The Death of Hakimullah Mehsud: Another Setback for the TTP

February 9, 2010

U.S. unmanned MQ-1 Predator drone on a night mission (Photo by USAF Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, available at Defense.gov)

Events subsequent to the publication of this article made clear that reporting at the time of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death in a drone strike in January 2010 was incorrect. For updated information on Hakimullah’s confirmed death in a November 1, 2013 drone strike, please see here.

Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, when combined with recent TTP reverses in Orakzai, South Waziristan, Swat, and Bajaur, reveals the fragility of the TTP as a movement. The TTP’s failure to hold territory, maintain central leadership, and win mass appeal suggests that it may enter a ‘death spiral’ of anarchist violence that reduces its support and draws it even closer to al Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups in Pakistan.

 

CAUSE OF DEATH: DRONE

Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and successor to its founder, Beitullah Mehsud, is dead. According to news reports, three separate Taliban sources confirmed on Tuesday that Hakimullah Mehsud was dead.[1] According to Taliban sources in Orakzai, Hakimullah succumbed to wounds he suffered in a drone strike in January in the city of Multan while he was being transported to the southern city of Karachi for medical treatment. The Taliban’s official spokesman, Azam Tariq, has not yet issued a statement, however.[2]

The information from the Taliban admissions contradicts the bulk of previous rumors surrounding Hakimullah’s death. On Janurary 28, rumors began to re-emerge that Hakimullah succumbed to wounds suffered in an earlier drone strike. On January 31, Pakistani state television ran a story claiming thatHakimullah Mehsud had died earlier in the week at his father-in-law’s house in Mamuzai, Orakzai and was buried shortly after.[3] People who claimed to have attended his secretly-held funeral ‘confirmed’ his burial.[4] The TTP, through its spokesman, Azam Tariq, has continually maintained that Hakimullah is alive.[5]

Hakimullah Mehsud was targeted in a drone strike on January 14 in the Shaktoi region straddling the border between North Waziristan and the former TTP stronghold of South Waziristan. The attack hit a large gathering of militants and set off a wave of speculation that Hakimullah Mehsud had died in the strike. Hakimullah, however, released two separate audiotapes, one specifically mentioning the date on January 16, to prove that he was alive and well. The U.S. launched a second drone strike on Hakimullah in the Shaktoi region on Janaury 17.[6] It is still unclear which of the strikes caused the severe burns and mortal wounds that were eventually responsible for Hakimullah’s death.

As leader of the TTP Hakimullah Mehsud was responsible for the some of the most brutal and sustained violence carried out by the TTP since its founding and his organization was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in terrorist attacks in the latter part of 2009. Long a target of the Pakistani government, Hakimullah achieved high prominence for the U.S. after appearing in a video on January 9 next to Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian responsible for the suicide attack ten days earlier on a base in Khost, Afghanistan that killed seven CIA agents. Since the video’s release the number of drone attacks taking place in Pakistan and the number of attacks targeting Hakimullah, increased dramatically.[7]  They appear to have hit their mark.

 

POTENTIAL SUCESSORS

Hakimullah’s succession in the TTP was a process reportedly fraught with infighting and dissent.[8] It is unlikely that that succession will be clear-cut this time either. A number of people serve as potential candidates for Hakimullah’s mantle.

The first is Wali-ur-Rehman, the second-in-command and treasurer of the TTP, and the head of the TTP in South Waziristan. Wali-ur-Rehman was the Hakimullah’s chief competitor for leadership in September 2009 and remains a strong contender now as well, but his influence has likely diminished somewhat with the loss of the TTP’s stronghold in South Waziristan and with the rise of other commanders within the group closer to Hakimullah.[9] He has nonetheless, played a central role in the planning of TTP attacks and will likely continue to be important regardless of the succession outcome.

Qari Hussain, Hakimullah’s cousin and confidant and the TTP’s trainer and commander of suicide bombers rose to great prominence in the TTP with Hakimullah at the helm. Hussain shares his cousin’s penchant for ruthlessness, unlike the more demure Rehman, and was reportedly a key strategic planner in many of the attacks the TTP carried out in the latter part of 2009.[10] There are rumors that Qari Hussain also died in the attack that mortally wounded Hakimullah.[11] If the rumors are true, the TTP has lost another charismatic and dangerous member; if false, Qari Hussain is sure to continue playing a central role in the movement’s operations and is one of the strongest candidates for leadership.

The TTP has already reportedly appointed Maulana Noor Jamal, alias Maulana Toofan, as the group’s “interim leader.”[12] Maulana Toofan, formerly the leader of a local madrassa in Orakzai, was appointed as a local Taliban commander in Kurram and later Orakzai and was reportedly close to Hakimullah Mehsud. Toofan, too, commands a reputation for ruthlessness. One Kurram resident fleeing Toofan’s wrath said of him “he kills humans like one will kill chickens.”[13]

Other names discussed as potential successors include Noor Saeed and Azmatullah Mehsud from South Waziristan, Tariq Afridi from Darra Adam Khel and Saeed Khan Mamozai of Orakzai.[14]

 

THE MOVEMENT IS FRAGILE

Toofan’s selection as interim leader of the TTP reveals a new factor complicating leadership within the TTP. To-date, the vast majority of the TTP’s senior leadership consisted of Mehsuds from South Waziristan.[15] Following their flight to other parts of the FATA as a result of Operation Rah-e-Nijat, many of the TTP’s fighters and leaders are being hosted by the local TTP faction in Orakzai.[16] While Toofan’s appointment as interim leader, if true, is likely a temporary measure, it reflects an increasing importance of the Orakzai TTP who are, no doubt, going to make the most of this opportunity to consolidate their newly significant position within the franchise.[17] Whether the next TTP leader will be able to handle this new dynamic delicately enough to maintain unity within the group will be a key determinant of its continued survival and potency.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has, as a movement, failed. Since the death of its founder, Beitullah Mehsud, and his successor, Hakimullah, the movement has been unable to maintain its territorial gains, reverse the losses of its strongholds, or regain any strategic sense of purpose.

This is not to imply that the movement is no longer dangerous; the TTP is still capable of extreme brutality. Under Hakimullah the TTP carried out dozens of high-impact, mass-casualty attacks against both soft and hard targets across the country, even during the largest military assault on its stronghold in the history of the war in the northwest.[18] The TTP was still, however, unable to offer anything more than anarchist violence.

With the passing of Hakimullah it seems even less likely that the TTP will be able to escape this “death spiral” of violence.[19] Unlike its Afghan counterpart, the Pakistani Taliban has no viable political alternative to offer its constituents. Its actions have thoroughly alienated both the unfortunate hosts among whom it hides and the Pakistani public at large.[20]

 

CONCLUSION

The TTP is currently in an extremely precarious position.[21] It has suffered reversals in Bajaur and Swat, lost its home base in South Waziristan, found its suicide attack campaign in the northwest disrupted due to military actions in Orakzai, is reportedly having difficulty even being able to meet and plan, and lost two of its leaders in the span of six months.[22] All of this means the movement is likely very fragile. Taliban sources have conceded that their leadership losses are due to penetration by spies; any situation where paranoia leads the TTP to begin suspecting and purging its own members will create a huge drain on unity and morale.[23] The TTP will also have to deal with yet another succession process, and the group is starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel as far as clever, strategic minded and charismatic leaders go.

The sapping of the TTP ‘brain trust’ means that its survival will likely become increasingly contingent upon a symbiotic if not parasitic reliance upon allies such as Al Qaeda or militant groups based in the Punjab. The TTP reportedly became increasingly close to Al Qaeda under Hakimullah Mehsud and Al Qaeda is likely to exploit any kind of leadership vacuum within the group.[24] Whoever succeeds Hakimullah will have a mountainous task ahead of him in trying to rally the movement, prevent potential disputes from rising within the traditional and emergent power blocs of the TTP, and regain lost momentum.

For now, the Pakistanis and Americans may jointly rejoice. The death of Hakimullah is a body blow to the Pakistani Taliban. While killing one man will not kill the TTP, repeatedly killing the group’s leadership, interdicting its activities, capturing its territory, and sowing discord amongst its members may slowly asphyxiate it.

 



[1] “Sources: Pakistani Taliban leader is dead,” CNN, February 9, 2010. Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/02/09/pakistan.meshud.dead/
[2] “Taliban confirm Hakeemullah's death,” Dawn News, February 9, 2010. Available at http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/03-taliban-confirm-hakeemullahs-death-ss-01
[3] “Rumours about Hakimullah’s death,” The News, January 28, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=221117
“Pakistani Taliban chief Mehsud buried - state TV,”BBC, January 31, 2010. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8489787.stm
[4] “ Has Hakimullah died of wounds?,” The News, February 1, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=26990
[5] “Sources: Pakistani Taliban leader is dead,” CNN, February 9, 2010. Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/02/09/pakistan.meshud.dead/
[6] Haq Nawaz Khan and Pamela Constable, “Pakistani Taliban leader's death would be 'fatal blow' for group, analyst says,” Washington Post, February 2, 2010. Available at  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/01/AR2010020101866_pf.html
Imtiaz Gul, “Death by drone?,” Foreign Policy, January 31, 2010. Available at http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/01/31/death_by_drone_is_hakimullah_mehsud_dead_or_alive
[7] David Ignatius, “Revenge from 10,000 feet,” Denver Post, February 7, 2010. Available at http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_14341727
Asif Shehzad, “Pakistan investigates report Taliban chief is dead,” AP, january 31, 2009. Available at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100131/ap_on_re_as/as_pakistan
[8] Reza Jan, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Hakimullah Mehsud Takes Power in the TTP,” CriticalThreats.org, September 8, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/king-dead-long-live-king-hakimullah-mehsud-takes-power-ttp
[9] Reza Jan, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Hakimullah Mehsud Takes Power in the TTP,” CriticalThreats.org, September 8, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/king-dead-long-live-king-hakimullah-mehsud-takes-power-ttp
“Tehrik-e- Taliban Pakistan Karachi Amir, accomplice sent to jail,” The Pakistani Newswire, November 3, 2009. Available at Nexis.com
“‘Senior officers were main target of GHQ attack’,” The News, October 13, 2009. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=24981
[10] Reza Jan, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Hakimullah Mehsud Takes Power in the TTP,” CriticalThreats.org, September 8, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/king-dead-long-live-king-hakimullah-mehsud-takes-power-ttp
Mukhtar Khan, “Pakistan’s Most Wanted: A Profile of Tehrik-e-Taliban Leader Baitullah Mahsud,” Jamestown, January 28, 2010. Available at http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Bswords%5D=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews%5Bany_of_the_words%5D=qari%20hussain&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=35973&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=45ff7b7160
“FIA traces nine terrorists involved in attack on Musharraf,” Daily Times, January 23, 2010. Available at Nexis.com
[11] “Hakimullah’s uncertain fate, rise,” The News, February 9, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=223236
[12] “Maulana Toofan new acting TTP chief?,” The News, February 2, 2010. Available at  http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=27020
[13] Pir Zubair Shah, “With Taliban Leader Reported Dead, New Pakistani Figure Emerges,” New York Times, February 5, 2010. Available at  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/06/world/asia/06taliban.html
[14] “Hakimullah’s uncertain fate, rise,” The News, February 9, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=223236
[15] “Hakimullah’s uncertain fate, rise,” The News, February 9, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=223236
[16] Alex Rodriguez, “Pakistan Taliban regrouping outside Waziristan,” LA Times, November 26, 2009. Available at http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/26/world/la-fg-waziristan26-2009nov26
[17] “Hakimullah’s uncertain fate, rise,” The News, February 9, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=223236
Pir Zubair Shah, “With Taliban Leader Reported Dead, New Pakistani Figure Emerges,” New York Times, February 5, 2010. Available at  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/06/world/asia/06taliban.html
[18] Frederick Kagan, Reza Jan, and Charlie Szrom, “The War in Waziristan: Operation Rah-e-Nijat - Phase 1 Analysis,” CriticalThreats.org, November 18, 2009. Available at http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/war-waziristan-operation-rah-e-nijat-phase-1-analysis
[19] Couldn’t find an article where Fred used this in print, anyone else have a link?
[20] Haq Nawaz Khan and Pamela Constable, “Pakistani Taliban leader's death would be 'fatal blow' for group, analyst says,” Washington Post, February 2, 2010. Available at  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/01/AR2010020101866_pf.html
[22] “Hakimullah’s uncertain fate, rise,” The News, February 9, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=223236
“TTP damaged,” Dawn News, February 1, 2010. Available at http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/19-ttp-damaged-hh-03
Sajjad Tarakzai, “New dangers in Pakistan Taliban leader's 'death',” AFP, February 5, 2010. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5g2bqIuKygsr8DQLlFSO_huOCWCQw
Rahimullah Yusufzai, “The hunt for Hakimullah,” The News, January 19, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=219485
[23] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “The hunt for Hakimullah,” The News, January 19, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/print1.asp?id=219485
[24] Nick Schifrin, “CIA Drone Gets Taliban Leader in Payback for Deaths of Its Agents,” ABC News, February 1, 2010. Available at http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=9720176
Sajjad Tarakzai, “New dangers in Pakistan Taliban leader's 'death',” AFP, February 5, 2010. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5g2bqIuKygsr8DQLlFSO_huOCWCQw