Emir of Pakistani Taliban thought killed in US airstrike

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense claimed that Mullah Fazlullah, the emir of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a US airstrike in the remote Afghan province of Kunar on June 13. The US military confirmed the strike took place and targeted “a senior leader of a designated terrorist organization” but has not announced Fazlullah’s death. The TTP has not confirmed that Fazlullah was killed.

The strike took place in the district of Marawara in Kunar, according to TOLONews. The Afghan news agency reported that other TTP commanders killed in the attack include “Abu Bakr, Sajjad, Emran and Mawlawi Omar.”

Marawara is a contested district in Kunar, which is a known safe haven for the TTP and other terrorist organizations including al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jamaat-al-Dawa-al-Quran.

The TTP has not officially commented on reports of Fazlullah’s death. He has been reported to have been killed several times in the past, only to reemerge.

Fazlullah’s death, if confirmed, may not be as impactful as US, Pakistani, and Afghan officials would like to believe. He has been a divisive figure within the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, whose first two emirs were from the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. The promotion of Fazlullah, who comes from Swat, led to a schism within the TTP as several factions broke away. While these powerful breakaway groups, such as Jamaat ul Ahrar and the Movement of the Taliban in South Waziristan, eventually rejoined the TTP, the group was not as cohesive as it was under the leadership of its first two emirs, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud. [See LWJ reports, Discord dissolves Pakistani Taliban coalition and Mehsud faction rejoins the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.]

Fazlullah, who is also known as Mullah Radio for his radical sermons broadcast throughout northwestern Pakistan, has been among the top leaders of the TTP since its founding in 2007. He engineered the Taliban takeover of Swat and neighboring districts from 2007-2009, and brutally ruled over a cowed civilian population. The Pakistani military intervened only after Fazlullah’s forces broke a truce and invaded Buner and advanced to just 60 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. He has vowed to continue the fight to regain control of the Swat Valley.

He is one of the most extreme commanders in a group filled with extremists. He was one of the first leaders to have opposed polio vaccinations. In 2012, he ordered the assassination of Malala Yousufzai, the young schoolgirl who had spoken out passionately against the Taliban in Swat, and accused her of violating sharia, or Islamic law. In 2012, his forces were responsible for the beheading of 17 Pakistani soldiers. And in 2013, he took credit for the assassination of a Pakistani Army general who commanded operations in Swat.

Fazlullah is also closely tied to al Qaeda. When he openly ruled Swat from 2007 to 2009, he said al Qaeda fighters were welcome and training camps operated there. One of his top deputies, Ibn Amin, also served as a leader of one of six known brigades in al Qaeda’s Lashkar-al-Zil, or Shadow Army. Amin was killed in a US drone strike in Khyber in Dec. 2010.

Fazlullah has said that the TTP’s goals are closely aligned with al Qaeda. In April 2017, he said that his group’s ultimate goal is “to implement the law of Allah on the Earth” and called on Muslims to unite and wage jihad to achieve that end. [See LWJ report, Pakistani Taliban emir calls for unity, jihad, and global caliphate.]

The TTP emir has been known to take shelter in Afghanistan’s remote northeastern province of Kunar as well as in Nangarhar province. US forces largely withdrew from Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province beginning in 2009 after isolated Army outposts came under deadly attacks. At the time the withdrawal was announced, US military officials predicted the insurgency would recede from those two provinces and that al Qaeda would lose support since US forces fueled the insurgency. Instead, the opposite happened, as al Qaeda and groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the TTP, and the Islamic State became entrenched in Kunar and Nuristan.

The US military has targeted Fazlullah’s assets in Kunar at least one other time in Kunar this year. In early March, US warplanes hit the TTP’s Ghazi Camp in Kunar. Fazlullah’s son, as well as Gul Mohammad, the chief of the camp as well as the TTP’s commander for the Pakistani tribal agency of Bajaur, and Ustad Yaseen, who trained TTP recruits to serve as suicide bombers, were all killed. [See LWJ report, US hits Pakistani Taliban training camp in eastern Afghanistan.]

The US has also targeted the TTP at least one other time inside Pakistan since the beginning of Feb. A US drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan killed Sajna Mehsud, the group’s deputy emir and its leader of the influential Mehsud faction in South Waziristan. The US hunted Sajna for at least three years before finally killing him.

The TTP not only battles the Pakistani state in the tribal areas and beyond, but it also aids the Afghan Taliban in its fight against the government and US military.

Pakistani government and military officials often accuse the US and Afghan government of sheltering the TTP. This is done to deflect criticism of its support for the Afghan Taliban and other terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.

However, the US has killed far more TTP leaders, commanders, and operatives in its drone campaign inside Pakistan. The first two emirs of the TTP were killed by US drones. Yet the Pakistani government has criticized these strikes and others as violations of its sovereignty.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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