Where was Faisal Shahzad?
As the Los Angeles Times reports that failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad met Omar Khalid, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in Mohmand, one of Pakistan’s tribal regions, journalist Raza Khan profiles the militant chief and his faction. Omar Khalid, whose real name is Abdul Wali, is a resident of the town of Qandharo, ...
As the Los Angeles Times reports that failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad met Omar Khalid, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in Mohmand, one of Pakistan’s tribal regions, journalist Raza Khan profiles the militant chief and his faction.
Omar Khalid, whose real name is Abdul Wali, is a resident of the town of Qandharo, and he belongs to the Qandhari section of the Safi tribe that lives in Mohmand. The Safis consider themselves to be part of the Mohmand tribe, but other Mohmands do not believe that the Safis have the same origins and generally consider them to be more religiously conservative than other sub-tribes. The region also has fewer Safis than other Mohmand sub-tribes. Most important, however, the Safis are considered by other Mohmand tribal members to be the last converts to Islam among the area’s tribes.[i]
Khalid, who is now in his thirties, received his education in his village. As a youth, he worked with the banned Harakat-ul-Mujahidin, or Movement of Holy Warriors, a militant group dedicated to fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. During the 1990s, he traveled to Kashmir rather than join the Taliban in fighting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.[ii] His activities in Kashmir are unknown, possibly because militants use code names to operate across the border. Nonetheless, Khalid seems to have had stronger connections with Kashmiri jihadi groups than with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. He did, however, lead hundreds of his tribal fighters back to Afghanistan after 9/11 to fight beside the Taliban.[iii]
Although Khalid’s campaign is reminiscent of Sufi Muhammad’s nearby movement, which was organized at the same time, Omar Khalid adroitly used the Lal Masjid episode in July 2007 to achieve his long-standing ambition to become a militant commander.[iv] At that time, he denied having any link to the Taliban or to al-Qaeda, but declared, "If [the Taliban] come[s] to us, we will welcome them. We will continue Ghazi Abdur Rashid’s [the Lal Masjid’s imam] mission even if it means sacrificing our lives."[v]
Khalid did not seize control of the Mohmand Taliban without a fight. He had to eliminate a rival faction led by a man named Shah Sahib.[vi] Shah Sahib was a Salafi associated with the mainstream political group Markaz-e-Jamiat-e-Ahl-e Hadith, which complained that Omar Khalid’s Taliban faction sanctioned the intentional killing of civilians.[vii] Until the rise of Omar Khalid after the Lal Masjid incident, Shah Sahib’s militant group was the largest in Mohmand and directed all of its energy into anti-U.S. and anti-NATO violence in Afghanistan. The group reportedly included at least some fighters from the Kashmiri jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Despite mediation by Ustad Yasir, a commander loyal to Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, Omar Khalid attacked the Shah Sahib group repeatedly in 2008.[viii] Shah Sahib was killed in that fighting, which largely eliminated his organization as a composed fighting force.[ix] Occasional attempts to resurrect it have been unsuccessful.[x] Omar Khalid’s elimination of Shah Sahib is notable because TTP amir Baitullah Mehsud opposed such clashes and was attempting to eliminate fighting between Taliban groups.[xi]
Qari Shakeel and Asad Sayeed
Omar Khalid’s two most important sub-commanders are Qari Shakeel and Asad Sayeed. Qari Shakeel is from the Michini area of Mohmand, close to Peshawar, and he reportedly is a former criminal. Asad Sayeed, who earned a degree in medicine from Khyber Medical College in Peshawar, is a rigid ideologue who ascribes to al-Qaeda’s takfiri ideology.[xii]
Taliban Strength in Mohmand
Omar Khalid claims that he has the backing of about 2,500 militants, but his forces seem to lack popular support in Mohmand.[xiii] Nonetheless, the lack of organized opposition has enabled Omar Khalid’s group to grow more powerful. Omar Khalid has a significant presence throughout Mohmand, and it controls three of its seven tehsils: Khawezai-Baizai, Lakaro, and Ambar. These areas are remote, but Lakaro and Ambar are close to the Afghan border. Lakaro is also a stronghold for the Safi tribe and abuts Bajaur agency, another Taliban stronghold in the tribal areas.[xiv]
The Taliban’s assault on tribal groups has prompted a backlash from them, some of whom have formed lashkars (militias) to fight the insurgents. Although many lashkar leaders have been killed, this local resistance still has been more effective than Pakistani military operations.[xv] On August 17, 2009, for example, Mohmand lashkars captured Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Mullah Muhammad Umar, who joined Sufi Muhammad’s group in 1994 and became the face of the TTP. Before his capture, Umar was in constant contact with the media to ensure that the Taliban got credit for conducting various large-scale attacks inside Pakistan.[xvi]
Quetta Shura Taliban
Mullah Omar remains an important point of inspiration for the militants in Mohmand, but they do not accept operational direction from the Taliban leader and use some controversial tactics frowned upon by Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura. Mohmand’s militants often say that Mullah Omar is their supreme leader, and they clearly see themselves as part of a political and religious movement that he leads. Nonetheless, Mullah Omar does not have operational control over militants in Mohmand.[xvii] Indeed, the murderous attacks on civilians and beheadings employed by militants in Mohmand depart from the model set by the Quetta Shura.[xviii] One reason is that Quetta is more than 850 miles from Mohmand. Without modern command and control infrastructure, it is difficult for the Quetta Shura to direct militants in Mohmand. The Mohmand Taliban do get some support from Qari Zia ur-Rahman, a Taliban leader in Afghanistan.[xix]
Hizb-e Islami Gulbuddin
Neither do the Mohmand Taliban have direct operational links with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami Group (HIG), which is active Kunar, Nangarhar, and Kapisa, Afghan provinces neighboring Mohmand.[xx] Hekmatyar abhors the gruesome tactics and exclusivity of the more extreme Taliban groups like those in Mohmand, recently writing a pamphlet rhetorically asking whether he should become a Wahhabi or remain a religious person.[xxi] In the pamphlet, which was released just weeks before HIG representatives began a round of negotiations with the Afghan government in early 2010, Hekmatyar claimed militancy in the region was being carried out by Salafis supported by elements of the Saudi government, various Arab charity organizations, and some sections of Pakistan’s intelligence services. Hekmatyar may be posturing to demonstrate that he is a reliable Afghan politician, and not beholden to al-Qaeda and other hardline movements.
People in remote parts of Mohmand have reported seeing scores of non-Pakistani militants accompanying the local Taliban militants, but the number and exact locations of these foreign militants has not been ascertained because they usually were seen while on the move and in small bands.[xxii] On Jan. 11, 2009, however, about 600 heavily armed foreign and local militants attacked the Frontier Corps check posts in the Mamad Gat, Sagi, and Lakaro areas. In all-night fighting, at least 10 Frontier Corps personnel were killed along with a reported 40 militants.[xxiii] Most of the militants came from the Afghan side of the border and were joined by local Taliban fighters. The combined force of insurgents later attacked a Frontier Corps base near the border.[xxiv]
Al-Qaeda leaders have also used Mohmand as a safe haven, though it does not appear to be a major stronghold for foreign militants. In September 2008 Rehman Malik, the interior security adviser to the Pakistani prime minister (and now interior minister) revealed that al-Qaeda deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri had barely escaped military action in the Mohmand Agency.[xxv]
Raza Khan, a Pashtun journalist, is working on his doctoral thesis at the University of Peshawar. He has served in several senior positions in Pakistani government ministries. This is excerpted from a longer research paper, part of the New America Foundation’s "Battle for Pakistan" series, on militancy in Mohmand.
[i] Caroe, Olaf. The Pathans (Oxford University Press: Karachi) 1958, p. 362.
[ii] Imtiaz Ali, "Taliban Find Fertile New Ground in Pakistan," Asia Times, Jan. 30, 2008.
[iv] Discussion with Shakoor Safi and Fauzee Khan (February 2010; November 2009, Peshawar).
[v] Shams Mohmand, "Mohmand ‘Lal Masjid’ Offers Talks," Dawn, July 31, 2007.
[vi] Shah Sahib is identified in some sources as Shah Khalid.
[vii] Rahimullah Yusufzai, "A Who’s Who of the Insurgency in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province: Part Two-FATA Excluding the Waziristans," Terrorism Monitor, March 3, 2009.
[viii] Mushtaq Yusufzai "50 Killed as Two Militant Groups Clash in Mohmand," The News, July 19, 2008.
[ix] Rahimullah Yusufzai "A Who’s Who of the Insurgency in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province" Jamestown Foundation September 22, 2008
[x] Noor Mohmand "19 Dead as Guns Blaze" The Nation August 10, 2009
[xi] Rahimullah Yusufzai "A Who’s Who of the Insurgency in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province"
[xii] Interview with Shakoor Safi, a doctoral candidate at the University of Peshawar who is researching alien, particularly Arab, influences on Pashtun culture since the Afghan jihad began. Safi belongs to Safi tribe and comes from the Mohmand area (February 2010, Peshawar).
[xiii] Information provided by Mohmand-based journalist Fauzee Khan citing statements made by Taliban commanders in local gatherings and the estimates of local experts about the strength of the Taliban.
[xiv] Discussion with Shakoor Safi and Fauzee Khan.
[xv] Fauzee Khan Muhammad, "Mohmand Lashkar Kills 23 Taliban Militants," Dawn, July 14, 2009.
[xvi] Fauzee Khan Muhammad, "TTP’s Chief Spokesman Captured," Dawn, Aug. 18, 2009.
[xvii] Author interview with Shakoor Safi on April 09, 2010, Peshawar
[xviii] Author interview with Shakoor Safi on April 09, 2010, Peshawar
[xix] Author interview with Shakoor Safi on April 09, 2010, Peshawar
[xx] Author interview with Dr Nasreen Ghufran, who teaches at University of Peshawar, on April 09, 2010
[xxi] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar "Wahabi Sham Ko Mazhabi Patay Sham (Should I Become a Wahabbi or Remain a Religious Person)"
[xxii] Interview with Fauzee Khan Mohmand (April 2010, Peshawar).
[xxiii] Correspondent report, "40 Militants, Six Soldiers Killed in Mohmand," The News, Jan. 12, 2009.
[xxiv] Agence France Presse, Jan. 12, 2009.
[xxv] "We Lost the Chance to Nab Ayman Al-Zawahiri," Daily Nawa-i-Waqt, Pakistan, Sept. 10, 2008.
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