Ever since the head of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Hakeemullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike in late 2013, the al Qaeda-linked group has been plagued by leadership disputes, infighting, and defections. Mullah Fazlullah, Mehsud’s successor, has proven to be incapable of holding the coalition of jihadists together.
The latest members to leave the group are its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, and five regional emirs: Hafiz Dolat Khan from Kurram, Hafiz Saeed Khan from Arakzai, Maulana Gul Zaman from Khyber, Mufti Hassan Swati from Peshawar, and Khalid Mansoor from Hangu. Shahid announced their defection in a video (seen above) that was released online earlier this week. The Pakistani Taliban figures are now loyal to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, which has been attempting to woo al Qaeda and Taliban leaders for months.
“I pledge allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful and the Caliph of Muslims Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Qurashi al Husayni, to obey him when we are enthusiastic and when we are halfhearted, as well as in difficulty and relief,” Shahid says in the video, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Shahid stresses that his pledge of allegiance (bayat) is not on behalf of the “entire movement,” nor has Mullah Fazlullah himself sworn an oath of fealty to Baghdadi. Instead, Shahid says, the oath is “pledged by myself as well as five other Pakistani Taliban emirs, who are the emirs of Arakzai, Kuram, Khaybar, Hangu, and Peshawar regions.”
Shahid goes on to claim that this is the fourth time he has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. His claim is curious, to say the least.
The video above was disseminated online on Oct. 13. But less just one week earlier, on Oct. 6, Shahid was quoted as denying that the Pakistani Taliban had sworn allegiance to Baghdadi’s group. Shahid was quoted in an account by Reuters, and there is nothing in that report about Shahid or the five other Pakistani Taliban leaders switching their allegiance to Baghdadi.
On the contrary, Shahid was quoted as saying, “We are not supporting any specific group in Syria or Iraq; all groups there are noble and they are our brothers.” Shahid continued, “Mullah Omar is our head and we are following him.”
In just one week, therefore, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman went from claiming that the group was entirely loyal to Mullah Omar to announcing that he and five commanders now counted themselves among the Islamic State’s ranks.
Interestingly, Shahid claims in his defection notice that on a prior occasion in early July he privately swore his allegiance to Baghdadi through Abu Huda al Sudani. This has a ring of truth to it, as al Sudani is a disgruntled al Qaeda veteran who leads a faction in Afghanistan that has sided with the Islamic State. Al Sudani leads a faction that is now loyal to Baghdadi. [Note, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan later claimed that Shaykh Maqbool, its former spokesman, wrongly released the statement under Shahidullah Shahid ‘s name, and was releived of his position “long ago.” Also the group said that the name Shahidullah Shahid is a nom de guerre is shared amongst its spokesmen. See Threat Matrix report, TTP denies its spokesman defected to Islamic State.]
It is not clear how many former Pakistani Taliban fighters the defectors command. The emirs of the five regions did have forces under their direction, but it is not publicly known how many jihadists they direct, or if all of their fighters have followed suit.
In reality, Shahid’s announced defection to the Islamic State is just the latest blow to Fazlullah’s group. It is clear that Fazlullah has not been able to fill Hakeemullah Mehsud’s shoes.
Indeed, well before the six Pakistani Taliban leaders announced their decision to side with Baghdadi this past week most of the group had already defected. The majority of the Pakistani Taliban’s leaders and fighters had already left its ranks, forming new groups. And the most prominent of these organizations are still loyal to Mullah Omar.
Pakistani Taliban coalition dissolved
The first crack in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan’s coalition appeared long before Shahidullah and the five commanders defected and joined the Islamic State. Divisions within the group appeared immediately after Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike on Nov. 1, 2013. Initial reports indicated that Sajna Mehsud (who is also known as Khalid Mehsud) from South Waziristan, was appointed to lead the group. But one day after a the rumor of Sajna’s appointment emerged, his rival, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, the head of the Taliban’s shura or executive council, who was also from South Waziristan, was named the interim emir.
Instead of appointing a member of the Mehsud tribe, who traditionally have led the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the group’s shura named Mullah Fazlullah, a firebrand cleric from Swat, as its emir. The appointment was controversial, and ultimately led to the group’s demise. Despite serving as Hakeemullah’s deputy, Fazlullah is reported to be considered an outsider in the inner circles of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Added to the unease over Fazlullah’s appointment was an internal debate within the Taliban over whether to negotiate a peace agreement with the Pakistani military and government. Asmatullah, who supported peace talks, may have been been killed by his rival Sajna. Fazlullah also supported peace talks with the Pakistani state and ordered a ceasefire on March 1.
The Taliban’s negotiations with the government led to the first overt rift within the group. In mid-February, a faction of the Taliban led by Maulana Umar Qasmi, broke away due to opposition to negotiations and formed Ahrar-ul-Hind. A statement by the group said that it is made up of supporters based in “the urban areas of Pakistan” and vowed to continue attacks against the state. Three weeks after its formation, the group claimed credit for a suicide assault on a courthouse in Islamabad.
Sajna Mehsud’s faction was the next to break away from the Taliban alliance. In mid-May, Sajna, who is said to support peace talks, formed the Movement of the Taliban in South Waziristan. The spokesman for the new Taliban faction accused its parent organization of being “un-Islamic.”
“We consider kidnapping for ransom, extortion, damage to public facilities and bombings to be un-Islamic,” a statement released by the group said. “Tehreek-e-Taliban [Movement of the Taliban] Mehsud group believes in stopping the oppressor from cruelty, and supporting the oppressed.”
Sajna’s group is said to be allied with Hafiz Gul Bahadar, a powerful so-called “good” Taliban commander in North Waziristan who maintains a peace agreement with the governemnt despite his overt support for al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and a host of terrorist groups in the region.
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan perhaps suffered its death blow when Omar Khalid al Khorasani, the dangerous Taliban commander from the tribal agency of Mohmand, and a group of factions from the agencies of Bajaur, Khyber, and Arakzai, and the districts of Charsadda, Peshawar, and Swat, split off and formed Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. The group merged with Ahrar-ul-Hind and is now led by Qasmi.
In mid-September, another faction in North Waziristan led by Sheheryar Mehsud, who was loyal to Hakeemullah and Baitullah Mehsud, also broke away from the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. The group “declared extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and bombing public places as ‘Haram,’ (forbidden by Islam)” according to Pakistan Today.
The defections of the various Taliban factions have led to a virtual dissolution of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan long before Shahidullah and the five commanders joined the Islamic State.