Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud at a press conference in Peshawar in 2008.
Two senior Pakistani Taliban leaders thought to have been at odds have confirmed that the former leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan is dead. The leaders also confirmed that Hakeemullah Mehsud is now the new leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, dispelling the rumors of rampant infighting to choose Baitullah’s successors.
Hakeemullah and Waliur Rehman Mehsud said that Baitullah died on Sunday night from wounds suffered in the Aug. 5 US Predator strike in South Waziristan. The two Taliban leaders spoke via the phone from the same room to an The Associated Press reporter.
“He was wounded. He got the wounds in a drone strike and he was martyred two days ago,” Hakeemullah Mehsud told The Associated Press. Waliur repeated the statement to confirm that Baitullah had been killed.
Both leaders stated that Hakeemullah is now the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. Waliur would take command of the Taliban in South Waziristan.
Waliur’s confirmation of Hakeemullah’s position as the new leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan should put an end to the rumors of internal fighting within the group. Over the past few weeks, Pakistani governmental and intelligence officials have claimed that the two leaders openly fought and killed each other at a shura meeting to choose Baitullah’s successor. After the alleged incident, both Hakeemullah and Waliur spoke to the media and denied the rumor. But the Pakistani government, led by Interior Minister Rehman Malik, have insisted that Hakeemullah is dead and is being replaced by his twin brother.
Pakistani officials also claimed that a recent series of clashes and assassinations proved the Taliban were in disarray, but it is appears that most of the events were related to existing rivalries outside of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
The Taliban added to the confusion last week when, on Aug. 19, Faqir Mohammed, Baitullah’s second in command, said he temporarily took control of the Pakistani Taliban until a new leader would be selected by the Taliban shura. On Aug. 22, Faqir said Hakeemullah was replacing Baitullah because an illness was preventing the latter from performing his duty.
That same day, Waliur said he had previously been deputized by Baitullah to manage the affairs of the Pakistani Taliban and that a new leader would be chosen within five days.
Background on Hakeemullah Mehsud:
Hakeemullah, who is also known as Zulfiqar Mehsud, is Baitullah’s senior deputy. He is a cousin of Baitullah and of Qari Hussain Mehsud, the notorious Taliban commander who trains child suicide bombers in South Waziristan.
Hakeemullah is one of the Taliban’s most able commanders and a rising star in the Pakistani Taliban. He commands the Taliban forces in Arakzai, Khyber, and Kurram tribal agencies, as well as in some regions in Peshawar. In December 2008, Hakeemullah imposed sharia, or Islamic law, throughout Arakzai.
Hakeemullah has been leading operations against NATO’s supply lines in Khyber and Peshawar. His forces have been behind raids that have led to the destruction of more than 600 NATO vehicles and shipping containers. The raids have also destroyed two vital bridges. Pakistan has closed the Khyber Pass to NATO traffic six times since September 2008 because of the attacks. The raids on the supply columns moving through Khyber have forced NATO to search for alternative supply routes into Pakistan.
He has also taken credit for a series of suicide attacks and complex assaults in Lahore and Peshawar. He claimed the attacks under the guise of the Fedayeen-e-Islam.
Pakistani security forces and the US have tried to kill Hakeemullah. He was the target of a series of Pakistani strikes in the Arakzai tribal agency in mid-April. On April 1, the US targeted a meeting in Arakzai with a Predator attack aircraft after receiving intelligence that Hakeemullah might be in attendance.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.