Hakeemullah Mehsud, left. AFP photo.
Hakeemullah Mehsud has been appointed as the new leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Hakeemullah was unanimously chosen to lead the Pakistani Taliban after the group’s shura, or executive council, met over the past several days. The shura reportedly met in the Arakzai tribal agency, which is under control of the Taliban.
Hakeemullah is an able Taliban leader who has led attacks on NATO convoys in Khyber and Peshawar. He leads Taliban forces in Arakzai, Khyber, Kurram, and in areas of Peshawar [see backgrounder on Hakeemullah below].
The appointment of Hakeemullah to replace feared South Waziristan leader Baitullah Mehsud was announced by Faqir Mohammed. Faqir, the leader of the Taliban in Bajaur and Baitullah’s deputy, was appointed the interim leader of the Pakistani Taliban on Aug. 19.
Faqir claimed that Baitullah, who is believed to have been killed in a Predator airstrike on Aug. 5, is still alive but is too ill to lead the Pakistani Taliban. Faqir also announced that Azam Tariq is the new chief spokesman for the Taliban. Tariq replaces Muslim Khan, who was named spokesman just days ago after Maulvi Omar, the longtime spokesman of the group, was captured by Pakistani security forces.
“The new appointments of Taliban chief and spokesman were made unanimously by a Taliban Shura which met in Arakzai Agency recently”, Faqir said, according to the Times of India.
“According to his will, his [Baitullah’s] successor should be appointed during his life time and he has nominated Hakeemullah Mehsud to succeed him”, Faqir said.
The shura was attended by all 22 members of the Pakistani Taliban, and the meeting lasted two days. Although not stated, representatives from al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Haqqani Network were likely in attendance.
Faqir also said that South Waziristan Taliban leader Mullah Nazir and North Waziristan leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar, who are not members of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, approved the appointment. This indicates that Siraj Haqqani, the guiding hand behind the Pakistani Taliban and the military commander of the Haqqani Network, approves of Hakeemullah’s assumption of command.
Faqir also announced Hakeemullah’s appointment on his illegal FM radio station in Bajaur.
“The shura has appointed Hakeemullah as successor to Baitullah Mehsud,” Faqir said according to AFP. “The shura earlier had nominated me as the acting chief but now I will be again deputy chief. I shall continue to be amir [leader] of TTP [Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] in Bajaur.”
“Baitullah is alive but he is seriously sick,” Faqir continued on the radio. “God forbid if Baitullah is dead, Hakeemullah will be his successor.”
Hakeemullah has been considered one of the frontrunners to take control of the Pakistani Taliban in the event Baitullah was killed or could no longer perform his duties. Taliban leaders Waliur Rehman Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud were also said to be potential candidates.
Baitullah’s status is still unclear
Pakistani and US officials have insisted that Baitullah was killed in the Aug. 5 airstrike and that the Taliban has been feuding over his succession. Pakistani officials claimed additionally that Hakeemullah and Waliur Rehman shot and killed each other during a firefight at a meeting to pick the new Taliban leader. Haji Turkistan Bhittani, a rival of Baitullah’s, has floated numerous rumors of internal turmoil within the Pakistani Taliban.
But the Taliban have denied that Baitullah was killed in the strike and have maintained that no clash between Waliur and Hakeemullah Mehsud took place. Both Taliban commanders later spoke to the media and confirmed they were alive. Nonetheless, just days ago Pakistani intelligence officials claimed Hakeemullah had been killed.
The Pakistani government has been unable to produce evidence that Baitullah was killed; while the Taliban have yet to release a promised videotape that would confirm Baitullah is alive. Taliban commanders have previously said Baitullah would release a tape once he recovers from his illness.
Baitullah is known to have diabetes and occasionally falls ill from the disease. Some intelligence officials believe Baitullah was at his father-in-law’s compound to receive treatment for his diabetes. Last year Pakistani officials thought Baitullah died from complications in September 2008, but he later surfaced at a feast celebrating his marriage to his second wife.
US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal refuse to confirm or deny Baitullah’s death, contradicting more definitive pronouncements made by National Security Advisor General Jim Jones and Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.
The officials contacted by The Long War Journal also said the reports of Taliban infighting are largely false. One official described the reports of an intra-Taliban feud as “highly exaggerated and in some cases manufactured.”
The report of Hakeemullah replacing Baitullah as the new Taliban leader does bolster the US and Pakistani government’s claims that Baitullah was killed in the airstrike.
“No matter whether Baitullah is dead or alive, one thing that is clear is that he is out of the game for now,” a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal. “The more time the Taliban spend on reorganizing the command structure, the less time there is for conducting attacks.”
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.
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