Qari Zainuddin Mehsud Assassination and Biography
As the Pakistani Army plans a major ground offensive in the South Waziristan agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and American drones continue to strike enemy strongholds in the area, Qari Zainuddin, the anti-American leader of a Taliban faction called the Abdullah Mehsud Group, was assassinated by his bodyguard. The killing occurred in the district of Dera Ismail Khan after morning prayers on Tuesday, June 23, 2009, when the guard allegedly stormed into Zainuddin’s office and shot him in his sleep.
The assassination comes at a time when Zainuddin’s group, which opposes terrorist activity in Pakistan but supports a jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was inflicting significant damage on the operations of the Taliban’s main Pakistan faction, Beitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Several radical Islamic militant groups, each with their own leader, exist along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The groups each have different relationships with and loyalties to each other, al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani government; however, all of these groups remain fiercely anti-American and oppose the presence of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Currently, the expressed focus of the Pakistani Army’s operations in South Waziristan is to kill or capture TTP leader Beitullah Mehsud. The government of Pakistan blames Beitullah Mehsud for much of the recent terrorist violence inside Pakistan, holding him responsible for the deaths of more than 1,200 people in the past two years, including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto – a claim that Beitullah Mehsud denies. The Pakistani Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, stated that “[Beitullah Mehsud] has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan.”
In June 2009 alone, Beitullah Mehsud’s group has claimed responsibility for three major attacks within Pakistan: a luxury hotel bombing in Peshawar, a mosque bombing in Nowshera, and the assassination of an anti-Taliban cleric who spoke out against the use of suicide bombs. The governor of the North West Frontier Province, Owais Ahmed Ghani, deemed Beitullah Mehsud “the root cause of all evils.” The exact number of fighters under Beitullah Mehsud’s control is unknown, but estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000, including hundreds of suicide bombers.
In an effort to eliminate Beitullah Mehsud and his followers, the Pakistani military has utilized such conventional military tactics in South Waziristan, Beitullah Mehsud’s suspected location, as artillery and air strikes and an economic blockade.
Beyond these tactics, the military has employed the help of other Islamic militant leaders such as Qari Zainuddin, twenty-six to thirty years old according to varying sources, who maintained cordial relations with the Pakistani government while rivaling Beitullah Mehsud. Zainuddin originally hailed from the South Waziristan agency (very similar to a district) within FATA, but he had spent the past six months living in the Dera Ismail Khan district of the North West Frontier Province in an effort to avoid Beitullah Mehsud (although they are in different provinces, the Dera Ismail Khan district borders the South Waziristan agency).
Zainuddin’s family is part of the Mehsud tribe, one of the two major tribes of South Waziristan and the same tribe to which Beitullah Mehsud belongs. Although the Pakistani government rejects that it was funding Zainuddin’s group, a spokesperson for Zainuddin claimed that the group did receive “modest” funding from the Pakistani government through a zakat (religious alms) fund. Additionally, anonymous Pakistani intelligence officials have leaked to the press that it used Zainuddin’s supporters to provide identities and locations of Beitullah Mehsud’s forces to the Pakistani Army. (Editor’s Update: Pakistani government armed forces recently provided protection at Zainuddin’s funeral, thereby substantiating the close link between the Pakistani government and Zainuddin’s group.)
At a minimum, Zainuddin acknowledged that a peace agreement he had with the Pakistani government remained intact, thereby allowing his supporters to operate freely against Beitullah Mehsud. As of mid-June, residents in Taliban strongholds claimed that Zainuddin’s followers had killed at least thirty members of the TTP, and they had effectively prevented the TTP from operating in the districts of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan (both of which border South Waziristan). Zainuddin claimed that he had 3,000 fighters under his control, but other sources say the number could have been half that.
Zainuddin’s most important threat to Beitullah Mehsud’s power came from Zainuddin’s ability to potentially detract from Beitullah Mehsud’s popular support in Pakistan’s western border regions. For many months, Zainuddin had been waging a propaganda war on Beitullah Mehsud. In November 2008, Zainuddin distributed pamphlets in the North West Frontier Province accusing Beitullah Mehsud of defaming Islam, killing tribal elders, and eliminating militant commanders. In March 2009, Zainuddin promulgated similar pamphlets making the same claims and warning of strict penalties to those who provided shelter or financial support to Beitullah Mehsud or his followers or who attended Beitullah Mehsud’s public meetings.
In mid-June 2009, Zainuddin boasted that his efforts were paying off and that ninety-five percent of Pakistani tribesmen had turned against [Beitullah] Mehsud. In fact, according to a tribesman from the Mehsud tribe, “Beitullah told a jirga [i.e. council] member recently he was not too much worried about military action against him. It’s Zainuddin who has caused him anxiety.” Further, a jirga of tribal elders from the Mehsud tribe reportedly met in mid-June at the request of Zainuddin to express their disapproval of Beitullah Mehsud (the exact number of elders attending this jirga, however, cannot be confirmed). Other reports, though, indicate that tribal elders possess an equal disdain for both Zainuddin and Beitullah Mehsud.
Such efforts clearly inflicted a psychological impact on Beitullah Mehsud and his followers. Consequentially, aides to Zainuddin have asserted that the assassin was a supporter of Beitullah Mehsud. Immediately following the assassination, another one of Zainuddin’s bodyguards (who was with Zainuddin at the time of the attack) accused Beitullah Mehsud of sending one of his fighters, Gulbuddin Mehsud, to infiltrate Zainuddin’s group and kill its leader. However, other sources close to Zainuddin said that the perpetrator had been working for Zainuddin’s family for years and had only recently acted on orders from Beitullah Mehsud. Regardless of the assassin’s personal history, his motive was clear. A retired Pakistani brigadier who served in the region said that Zainuddin’s assassination was “a warning to other pro-government tribal commanders.”
Despite the fact that Zainuddin enjoyed the support of the Pakistani government and had hoped to eliminate his country’s worst terrorist, he shared with Beitullah Mehsud a hatred of the United States and its allies. He simply disagreed with Beitullah Mehsud’s focus on operations in Pakistan; he argued, rather, that Beitullah Mehsud was distracting Pakistani Muslims from fighting a legitimate jihad against the West in Afghanistan. He said in a recent interview, “The whole Muslim world should come together because all infidels have come together against Islam. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Muslims must protect ourselves. But we cannot go to Afghanistan these days because we have had to deal with Beitullah.” When questioned about Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, Zainuddin avoided the question by saying, “it was for the state to adopt a policy.” Zainuddin also tried to garner popular support for resisting Beitullah Mehsud by calling the TTP leader an agent of the Indian and Israeli governments, both strong allies of the United States.
The one major ideological difference between Zainuddin and Beitullah Mehsud was their view on terrorist attacks inside of Pakistan. On multiple occasions, Zainuddin stated that Islam does not permit terrorist activity within Pakistan. He opined explicitly, “Islam does not allow carrying out [terrorist] activities within Pakistan and this is the main cause that led to the difference with Beitullah Mehsud.” Zainuddin said further that “[his] fighters are united in the war against kufor [i.e. unbelief].” Beitullah Mehsud on the other hand, actively pursues targets in Pakistan that he views as un-Islamic or a threat to his power. This ideological difference allowed the Pakistani government to support Zainuddin.
The hatred that existed between Zainuddin and Beitullah Mehsud, however, stemmed from much more than an ideological disagreement. Although reports differ vastly in regards to early relations between these two rivals, the killing of Abdullah Mehsud appears to have been a watershed event in their relationship. Upon his release from Guantanamo Bay Prison in March 2004, Abdullah Mehsud allegedly became the undisputed leader of Islamic militants from the Mehsud tribe, which included Zainuddin and Beituallah. However, in 2005, and again in 2007, the Pakistani government used the help of Beituallah Mehsud to target Abdullah Mehsud. With Beitullah Mehsud providing intelligence to the Pakistani military, Abdullah Mehsud was killed in July 2007.
This act of betrayal infuriated Zainuddin, who subsequently took over control of Abdullah Mehsud’s group after its deputy was also killed. In December 2007, Beitullah Mehsud founded the TTP and quickly accrued power by merging with other Islamic militant groups in the region and signing peace deals (which he rarely honored) with the Pakistani government. Since the killing of Abdullah, the two groups have continuously targeted each other, resulting in the deaths of tens of fighters on both sides, including Beitullah Mehsud’s brother and Zainuddin’s brother and uncle, and, perhaps, other family members of both as well.
After Zainuddin’s death, the Abdullah Mehsud Group immediately named Zainuddin’s younger brother Misbahuddin Mehsud, who goes by the alias “Toofan,” as its new leader and vowed to continue fighting Beitullah. Before ascending to the top position, Toofan served as a military commander for the group and its primary spokesman. He also reportedly played a key role in major decisions within the Abdullah Mehsud Group. A Pakistani intelligence official said, “Before, when Qari [Zainuddin] was alive, Misbahuddin [Toofan] was the man who guided his brother on every occasion." Like his brother, he had also issued warnings to locals not to support Beitullah Mehsud’s group. Toofan, who was allegedly targeted by Beitullah’s TTP in a suicide bombing in Tank district – which borders South Waziristan and Dera Ismail Khan – on May 21, 2009, can certainly feel confident that he remains on Beitullah Mehsud’s hit list. Additionally, Toofan shares the hatred of the US held by both his older brother and Beitullah Mehsud: in a recent interview, he said that he supports the Taliban’s fight against American forces in Afghanistan. (Editor’s Update: After becoming leader of the group, Toofan stated, “Jihad against America and its allies would continue.”)
Escalating violence between the two groups promises to continue. A former top aide to Zainuddin, Baz Mohmmad, has said that the assassination has only strengthened the group’s resolve to continue targeting Beitullah Mehsud and his supporters. He has claimed that his group now has over seven-thousand armed fighters and tribesmen under its control to take on Beitullah Mehsud. While the aide likely exaggerated these numbers, the statement does accurately highlight the animosity between members of the Mehsud tribe and, more generally, the volatility throughout the border region of Pakistan.