Senior al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders are reported to have met with Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud to advise him to move his group’s operations into Afghanistan and halt attacks against the Pakistani state.
Several meetings were said to have been held last week after an 11-man delegation of al Qaeda and Taliban heavy hitters arrived in Waziristan to deliver a request from Mullah Omar, the Amir al Mumineen, or the leader of the faithful in Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to a report in The Nation.
The Taliban dispatched Sirajuddin Haqqani, the powerful military commander of the Haqqani Network, and Abdul Hakeem Sharaee and Mir Ahmad Jan Hashemi, two senior deputies of Mullah Abdullah Zakir, the Taliban’s senior-most military commander in southern Afghanistan who was released from Guantanamo Bay.
Al Qaeda sent Abu Yahya Al Libi, one of al Qaeda’s senior ideologues and a representative of the religious committee, and Abdul Haq Turkistani, the leader of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party, an al Qaeda-linked group that is made up of Uighurs who fight the Chinese government. Abdul Haq serves on al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis, or executive council.
The joint Taliban and al Qaeda delegation reportedly advised Baitullah to halt the Pakistani Taliban’s attacks against the military and government and to focus his energy in Afghanistan. The leaders believe Baitullah’s terror attacks against the Pakistani state are putting undue pressure on the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and threaten to damage the overall Taliban movement.
The Taliban and al Qaeda leadership are concerned that even a limited Pakistani military offensive in the tribal areas will put their training camps and safe houses throughout the border regions at risk as the Afghan Taliban is gearing up for a major fight with Coalition and Afghan forces.
Baitullah Mehsud from a recent Taliban video.
Baitullah was reportedly advised to dodge the nascent Pakistani Army offensive in South Waziristan and move the bulk of his forces into Afghanistan to carry out attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces.
The Taliban and al Qaeda delegation was also reported to have advised North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar to provide safe passage for Baitullah and his Taliban army.
Baitullah is said to have rejected the request from Mullah Omar, responding, “Mullah Omar is our Amir but like Afghanistan, they [the Pakistani Taliban] are determined to continue resistance in Pakistan.”
Baitullah also met with the shura of the United Mujahideen Council, the alliance with South Waziristan Taliban warlord Mullah Nazir and powerful North Waziristan leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar. Nazir, who is being pressured by the Pakistani government to sit out the operation against Baitullah, is said to have not attended, according to the Islamabad Ausaf, a pro-jihadi Urdu-language newspaper. Bahadar offered Baitullah safe passage through to Afghanistan, as advised by the al Qaeda and Taliban delegation.
US strikes as meetings underway
US and Pakistani forces struck inside South Waziristan three times during the same week that the high-level al Qaeda and Taliban leaders met with Baitullah. The meetings are said to have begun early last week and ended on June 16, while US and Pakistani warplanes struck on June 14, 15, and 18.
US intelligence officials refused to comment on the targets of the strikes. But the target of these strikes appears to have been the Taliban and al Qaeda delegation gathering in Waziristan.
On June 14, US predators struck in Baitullah’s hometown of Makeen in South Waziristan. The next day, Pakistani Air Force also struck in Makeen. Tahir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was reported to have been wounded in the attack. Three days later, US Predators conducted attacks in two towns in Mullah Nazir’s territory in South Waziristan.
Yuldashev is a senior leader in al Qaeda’s allied network in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and is a close ally to both Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Nazir. He likely was to attend the meeting with Baitullah.
The timing of last week’s attacks points to an attempt to target al Qaeda and the Taliban’s senior leadership. Prior to the June 14 Predator strike, the last US attack inside Pakistan’s tribal areas took place on May 16. The US has been under internal and external pressure to end the airstrikes in Pakistan.
Baitullah and Fazlullah may be in North Waziristan
While Baitullah has said he would not end attacks against the Pakistani state, a report indicates he may have partially followed the delegation’s advice and moved from South Waziristan to take shelter in Mir Ali, an al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold in North Waziristan.
Baitullah was accompanied in Mir Ali by Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah and his spokesman and military commander Muslim Khan, The Nation reported. Fazlullah and Khan fled to Makeen in South Waziristan after the Pakistani military moved into Swat to oust the Taliban. They have since relocated to Mir Ali with other Taliban leaders after the government telegraphed the South Waziristan operation.
US military intelligence officials contacted by Long War Journal are concerned that Baitullah may leave Pakistan and move his forces into eastern Afghanistan to fight Coalition forces.
Fazlullah and the other 20 senior-most Taliban leaders in Swat have so far evaded the Pakistani military’s attempts to round them up.
Meeting provides insights on inner workings of al Qaeda and the Taliban
The high-level meeting between Baitullah and the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda leaders sheds more light on the close relationship of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and their dealings with al Qaeda.
The delegation went to Pakistan to forge a consensus with Baitullah in order to get him in line with the overall organization’s goals. Siraj is said to still be working to convince Baitullah to accede to Omar’s wishes. Baitullah was pressured to redirect his energies towards Afghanistan, but he was not ordered.
Siraj Haqqani’s role as a mediator between the groups also highlights his prominent role within the overall movement. Siraj and his father have close links to the senior leadership of both the Taliban and al Qaeda. His network operates on both sides of the border, and has significant pull in the Taliban affairs in both countries.
Siraj played a similar role back in 2007 when he and Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the former Taliban military commander in Afghanistan, and Baitullah negotiated a truce between Mullah Nazir and Uzbeks allied with the Islamic Jihad Union.
The meeting also dispels a slew of reports that have cropped up since late 2007 that claimed Baitullah was expelled from the Taliban movement. These rumors still floated even as Baitullah allied himself with Nazir and Bahadar and continued to shelter al Qaeda and support the Afghan Taliban.
Finally, the meeting highlights the relative unimportance of two Pakistani Taliban leaders in opposition to Baitullah. Qari Zainuddin Mehsud and Haji Turkistan Bhittani both were excluded from the meeting, even though they claim to be close to Mullah Omar and say they are the true Taliban representatives in South Waziristan.
Despite reports of the growing influence of Zainuddin and Turkistani, the Mehsud tribal leaders are hesitant to back them as they are seen as being in bed with the government. The Pakistani government has been supporting Zainuddin and Turkistani despite their promises to wage jihad in Afghanistan, and not Pakistan. Zainuddin even put up recruiting posters in the district of Tank with photos of Abdullah Mehsud, his predecessor and a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay who fought in Afghanistan. Pakistani security forces killed Abdullah during a raid in Zhob in Baluchistan province.
Mehsud tribal leaders put little stock in Zainuddin’s value. The leaders believe that if Baitullah is killed, his deputy Qari Husain Mehsud will take his place. Qari Husain is notorious for recruiting and training children for suicide attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.