July 17, 2009
Question Mark of South Waziristan: Biography and Analysis of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad
Maulvi Nazir Ahmad is pivotal to Pakistan’s military operations in Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal region bordering Afghanistan. He is the second most important Taliban leader in South Waziristan after Beitullah Mehsud. In exchange for his cooperation, Nazir has demanded the Pakistani government pressure the U.S. to cease drone strikes in South Waziristan. Nazir has previously allied himself with both Islamabad and Mehsud, but has not yet indicated where his allegiances lie in the recent fighting.
Pakistan’s military has intensified operations in the Waziristan agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, pursuing Beitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist and leader of the main Pakistani Taliban faction. The success of Pakistan’s operations may depend in large part on the actions of South Waziristan’s second most powerful Taliban commander, Maulvi Nazir Ahmad (also known as “Mullah Nazir”). Maulvi Nazir has a complicated history of clashes and alliances with both his Taliban associates and the Pakistani government, and so far seems to be attempting to straddle both sides of the current conflict in an effort to maximize his power and increase his chances of survival.
In recent days, conflicting rumors have emerged claiming that Nazir has both brokered a peace deal with the Pakistani government and directed his forces to assault Pakistani military installations. The recent resumption of hostilities against the Pakistani military and the cancellation of a previous peace deal by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the top Taliban leader in North Waziristan, has made the question of Nazir’s allegiances even more critical. He now stands as the sole remaining major militant leader within the Waziristan agencies that the Pakistani government could hope to gain as an ally.
If Mullah Nazir does side with Beitullah Mehsud – a former enemy– the alliance could drain the Pakistani military’s resources significantly: Nazir could potentially bring thousands of fighters to the frontlines against the Pakistani military. On the other hand, if Nazir remains neutral or sides with the Pakistani army – once a strong supporter of Nazir – the Pakistani government could direct its resources against Beitullah Mehsud with much greater efficiency.
Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Nazir has focused his operations primarily on fighting the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, unlike Beitullah Mehsud whose operations have largely focused on the Pakistani state. However, Nazir’s fidelity to the top Taliban leaders, along with a desire to form a more robust force to counter the increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, led him to form an alliance with Beitullah Mehsud and Gul Bahadur in February of this year. Given these dual loyalties, it remains unclear whose side this critical leader will take once Pakistan’s major ground offense begins.
Always a Fighter
Nazir Ahmad was born in Bermel, a town in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, five and a half miles from the border with Pakistan, in 1975 – just four years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Nazir’s statements indicate that he possesses a good understanding of the history of jihad in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal region and that he has drawn inspiration from older generations of mujahideen – including his own father. In a recent interview, he recalled that, “The Soviets entered Afghanistan with great awe and terror. They had intended to enter Pakistan; at that time too, jihad erupted from these tribal areas. I remember my father took his gun, his bowl, and some food for himself…and started jihad against the Soviets with it…The Soviets were finally defeated. We feel proud in front of Allah that Russia too suffered defeat on our soil.”
At the end of the Afghan-Soviet war, various tribes, alliances and groups of ex-mujahideen controlled different parts of Afghanistan, often enacting brutality against certain groups of people, causing many Afghan natives to cross the border and relocate in Pakistan. Little evidence exists regarding on which side of the border Nazir spent his youth. However, according to the militant himself this fact holds little ideological importance: “We do not even accept these parting boundaries that ‘this shall be Pakistan’ and ‘that shall be Afghanistan.’ This is nothing but an inanity devised by the Jews, and we will reject it.” Accordingly, today, he holds both Pakistani and Afghan citizenship, and he reportedly owns land in South Waziristan, as well as in Bermel and Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Nazir maintains close tribal ties to the area he now inhabits. Two main tribes have historically controlled South Waziristan: the Wazir tribe and the Mehsud tribe. Over the years, these two tribes have struggled to cooperate; today a South Waziri’s tribal affiliation often dictates his military allegiance. Nazir’s family hails from the Ahmedzai branch of the Wazir tribe, within which they belong to the Zalikhel clan and Kakakhel sub-clan – the smallest of all Zalikhel sub-clans.
During his youth, Nazir received primary education at a local madrassa and later entered formal religious training at the Central Madrassa of Wana in South Waziristan. At around the same time Nazir studied in Wana (South Waziristan’s administrative headquarters), Mullah Omar formed the Taliban in the spring of 1994; by November of that year Omar had captured Kandahar, where Omar made his headquarters throughout the Taliban rule of Afghanistan. In its nascent stages, many of the Taliban’s young fighters came from Pakistani madrassas like Nazir’s. Nazir himself reportedly supported the Taliban jihad in 1995 and ’96 while still receiving his education, and became a full-time member after the fall of Kabul in September 1996. He earned his stripes by fighting in at least eight military operations for the Taliban before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.
After Kabul fell to U.S. forces in November 2001, Nazir, along with thousands of other al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, returned to South Waziristan. Within a month of relocating, Nazir participated in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, claiming the American base in Machadad, which sits approximately five miles from the border with Pakistan, as his first target. As the number of mujahideen fighting alongside him increased, so did the frequency of attacks, which focused primarily on areas immediately adjacent to South Waziristan, including Nazir’s hometown of Bermel. Nazir boasts that, early in his campaign of attacks, he participated in a raid in Shikin, Afghanistan, during which his group seized an Afghan base and burnt eighteen Afghan soldiers alive. Subsequently, Nazir’s group began employing guerilla tactics such as ambushes, missile attacks, and IED strikes against American and Afghan military forces.
In May 2002, the Pakistani military sent approximately 8,000 troops into South Waziristan in an effort to kill or capture the thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters operating out of the agency. At this point, Nazir claims that he had “no choice other than to direct [his] weapons towards the Pakistani Government.” By 2003, Nazir had made his way onto Pakistan’s most-wanted list, and in 2004 he surrendered to Pakistani authorities. Authorities subsequently interrogated him, declared him “clean and clear,” and released him after signing a peace agreement with Nek Mohammad, a powerful Taliban commander from South Waziristan.
Nazir drew little attention to himself for the two years immediately following this episode, but reemerged in the spotlight in November 2006, when a high-powered Taliban jirga (council) crossed over from Afghanistan and met with Waziri tribal leaders to select a new Taliban leader for western South Waziristan after local elders complained that Taliban fighters had precipitated tension between the Taliban and the locals as a result of target killings and “unbecoming behavior.” Subsequently, the jirga appointed Nazir the emir (leader) of the Taliban’s Wazir faction in South Waziristan and established two executive councils which Nazir would have to consult before executing any policy decisions.
By the spring of 2007, Nazir had gained control of most of the western part of South Waziristan, including the agency’s administrative headquarters of Wana, where he imposed a brutal form of shari‘a law, reportedly with the tacit acquiescence of the Pakistani government. Under his system of governance, Nazir established Islamic courts, as well as a six-member committee (chaired by Nazir himself), to settle local disputes in accordance with shari‘a. Since his elevation to commander of the Wazir faction of the Taliban in South Waziristan, Nazir has run terrorist training camps, dispatched suicide bombers, provided safe houses for al-Qaeda fighters, and conducted cross-border operations, all targeting primarily the United States and its NATO allies. Nazir claims also to send fighters into Afghanistan who then operate “under the command of the local emir of the Taliban in [the] province” to which they are sent. Further, he continues to call on young Pakistanis to take up jihad against the United States in Afghanistan.
Nazir has not been entirely alone in these endeavors, however. On February 25th, 2009, Nazir and the two other most powerful Taliban leaders in Waziristan, Beitullah Mehsud of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan, formed an alliance called Shura Ittihad al-Mujahideen (Allied Mujahideen Council), which pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mullah Omar and vowed to fight the infidel governments of the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
This type of behavior has made Nazir a primary target for the United States military. The earliest reported attack on Nazir by U.S. drones occurred on October 31, 2008 – a strike that reportedly wounded him. This year alone, U.S. drones have targeted militants in Nazir’s territory of South Waziristan at least eight times, killing several key al-Qaeda figures, including Ahmed Salim Swedan and Osama al-Kini, whom the U.S .wanted for their roles in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Though the U.S. military rarely reveals its intended targets in Pakistan, the death of key al-Qaeda figures within Nazir’s territories indicates that, at a minimum, he is willing to provide a safe haven for at least some high-level terrorists.
Since Mullah Nazir’s ascendance in November 2006, his lust for power and strong survival instinct have driven him to forge and break alliances with both the Pakistani government and his fellow Taliban commander and head of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Beitullah Mehsud. Today, as the Pakistani military continues to bomb and shell targets in South Waziristan, the allegiance of Nazir remains in question, with both sides hoping to receive his support. Nazir has instead insisted on several occasions, including when he joined the Allied Mujahideen Council and again in April of this year, that, ultimately, his allegiance lays with neither the government nor Beitullah Mehsud, but rather Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar: “The Emir of the Believers [i.e. Mullah Omar] is the Emir of the Jihad too. The mujahideen all over the world accept him as their emir.” However, recently he has pledged to support Beitullah Mehsud – once a hated enemy – in his fight against the Pakistani military – once the strongest ally of Nazir.
Within months of becoming the head of the Taliban’s Wazir faction in South Waziristan (in November 2006), Nazir began consolidating his power. With the backing of top Taliban leaders from both Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Dadullah, Nazir quickly earned the allegiance of many from his own tribe, members of the Punjabi Taliban, Kashmiri militants, and other Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. By the beginning of 2007, he had established control over much of western South Waziristan.
Several rival Taliban factions, however, have stood in the way of Nazir’s attempt to gain complete control of South Waziristan, including the city of Wana. These other groups, which have included some members of Nazir’s own tribe and forces led by Beitullah Mehsud, leveraged the manpower of a group of fighters, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, with whom Nazir already harbored grievances. Hundreds of Uzbeks moved into the Federally Administered Tribal Regions in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul in 2001.
In early 2007, Nazir had claimed that over the previous two years, the Uzbeks had killed more than 200 tribal elders from his region. He also accused the Uzbek militants of “killing and robbing tribesmen besides imposing their self-styled shari‘a upon them.” Further, Nazir and other locals developed a grudge against the Uzbeks for claiming valuable and cultivable land in South Waziristan, which they often turned into highly successful farms. These grievances, combined with the fact that Nazir’s Taliban rivals cooperated with and sheltered some of the Uzbek fighters, inclined Nazir to turn his own guns against the Uzbeks.
Meanwhile, the United States had tasked President Musharraf and the Pakistani government with killing or capturing as many foreign fighters in the tribal regions of Pakistan as possible, since such elements supported the fight against American forces in Afghanistan.  Of these foreign fighters, Uzbeks comprised a large number: according to Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid, between 1,500 and 2,000 Uzbeks lived in Waziristan in 2007, and, by 2008, between three and four thousand Uzbeks and other Central Asians in the Pakistani tribal areas belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Thus, the Pakistani government and Nazir recognized a common enemy in the Uzbeks (or, in Nazir’s case, at least some of Uzbeks fighters) and joined forces in defeating them.
On March 6, 2007, as tensions between Nazir and the Uzbeks escalated, several Uzbek fighters attempted to kill a Wazir tribal leader just west of Wana, leading to a clash that killed nineteen people, including twelve Uzbek fighters. Soon an all-out battle ensued between Nazir and various Uzbek groups, with the Pakistani army and intelligence services providing support to Nazir. Among other forms of support, the Pakistani army offered medical services to Nazir and his fighters and helped them secure abandoned Uzbek bases. On March 13, 2007, the Uzbek fighters killed a Saudi al-Qaeda operative under Nazir’s protection in South Waziristan. This insult to the commander’s honor, along with the fact that the operative served as a top financer of operations in Waziristan, precipitated more fighting and greatly increased the animosity between Nazir and the Uzbeks.
By April 2007, Nazir, with significant help from the Pakistani military, had killed an estimated 250 Uzbek militants and driven them out of Wana and the surrounding areas. That same month, Beitullah Mehsud, one of the Taliban rivals of Nazir who benefited from the support of Uzbek fighters, helped, along with the Taliban’s Afghan leadership, negotiate a truce between Nazir and the Uzbeks. In December of that same year, Beitullah Mehsud formed and became the emir of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group of Taliban factions in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), which gave Mehsud unprecedented power. Nazir refused to join.
In January 2008, fighting erupted again in South Waziristan, this time directly between Nazir and Beitullah Mehsud and his TTP, whose formation undoubtedly posed a threat to Nazir’s grip on power in South Waziristan. On January 6, 2008, Nazir’s office in Wana came under attack, resulting in the deaths of three of Nazir’s associates and wounding four others; a few days later, another nine of Nazir’s tribesmen died in an attack on an office belonging to Haji Khanan, one of Nazir’s closest allies. Immediately following the attacks, Nazir’s group blamed Beitullah Mehsud and his supporters. A spokesman from Nazir’s group quickly announced that, “We suspect Beitullah and his Uzbek supporters for this gruesome attack” and called on all members of the Mehsud tribe to leave Wana or “be responsible for consequences.”
Fighting between Nazir and Beitullah Mehsud slowed at the end of January 2008, when the Taliban’s top leadership from the “Islamic Emirate,” the group led by Mullah Omar and his deputies who governed Afghanistan before the US invasion, reportedly sent a three-member delegation to negotiate a truce between the two South Waziristan Taliban leaders, as well as other Taliban commanders backed by the Uzbeks. Tensions, however, resumed: as a condition for peace, Nazir demanded that Beitullah Mehsud expel all Uzbek forces from his territory in northern South Waziristan – a requirement that Beitullah ostensibly refused to meet. Animosity between Nazir and Beitullah Mehsud increased again in July 2008, when the elders of Nazir’s Ahmedzai Wazir tribe announced that they would defend the Pakistani government from the Mehsud tribe if it challenged the government’s efforts to expel the remaining Uzbek fighters from the Waziristan agencies. At about the same juncture, Nazir also formed an alliance with Hafiz Gul Bahadur of Utmanzai branch of the Wazir tribe in North Waziristan, who had forged a peace agreement with the Pakistani government in February 2008.
The dynamics between Nazir and Beitullah Mehsud changed significantly at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. In December 2008, and again in early January 2009, Mullah Omar, the supreme emir of the Taliban, sent a six-person delegation to Waziristan to urge the three main Taliban leaders in South and North Waziristan – Nazir, Beitullah Mehsud, and Gul Bahadur – to cease their infighting and focus on the greater jihad in Afghanistan. Omar’s goal acquired new urgency when U.S. President Barack Obama announced on February 17, 2009 that he would deploy an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan – a move that Mullah Omar would clearly want to counter by directing a unified Taliban force to combat the U.S. troop increase. Within a week of the deployment announcement, the three main Taliban leaders from Waziristan issued a statement announcing their alliance in the Shura Ittihad Mujahideen, or Allied Mujahideen Council. A leaflet describing the formation of the alliance stated, “The objective of this alliance and shura [i.e. council] is to fight as one force in the name of Allah to stop the trespasser from his trespass and the oppressor from his oppression.”
In a meeting with Waziri tribal elders in February, Nazir classified the new alliance as an “understanding with Beitullah Mehsud to fight the U.S. together because we are concerned over the surge of American troops in Afghanistan.” He also emphasized that the alliance did not equate to a merger, as the groups would remain under independent leadership and operate autonomously in their own territories. These caveats suggest that Nazir may have entered into the alliance out of loyalty to Mullah Omar, as opposed to a genuine desire to fight alongside Beitullah Mehsud.
Nazir’s tone regarding the alliance lightened by April 2009, perhaps because of the continued U.S. drone strikes in South Waziristan. In an interview with al-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media department, Nazir blamed all previous disputes between him and Beitullah Mehsud on machinations designed by the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, to drive a wedge between their factions and thus weaken the Taliban. Concerning the alliance, he said “All praise is to Allah, the Mujahideen [of Waziristan] have now joined forces; Gul Bahadur, Beitullah and we have all become one. All the Mujahideen have unified against their enemy.” He stated further, “Anyone who tries to hurt or arrest our Mujahideen brothers in the future, we declare jihad against them, and we will fight them.”
Similarly, by April 2009, Nazir’s rhetoric towards the Pakistani government – an ally it vowed to defend less than a year earlier – had shifted dramatically. He accused the Pakistani government of executing attacks under the command of the U.S., labeled the Pakistani president and army chief of staff “cronies of the U.S.”, blamed Pakistan for U.S. drone strikes in Waziristan, and called the Pakistani government un-Islamic. Nazir also emphatically rejected the notion that his Taliban faction served as tools of the Pakistan government.
Despite Nazir’s anti-government rhetoric, the Pakistani intelligence agency still attempted to secure a neutrality agreement from Nazir (and, separately Gul Bahadur) in the lead up to the military’s operations in South Waziristan against Beitullah Mehsud. As of mid July 2009, the allegiance of Nazir’s group remains in question. A senior Nazir associate recently claimed that his commander does not intend to honor any sort of peace agreement with the Pakistani government because of the continued U.S. drone attacks in South Waziristan. A spokesman for Nazir stated, “We think the peace deal has lost its validity.” Alternatively, Ahmedzai Waziri tribal elders and a government official responsible for negotiating a peace deal with Nazir have announced that Nazir will honor previous non-aggression pacts it made with the government.
Nazir may be maintaining an ambiguous position to attempt to placate both Beitullah Mehsud and the Pakistani government as he conducts backdoor negotiations in the lead up to the ground offensive. In mid-June, a Beitullah Mehsud agent assassinated Qari Zainuddin Mehsud, the leader of a government-aligned Taliban faction opposed to Beitullah Mehsud called the Abdullah Mehsud Group. Nazir hopes to avoid a similar outcome. At the same time, he hopes to win the Pakistani government’s assurance that neither it nor CIA drones will target him.
Since the beginning of July, minor clashes between militants and the Pakistani army have occurred at least twice in areas supposedly under the control of Nazir, including Wana. Notably, however, the Pakistani government has not asserted any blame for these attacks on Nazir and has not declared Nazir a target for upcoming operations. Additionally, there have been no reported U.S. drone strikes in Nazir’s territory since June 18, 2009.
The new leader of the aforementioned government-aligned Abdullah Mehsud group, Toofan Mehsud, may have summed up Nazir’s position best: “We won’t find out where [Nazir]is until it comes to the time of fighting. He tells them [i.e. Beitullah Mehsud] that he’s with them, and he tells us that he’s with us.”
Discourse and Ideology of Maulvi Nazir
Nazir professes the same ultimate goal as most radical Islamic militants: “to make supreme the Word of Allah and establish the system of shari‘a.” In fact, once he gained control of Wana and western parts of South Waziristan, he put his words into action and implemented as law a strict interpretation of shari‘a. His professed ideology reflects a blend of ideologies of several prominent Islamists from the 20th century, including Hassan al-Banna and Syed Abdu A’la Mawdudi, both of whom rejected Western influence in their states and advocated for the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by shari‘a. However, Nazir’s thinking most closely resembles that of Syed Qutb, who, unlike al-Banna or Mawdudi, called for a vanguard of true believers to conduct a violent jihad in order to overthrow apostate regimes – a label that Nazir has used for both Karzai’s and Zardari’s governments.
Nazir sees his jihad as a global jihad – a concept did not gain strength until the 1990s. He states, “Our jihad isn’t limited to Pakistan or Afghanistan…All Muslims are our brothers, may they be in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, or anywhere in the world. It is impossible to create divisions between Muslims, and the present partitions are utterly rejected. Our jihad is a global jihad, and we aim to liberate Muslims throughout the world and obliterate tumult, oppression and mischief, and establish the system of shari‘a all over the world.”
Despite viewing jihad as a global objective, he focuses primarily on the “near enemy” (i.e. America in Afghanistan and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan), and then envisages the jihad emerging throughout Khurusan, or the Islamic lands directly surrounding Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then spreading all the way to Palestine.
Notably, Nazir also sees the ongoing dispute in Kashmir as a secondary priority because it draws resources away from defeating the primary enemies of America and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nazir’s perspective of a global jihad distinguishes him from the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, which, according to Mullah Omar, focuses primarily only on jihad in Afghanistan.
Like Osama bin Laden, who said, “there is no other duty after belief than fighting the enemy who is corrupting the life and the religion,” Nazir believes that jihad has become an individual obligation for all Muslims, especially after the “infidels [i.e. the U.S.] lay siege to Muslim lands,” such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He claims that jihad is as important as daily prayer and that, like prayer, young Muslims should not seek permission from their elders to participate in jihad. Nazir goes as far as to say, “a moment’s guard of the mujahid [i.e. participating in jihad] is better than all night’s worship of a worshipper.”
Nazir turns primarily to one particular verse in the Qur’an to justify his jihad against both the United States and, now, the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan:
“Oh you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: they are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you who turns to them (for friendship) is of them.” (al-Maida: 51).
From his perspective, therefore, the Pakistani government has aided and benefited from the aide of “Jews and Christians,” and has thus become one of them. He articulated this sentiment in the spring of 2009 as the U.S. targeted him with drone strikes. Similarly, Nazir views democracy as irreversibly contaminated by its affiliation with unbelievers, and thus utterly rejects it as an acceptable form of governance. He deems participation in electoral politics “unlawful,” as unbelievers conceived of the system and “Shiites, Christians and drunkards” participate in the system.
The final pillar that characterizes Nazir’s discourse and professed ideology is his regular references to historical (or hagiographical) events. Like many Islamic militants, Nazir refers to the often-cited Battle of Badr, in which the Prophet Muhammad benefited from divine inspiration to defeat a much larger army of pagans, to inspire his followers to overcome the odds and defeat much stronger and conventional state armies. He also calls “upon the Muslim nation and reminds them that our predecessors have waged jihad. The Holy Prophet did jihad himself and has said that: ‘jihad shall continue till the Resurrection Day.’”
In addition to referencing Islamic history frequently in his speeches and propaganda materials, Nazir also often makes use of more modern events in Afghani and Pakistani history. He suggests that the tribes of Waziristan have fought as mujahideen since the “old times,” and have already defeated both the British and the Soviets on their land. He uses this type of rhetoric ostensibly to inspire his followers to achieve success in the current jihad against the Americans.
Nazir’s ideological discourse seems to suggest that he fervently opposes the both United States and its ally, the Pakistani government, and will always stand with fellow mujahideen. However, his historical cooperation with the Pakistani government and previous clashes with Beitullah Mehsud indicate that limits exist when it comes to acting upon that ideology. In the lead up to the anticipated major ground offensive by the Pakistani military in South Waziristan, Nazir continues to play both sides – the Pakistani government and Beitullah Mehsud – like a seasoned politico. At the end of the day, the future of the Taliban in South Waziristan hinges on which side Nazir elects to take.