The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) confirmed that the US killed Sajna Mehsud, the group’s deputy emir and its leader of the influential Mehsud faction, last week in a drone strike in Pakistan. Today’s confirmation from the TTP ends a three-year manhunt by the US for Sajna, which included multiple attempts at his life.
The TPP announced Sajna’s death in a statement released on its official Telegram account. According to the TTP, Sajna was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan on Feb. 8.
The TTP statement cleared up a discrepancy from the initial reporting of his death. Pakistani officials claimed that Sajna was killed in a US strike in the Bermal district in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Paktika. However, unnamed Taliban officials stated that he was killed while traveling in a vehicle along with his nephew and two bodyguards in North Waziristan.
There would be reason for Pakistani military and government officials to try and spin reports. They have skin in the game. Pakistani officials have repeatedly claimed that the TTP operates exclusively from Afghanistan, when in reality it operates openly on both sides of the border. [See Deputy emir of Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan reportedly killed in US drone strike.]
The TTP also announced that Mufti Noorali Mehsud, “a close associate” of Sajna, was appointed to lead the Mehsud faction. Noorali “renewed the allegiance” to Mullah Fazlullah, however it is unclear if he has also been named deputy emir of the TTP. Given the discord that occurred when Sajna was passed over for a leadership position in the wake of Hakeemullah’s death, it is likely that Noorali was named deputy emir.
The US has killed the first two emirs of the TTP. Baitullah Mehsud, the group’s founder and first leader, was killed in a strike in Aug. 2009 in South Waziristan. His successor, Hakeemullah Mehsud, was killed by US drone in North Waziristan in Nov. 2013.
A wanted Pakistani Taliban leader
Sajna, who was also known as Khan Said and Khalid Mehsud, took control of the Taliban’s powerful Mehsud faction after the death of Hakemullah. Sajna split with the TTP after Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the group’s branch in Swat, was appointed to succeed Hakeemullah. Sajna reunited the Movement of the Taliban in South Waziristan with the TTP in Feb. 2017, when he was also named the TTP’s deputy emir. [See Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition and Mehsud faction rejoins the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.]
The US government listed Sajna as a specially designated global terrorist. The CIA targeted him and his followers in several drone strikes over the past four years before hitting its mark late last week. Sajna was first targeted in South Waziristan in 2015.
Sajna’s supporters have executed several high profile attacks in the region, including the May 2011 assault on Naval Station Mehran in Karachi that resulted in the destruction of two US-supplied P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes. He also orchestrated a 2012 prison break in Bannu, which freed Adnan Rasheed, a commander who has a long history with Pakistani terrorist groups as well as al Qaeda.
US intelligence officials who track the TTP and al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region have told FDD’s Long War Journal that Sajna remained a close ally of al Qaeda up until his death. The Mehsuds have provided shelter and support for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Numerous senior al Qaeda leaders have been killed in US strikes in Mehsud territories since the drone program began in Pakistan in 2004.
US strikes in Pakistan are on the rise
The Obama administration wound down the drone campaign in Pakistan after killing Mullah Mansour, the emir of the Afghan Taliban, in a strike in Baluchistan, Pakistan in May 2016. However, the Trump administration has stepped up the targeting of jihadists since coming into office. The Trump administration launched eight strikes in 2017, more than doubling the previous year’s total of three. Additionally, the Trump administration ended a 10-month long hiatus in strikes that began after the US killed Mansour.
The US has launched four strikes inside Pakistan during the first 40 days of 2018. In addition to the strike that killed Sajna, the US has reportedly killed three members of the Haqqani Network, a powerful subgroup of the Afghan Taliban, when missiles slammed into a compound in the Gorwek area of North Waziristan.
Trump has vowed to take a tougher line on Pakistan for tolerating and supporting terrorist groups inside its porous borders. In an Aug. 2017 speech, Trump called out Pakistan for providing safe haven and support for the Afghan Taliban and other terrorist groups in the region. On Jan. 1, Trump ramped up the pressure on Pakistan and increased the likelihood that the US would step up its air campaign after accusing the country of returning US aid with “nothing but lies and deceit” while continuing to provide the Afghan Taliban a “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”