Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The New Face of Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud

Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan senior leaders Hakimullah Mehsud (center) and Wali al-Rahman Mehsud (left) in a still from the October 2009 video release from al-Sahab, "Message from Hakimullah Mehsud & Wali al-Rahman Mehsud."

On the night of August 5 (2009), a U.S. unmanned military drone aircraft struck a house where the founder of Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan [TTP, "Taliban Movement of Pakistan", sometimes transliterated Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan], Baytullah (Baitullah) Mehsud, was staying with his wife. His chief aides denied reports from the Pakistani military and press that he was killed in the strike, but in late August said that Baytullah has succumbed to his wounds on August 23. Belated eulogies, perhaps held until TTP leaders officially verified reports of his death, came in from multiple sources, including al-Qa'ida Central's (AQC) chief ideologue Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (also known as Shaykh Sa'id), the AQC general commander in Afghanistan.

Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al-Qa'ida Central's general commander in Afghanistan, in a still from his video eulogy for the late Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan founder Baytullah Mehsud, released by al-Sahab in Arabic and with Urdu voice-over on September 30. Two versions with English subtitles were released a week later, one produced from the Urdu version by a jihadi-Salafi web forum and a later one by the Global Islamic Media Front, a jihadi-Salafi media outlet.

Still from the audio-video "Eulogy for the Youth's Example, the Amir [commander] Baytullah Mehsud, may God have mercy on him," by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, released on September 27.

For much of August, there was a question as to who had succeeded Baytullah, first as day-to-day commander and then as his permanent replacement. There were reports of a power struggle between two of his top aides, Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali al-Rahman (Waliur Rahman) Mehsud, who is a cousin of Baytullah. Hakimullah was reportedly elected as the new TTP leader by the group's ruling council (shura) on or around August 22 or 23. Throughout September the Pakistani government claimed that he had been killed in the rumored power struggle with Wali al-Rahman, alleging that his younger brother was posing as him.

Hakimullah Mehsud (center) and Wali al-Rahman Mehsud (left)

On October 4, Hakimullah met with a small group of reporters to finally dispel these claims. Ten days later, a video produced by AQC's media outlet, the al-Sahab (The Clouds) Foundation for Media Production, was leaked to a couple of web forums used by transnational jihadi*-Salafis showing both Hakimullah and Wali al-Rahman making statements about the Pakistani government and their continued dedication to opposing it and its attempts to aid the U.S. and NATO in their tottering counter-insurgency war in neighboring Afghanistan. The video was officially released on October 22, with better video quality formats available. This show of unity between Hakimullah, the new TTP leader, and Wali al-Rahman, billed as the commander of Mehsud tribal forces, undercut claims made by the Pakistani government that the two were engaged in a violent power struggle.

Wali al-Rahman Mehsud

The 28-year-old Hakimullah (b. 1981) was born in the Kotkai region in South Waziristan, in the large belt of Pashtun tribal areas that form the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). His given name is Zulfiqar. He made his name as a daring, if a bit reckless, military commander in fighting with the Pakistani military and its paramilitary units in 2007 and 2008.

Hakimullah Mehsud

The Pakistani military has been carrying out large-scale operations against several armed Pashtun groups in the FATA, primarily in Swat, since the beginning of the year. On October 17, it launched a long-anticipated (and long-announced) campaign against TTP in South Waziristan in response to TTP attacks on government targets.

"The Amir [commander] Hakimullah Mehsud, God protect him: Taliban Amir in Pakistan," with a photograph of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam's most revered shrines

Although the military is advancing steadily thus far, a wave of deadly bombings have struck government and civilian targets. Many have been claimed or are believed to have been carried out by TTP, though most recently Hakimullah denied that his group carried out the October 28 bombing of a market area in Peshawar. He blames the private U.S. military contractor-mercenary company Xe, formerly Blackwater.

"Hakimullah Mehsud: Lion of the Taliban in Pakistan"

Before launching its offensive in South Waziristan, the Pakistani military agreed to ceasefire deals with several powerful Pashtun commanders in North Waziristan, including Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, who has ties to AQC forces in the region and the Afghan Taliban.

Hakimullah Mehsud meeting with reporters

On November 2, the Pakistani government offered a bounty of 50 million rupees ($600,000) for the killing or capture of Hakimullah. The same amount is being offered for Wali al-Rahman and Qari Husayn (Hussain), a senior TTP commander in Kotkai. Smaller bounties are being offered for a number of other TTP commanders:

*Maulvi Azmatullah Mehsud (Barvand commander)
*Azzam Khan Mehsud, "Azzam Tariq" (TTP's chief spokesman)
*Nur Wali (TTP training camp director of Gargaray)
*Asmatullah Bhittani (commander)
*Muhammad Anwar Gandapour (commander in Dera Ismail Khan)

Hakimullah and other TTP commanders have said that they are well prepared for a "long war," despite territorial gains by the Pakistani military, which is claiming to have suffered relatively light casualties though it has misled/lied about casualties in the past. Pakistani military intelligence is also alleging that India has "aided militants" in South Waziristan and claims it has "evidence." The charge, whether true or not, is somewhat ballsy and amusing considering the Pakistani military's long history of support for various militant groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan as part of its foreign policy.

Hakimullah Mehsud (left) and Wali al-Rahman Mehsud (to Hakimullah's left)

Video stills captured with

Watch the video statements from Hakimullah Mehsud & Wali al-Rahman Mehsud from the October 2009 al-Sahab release.

POSTSCRIPT: An audio message which appears to be from Qari Husayn (although the name listed is "Qari Hasan Ahmed") was posted on YouTube on November 2. It was linked to on a web forum used to post materials on jihadis in South Asia, with a focus on Pakistan.

Watch the audio-video message

For more details on Hakimullah's rapid rise to the top of Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, his connections to violently anti-Shi'i Pakistani militant groups such as Lashkar-i Jhangvi, and the divisions between Salafi and Deobandi factions in TTP see this article.

*NOTE: The term "jihadi" is a much-contested and often problematic one. "To struggle" (ja-ha-da) in Arabic has several connotations, and can refer to both physical and spiritual struggle. It can also have a militaristic meaning, which is how I use it on Occident. After much consideration I have decided to use the term, despite its potential problems. I have done so because the movements, such as al-Qa'ida Central and its affiliates, use the term to describe themselves. For example, the Arabic-speaking groups self-describe as "Harakat Jihadiyyah" or "Tayyar Jihadi" (Jihadi Movement) and "Quwat Jihadiyyah" (Jihadi Force). "Jihad" is a word that has entered other Islamicate languages from Arabic. There are, of course, some important linguistic differences in language use by Arabic-speaking groups. For example, they do not use "jihadi" as a noun, and instead use the noun form of the Arabic root, "mujahid" and the PLURAL(S): "mujahideen, mujahidun," which translates approximately to "those who struggle [for faith]". Given my use of "jihadi" primarily in its militaristic sense, I translate "mujahideen" as meaning, approximately "warriors of faith."

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