resolved their differences and were seen as having an amicable working relationship.
Mehsud maintains that Rehman's killing would hit the Taliban coffers hard. He says that Rehman raised finances for the TTP through a large and influential gang in the southern Pakistani seaport city of Karachi. Mehsud says the group specialized in carrying out bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom, and the money gained from those activities were used to fund TTP attacks.
Looking at the immediate effects of Rehman's death, Mehsud singles out the ongoing efforts to initiate negotiations with the TTP, which has waged a long insurgency against the Pakistani government. The incoming Pakistani federal government and the provincial government of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where the TTP is highly active, have both expressed their intention to initiate talks with the TTP.
Mehsud says such initiatives would face difficulties in the absence of Rehman, whose former membership in Jamiat-e Ulam-e Islam provided a bridge between the militant group and the political scenes in Islamabad as well as in provincial and tribal regions.
The party has a strong support base in the tribal areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the southwestern Balochistan Province. It recently won many seats from these areas and emerged as the second-largest party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Retired general Shah, who has extensive experience in dealing with the Taliban in the tribal areas, offers a counter opinion. He believes the absence of a key figure such as Rehman could push the TTP to the negotiating table.
"If the [TTP] sense they have been substantially weakened by this killing, it might prompt them to look at negotiations favorably," he says. "This would be a positive result of his killing."