Pakistani Taliban Tears Itself Apart
Two high-profile killings within a 10-day span in Pakistan in November, followed by a U.S. drone strike at a Haqqani-run seminary (interestingly another 10 days later), have exposed the cracks and suspicions running between militant networks with strongholds in the Pakistani tribal areas. On Nov. 1, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), ...
Two high-profile killings within a 10-day span in Pakistan in November, followed by a U.S. drone strike at a Haqqani-run seminary (interestingly another 10 days later), have exposed the cracks and suspicions running between militant networks with strongholds in the Pakistani tribal areas.
On Nov. 1, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Mehsud’s death was shortly followed by the assassination of Nasiruddin Haqqani, a Haqqani network leader who was on the U.S. list of global terrorists, by unknown gunmen. The shooting occurred in close proximity to the highly guarded Pakistani capital on Nov. 11, and while the Pakistani authorities expressed anger over the strike that killed Mehsud, they remained mysteriously tight-lipped over Haqqani’s death, despite the fact that he was considered to be the group’s chief financier. Then, on Nov. 21, another drone strike at a seminary in Hangu, a settled district in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killed five Haqqani network members, including Maulvi Ahmad Jan, a close aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the group’s operational commander.
Though the differences among the various militant groups hiding in the Waziristan tribal region were not a well-kept secret, Mehsud’s death in Danday Darpa Khel, an area believed to be the stronghold of the Haqqani network and affiliated militants, followed by Haqqani’s killing, has deepened suspicions among the leadership of the two militant organizations and seems to have ruptured any semblance of alliance or goodwill between them. The incidents have also widened the internal differences of the TTP, highlighting the power struggle between Mehsud and non-Mehsud supporters.
A source from Waziristan said that the TTP leadership suspected the Haqqani network of providing information to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) on Mehsud’s presence in Danday Darpa Khel. Other sources confirmed this, noting that Mehsud was not happy with the Haqqani network’s ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services and suspected its leaders were passing information to the government.
Likewise, the TTP emerged as the prime suspect in Haqqani’s death, at least in the minds of most network members, despite some accounts that placed blame on tribal and familial feuds between the group’s fighters. The TTP, however, denied any involvement and accused the ISI of killing the younger Haqqani. Not surprising, considering that it was the TTP’s hatred of the Pakistani government and its security agencies that sidelined Punjabi Taliban leader Asmatullah Muawiya when he welcomed the government’s offer for peace talks.
TTP’s Internal Rifts
Well before the deaths of Wali-ur Rehman — Hakimullah’s deputy who was killed in a drone strike in May — and Hakimullah, loyalists of the two top TTP leaders were engaged in a turf war in Pakistan’s commercial capital of Karachi over the collection of extortion money. Prior to that, rifts emerged when Hakimullah was chosen over Wali-ur Rehman to lead the TTP after the death of Baitullah Mehsud in 2009. There are even reports that Wali-ur Rehman was killed after a tip about his location was provided to the ISI by Hakimullah’s supporters, and that Hakimullah himself was targeted on the basis of intelligence shared by the TTP-affiliated Roshan Wazir Group.
Then, on Nov. 20, a suicide bomber believed to have been part of a splinter faction of the TTP killed seven Taliban fighters in the Mir Ali section of North Waziristan. The slain Taliban members included Saifuddin, a commander who was said to be a loyalist of Khan Said Sajna, Wali-ur Rehman’s successor.
Earlier, visible differences emerged when Sajna was appointed as Wali-ur Rehman’s successor without consultation with the TTP shura council (led by Hakimullah). The schism further widened when Mullah Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud TTP leader, was then elected over Sajna.
Sources say the fact that Fazlullah spent most of the last four years living across the border in Afghanistan is often discussed with a degree of resentment among TTP fighters and mid-ranking commanders, particularly those supporting Sajna. Fazlullah’s deputy, Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, who hails from the Swabi district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is also a non-Mehsud, is also now the organization’s interim shura chief, replacing Asmatullah Shaheen, further evidence of the tensions between the different TTP factions.
The killing of two top TTP leaders (Wali-ur Rehman and Hakimullah), intra-TTP differences, and issues related to clans and tribes (Mehsud and non-Mehsud) has caused serious damage to a group that was once fully united under the leadership of its founder, Baitullah Mehsud. The presence of Baitullah, and later Hakimullah (usually called Amir Sahib out of respect), was a source of inspiration for many young Mehsuds, while others joined the group hoping to achieve glory. Now, the loss of its top commanders and other leaders, such as Qari Hussain Mehsud (who trained suicide bombers), Qari Zafar (a local commander), and Maulvi Nazeer (who had close ties to the ISI), has considerably dried up recruiting for the Taliban and other militant groups.
Since the TTP has lost considerable amounts of whatever public sympathy it had — mainly because of the numerous bomb attacks the group has conducted on mosques, markets, schools, and public places over the past few years — any military action, which remains on the table in case peace negotiations do not work, will cause a serious blow to the group.
Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.