The South Asia Channel
The new face of the TTP
This exclusive photograph was taken by Daud Khattak and a colleague in Orakzai in 2008. Hakimullah Mehsud is sitting in the center. By Daud Khattak In a surprise move, the self-proclaimed interim chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announced the appointment of Hakimullah Mehsud as the new head of the militia, though spokesman Maulvi Faqir ...
This exclusive photograph was taken by Daud Khattak and a colleague in Orakzai in 2008. Hakimullah Mehsud is sitting in the center.
By Daud Khattak
In a surprise move, the self-proclaimed interim chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announced the appointment of Hakimullah Mehsud as the new head of the militia, though spokesman Maulvi Faqir Muhammad denied the death of the former TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud in the August 5 missile attack by a U.S. aircraft in South Waziristan.
The Bajaur-based Faqir, who was a deputy of the late Baitullah, announced Hakimullah as the new leader on his illegal FM channel on Saturday, although Faqir had declared himself as the interim head of the organization just a few days before, appointing the Swat-based Muslim Khan as his central spokesman.
Faqir said, “Our 22-member shura met in Orakzai Agency for two days and announced Hakimullah as its head and Tariq Azam as the new central spokesman.”
Since reports of Baitullah’s death in early August, rumors of infighting among the TTP, once run by Baitullah’s iron fist, have plagued the militant organization, and Saturday’s declaration has further increased speculation about serious rifts among different factions of the Taliban.
Commanders like Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and Haji Turkistan Betani had already distanced themselves from the Baitullah-led TTP. It now seems a group supporting Wali ur-Rehman, a senior commander and close confidante of Baitullah, whose name has also been in the running to succeed him, is also sidelining itself following the appointment of Hakimullah as the new head of the Pakistani Taliban.
Hakimullah himself has not made any comments about Faqir Muhammad’s announcement, fueling rumors that he was killed in a clash during a Taliban shura by men of rival commander Wali ur-Rehman shortly after the death of Baitullah.
Just a day before the announcement of Hakimullah as TTP chief by Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, some Taliban sources told me that the Taliban wanted to change the name of their organization from “TTP.” Observers believe that Faqir announced Hakimullah as the new Taliban chief under pressure from the Waziristan-based Taliban, who are the strongest of the Taliban factions, and are unwilling to surrender the leadership — or naming rights — of the TTP to anyone from outside their region.
Indeed, Hakimullah’s second name, by which many Taliban know him, is Zulfiqar Mehsud. He belongs to the same tribe, Mehsud, to which Baitullah belonged. Since it is the largest tribe in Waziristan and contributes the largest number of fighters to the TTP, Mehsud tribesmen believe continued leadership of the group is their right.
And although Maulvi Faqir Muhammad said that Taliban commanders Maulvi Nazeer of North Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadar of South Waziristan approved the appointment of Hakimullah Mehsud as the TTP chief, the two militants, who never truly subdued to Baitullah’s rule, have not affirmed their support for him.
Unlike Baitullah, Hakimullah Mehsud wants his cheerful face captured on camera and performed some outrageous maneuvers to get it there, including driving a stolen NATO Humvee and firing a heavy machine gun in front of cameras when he invited a group of journalists to the tribal agency of Orakzai last year. This stunt made him a real hero for the Taliban and inspired many fresh young people in the tribal regions to join his forces.
Unlike other Taliban leaders, Hakimullah Mehsud often smiles and is one of the youngest commanders of Taliban (there are differing views about his age; some say he is 28 while others think he’s in his early thirties).
Hakimullah is considered by his Taliban colleagues as one of the boldest commanders in the militant organization, partly explaining why he was so close to Baitullah. Additionally, he has personal relationships with both Baitullah and the master trainer of child suicide bombers, Qari Hussain. Hakimullah once served as a driver to Baitullah, was later promoted to head of the Taliban in Orakzai, and became a key aide to the erstwhile TTP leader.
Last year, Hakimullah’s daring attacks on NATO supply trucks in Khyber Agency and looting of goods and food destined for NATO troops in Afghanistan catapulted him to fame among the ranks of Taliban.
When reports about the death of Baitullah Mehsud started coming in, Hakimullah was the head of the Taliban in Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber and the outskirts of Peshawar. It was Hakimullah who had claimed responsibility for destroying nearly 600 NATO vehicles destined for Afghanistan in attacks on freight terminals on the outskirts of Peshawar last year and early this year.
It was also Hakimullah who declared sharia in Orakzai Agency in December 2008. He was in the newspaper headlines once more when he imposed Jizia (a tax) on members of Sikh and Hindu communities living in Orakzai and Khyber. Several Sikh and Hindu families fled the area because they were unable to pay this tax to the Taliban, who said it was mandatory for non-Muslims living in an Islamic state to pay Jizia to the Muslims in exchange for providing them safety of their lives and property.
Besides almost cutting the NATO forces key supply line to Afghanistan in Khyber Agency, Hakimullah has claimed responsibility for several suicide attacks in Peshawar and the attack on the police academy in Lahore, in Pakistan.
Daud Khattak is a correspondent for the Pakistani newspaper The News International.
Daud Khattak is a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1