Inside Pakistan’s tribal frontier: North Waziristan

With the news this morning that militants in an area controlled by Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s network in North Waziristan attacked a Pakistani military convoy and killed seven soldiers, Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud, and Brian Fishman look closely at Bahadur’s group. Besides the Haqqanis, Hafiz Gul Bahadur is the most important Pakistani militant leader in ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

With the news this morning that militants in an area controlled by Hafiz Gul Bahadur's network in North Waziristan attacked a Pakistani military convoy and killed seven soldiers, Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud, and Brian Fishman look closely at Bahadur's group.

Besides the Haqqanis, Hafiz Gul Bahadur is the most important Pakistani militant leader in North Waziristan. He is believed to be 45 years old and is from the Mada Khel clan of the Uthmanzai Wazir tribe, which is based in the mountains between Miram Shah and the border with Afghanistan. He is a resident of the village of Lowara and is a descendant of the Faqir of Ipi, a legendary fighter known for his innovative insurrection against British occupation in the 1930s and 1940s.[i] Bahadur is a cleric and studied at a Deobandi madrassa in the Punjabi city of Multan. Bahadur fought in Afghanistan during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and upon returning to North Waziristan became a political activist in the Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazel ur-Rahman), or JUI-F.[ii] He rose to prominence in 2004 following Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan and coordinates closely with the Haqqanis on both strategy and operations in Afghanistan.[iii] Today, Bahadur has more 1,500 armed men under his direct command.

Strategy and Relationships

With the news this morning that militants in an area controlled by Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s network in North Waziristan attacked a Pakistani military convoy and killed seven soldiers, Anand Gopal, Mansur Khan Mahsud, and Brian Fishman look closely at Bahadur’s group.

Besides the Haqqanis, Hafiz Gul Bahadur is the most important Pakistani militant leader in North Waziristan. He is believed to be 45 years old and is from the Mada Khel clan of the Uthmanzai Wazir tribe, which is based in the mountains between Miram Shah and the border with Afghanistan. He is a resident of the village of Lowara and is a descendant of the Faqir of Ipi, a legendary fighter known for his innovative insurrection against British occupation in the 1930s and 1940s.[i] Bahadur is a cleric and studied at a Deobandi madrassa in the Punjabi city of Multan. Bahadur fought in Afghanistan during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and upon returning to North Waziristan became a political activist in the Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazel ur-Rahman), or JUI-F.[ii] He rose to prominence in 2004 following Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan and coordinates closely with the Haqqanis on both strategy and operations in Afghanistan.[iii] Today, Bahadur has more 1,500 armed men under his direct command.

Strategy and Relationships

Bahadur is a strategic pragmatist, maintaining constructive relations with a host of militants in North Waziristan and beyond while avoiding confrontation with the Pakistani state that might initiate a powerful crackdown. He has joined alliances with Baitullah Mehsud and his successors — leaders of the anti-Pakistan TTP — but has carefully refrained from provoking a harsh backlash from the government. Not surprisingly, Bahadur’s tightrope walk carefully parallels that of the Haqqanis, who are favorites of the ISI and with whom he is co-located. Like the Haqqanis, Bahadur focuses his military efforts on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Bahadur’s relationship with Taliban militants in other FATA agencies is complex. Although he led North Waziristan fighters against Pakistani security forces in 2006 and 2008, he also signed two peace agreements with the Pakistani government, then proceeded not to fully implement either.[iv] Bahadur has moved in and out of coalitions with other Pakistani Taliban elements, but has always aimed to maintain productive relationships with them. Most recently, he left a coalition of anti-Pakistan militants in 2009 after the death of Baitullah Mehsud, but still offered safe haven to Mehsud fighters fleeing Pakistani government operations in South Waziristan.

The TTP, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, was formed in December 2007 as a coalition to unite militant groups across the FATA and in settled areas of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)[1].[v] At its formation, Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan was named emir and Bahadur his deputy. The alliance was somewhat surprising because Bahadur maintained a strong relationship with Baitullah’s most important rival from South Waziristan, Mullah Nazir. Moreover, Bahadur was frustrated with Uzbek militants backed by Baitullah, many of whom relocated to areas near Mir Ali in North Waziristan after being evicted from Nazir’s territory in South Waziristan. In addition, although the TTP was founded as an explicitly anti-Pakistan alliance, Bahadur began negotiations with Pakistan almost as soon as the coalition was announced.[vi] Not surprisingly, he did not stay in the TTP very long, leaving in July 2008, whereupon he and Nazir created a separate alliance opposed to Baitullah’s insistence on fighting Pakistani government forces.[vii] Some reports suggest that the Bahadur-Nazir coalition was backed by the Haqqanis as a way to mitigate the power of Baitullah Mehsud.[viii] Yet even the new anti-Mehsud alliance did not last long. In February 2009 — at the prodding of Sirajuddin Haqqani — Baitullah Mehsud, Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur announced the formation of the Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen (SIM), or Council of United Mujahideen.[ix] The SIM was designed to end hostilities among the factions, and reportedly included an agreement that pardoned all parties for past wrongs.[x] The agreement was holding in June 2009 when forces loyal to Bahadur attacked a military convoy in North Waziristan that was supporting Pakistan’s South Waziristan operations against Mehsud.[xi] Such attacks on key logistical routes into South Waziristan severely threaten the viability of Pakistani operations against Mehsud-dominated TTP strongholds because there are very few roads in and out of Mehsud territory. Recent reports suggest, however, that the SIM became defunct after the death of Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009, and there have been no reports of major violence between Bahadur’s forces and Pakistani troops since.[xii]

Bahadur has hedged his bets since the June 2009 convoy attack and seems to have largely allowed Pakistani troops to pass through North Waziristan, while simultaneously offering anti-Pakistan South Waziristan militants safe haven in North Waziristan. It is unclear exactly how Baitullah Mehsud’s death affected relations between Bahadur and the Mehsud elements led by Baitullah. Some sources suggest that the SIM alliance collapsed after Baitullah was killed, while others suggest that his death did not damage relations because Baitullah’s successor and cousin, Hakimullah, is considered close to Bahadur.[xiii] (Hakimullah was believed killed in a January 2010 drone strike, though the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has denied that he is dead.)

Bahadur’s most important commander is Maulana Sadiq Noor of the Daur tribe. Sadiq Noor is around 45 years old and has had close contacts with the Afghan Taliban since 1996, when they formed the government in Afghanistan. Like Bahadur, Sadiq Noor is based near Miram Shah, where he directs the Mamba-ul-Uloom madrassa, originally built by Jalaluddin Haqqani to support the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The madrassa and a neighboring housing complex served as Sadiq Noor’s headquarters until a U.S. drone strike in September 2008.[xiv] Although the strike did not kill Sadiq Noor, there were conflicting reports that either nine of his family members or nine members of the Haqqani family were killed in the attack.[xv] Such confusion is understandable, considering Sadiq Noor’s close connections with both Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani and the shared legacy of the Mamba-ul-Uloom compound. Sadiq Noor has about 800 fighters in his group.

Sadiq Noor’s right-hand man in North Waziristan is Saeed Khan Daur, who plays something of a consigliere role. Saeed Khan is also from Miram Shah. Although he is younger than either Sadiq Noor or Bahadur — he is 33 or 34 years old — Saeed Khan has a university degree and is known as a computer expert. Rumors suggest that his code name is Aryana, but he is rarely seen and avoids the media.[xvi]

Maulana Abdul Khaliq Haqqani is another of Bahadur’s commanders, also of the Daur tribe. He is based in Miram Shah and is reported to have around 500 armed men in his group. Abdul Khaliq follows Bahadur’s delicate balancing act between TTP militants and the Pakistani government. Nonetheless, local actors expect that Abdul Khaliq would support militant resistance to the Pakistani army in the face of a full-scale incursion.[xvii]

Wahidullah Wazir leads a militant group of 200 Wazir tribesmen around Miram Shah. The Wahidullah group is involved in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan, but also conducted operations against the Pakistani military in 2006 and 2008. Similarly, Halim Khan Daur, a 35-year-old militant based near Mir Ali who leads about 150 men, is primarily involved in cross-border attacks on NATO forces, but also actively engaged the Pakistani army in 2006 and 2008.[xviii]

Another Bahadur ally in North Waziristan is Saifullah Wazir, a local Uthmanzai Wazir based near Shawal, a notorious hideout for foreign militants in North Waziristan. He is very close to Bahadur and represented him for the 2006 peace agreement between militants and the Pakistani government. He reportedly has 400 men in his militia, many of whom are active against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He is also known to fight the Pakistani army.[xix]

Anand Gopal is a Kabul-based journalist who has reported for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets on Afghanistan and the insurgency. He is writing a history of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 (Henry Holt). Mansur Khan Mahsud is the research coordinator for the FATA Research Center, an Islamabad-based think tank. He is from the Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan and has worked with several NGOs and news outlets as a researcher. He holds a masters degree in Pakistan studies from the University of Peshawar. Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. This is excerpted from a longer Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative research paper on militancy in North Waziristan, part of the New America Foundation’s "Battle for Pakistan" series.



[1] The NWFP is being renamed "Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa."



[i] Sadi Suleiman, "Hafez Gul Bahadur: A Profile of the Leader of the North Waziristan Militants," Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, April 10, 2009, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=34839&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=412&no_cache=1

[ii] Nadeem Yaqoub, "Islamists cut cable TV," Asia Times, June 27, 2000, http://www.atimes.com/ind-pak/BF27Df02.html

[iii] Imtiaz Gul, The Most Dangerous Place, Viking, New York 2010 (forthcoming)

[iv] Charlie Szrom, The Survivalist of North Waziristan: Hafez Gul Bahadur Biography and Analysis, August 6, 2009, http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/survivalist-north-waziristan-Hafez-gul-bahadur-biography-and-analysis#_edn5

[v] Amir Mir, "The swelling force of extremism," The News International, March 22, 2009, http://jang.com.pk/thenews/mar2009-weekly/nos-22-03-2009/enc.htm#1

[vi] Abbas, Hassan, "A Profile of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan," CTC Sentinel 1, no. 2 (January 2008): 1-4, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/CTC%20Sentinel%20-%20Profile%20of%20Tehrik-i-Taliban%20Pakistan.pdf

[vii] "Mehsud Challenged by New Militant Bloc," The Daily Times, July 2, 2008, http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008/07/02/story_2-7-2008_pg1_4

[viii] Imtiaz Gul, The Most Dangerous Place Viking, New York 2010 (forthcoming)

[ix] Yousaf Ali, "Taliban form new alliance in Waziristan," The News International, February 23, 2009, http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=20512

[x] Mushtaq Yusufzai, "Top militant commanders resolve rift," The News International, February 21, 2009, http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=20477

[xi] Rahimullah Yusufzai, "Army Facing Tough Choice After NWA Ambush," The News International, June 30, 2009, http://thenews.jang.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=23011

[xii] Sailab Mehsud, "Army embarks on Rah-i-Nijat finally," Dawn, October 18, 2009, http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/07-curfew-imposed-in-south-waziristan-ahead-of-operation-ha-01

[xiii] Sailab Mahsud (journalist with the Fata Research Center), interview, November 22, 2009, Dera Ismail Khan.

[xiv] Shamim Shadid, "US Drones Bomb Madrassa in NW," The Nation, September 9, 2008, http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/Politics/09-Sep-2008/US-drones-bomb-madrassa-in-NW

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Sailab Mahsud (researcher with the Fata Research Center), interview, November 22, 2009, Dera Ismail Khan.

[xvii] Sailab Mahsud (researcher with the Fata Research Center), interview, November 22, 2009, Dera Ismail Khan.

[xviii] Sailab Mahsud (researcher with the Fata Research Center), interview, November 22, 2009, Dera Ismail Khan.

[xix] Sailab Mahsud (researcher with the Fata Research Center), interview, November 22, 2009, Dera Ismail Khan.

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