August 10, 2009
Reported Death of Beitullah Mehsud & Pakistani Taliban Leadership
Following news of the reported death of Pakistani Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud, stories about a violent clash amongst potential successors have emerged over the weekend. Below, the Critical Threats Project presents a brief summary of the emerging—and still unconfirmed—details of both incidents.
Conflicting reports of a shootout between senior Taliban deputies in Waziristan have been adding to the uncertainties regarding the death of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Beitullah Mehsud this weekend.
On Wednesday a drone missile struck the house of Beitullah Mehsud’s father-in-law in the village of Zangara, initially reported as killing Beitullah’s second wife. The strike stirred up rumors that Beitullah was also killed in the attack. On Friday, senior officials in the Pakistani government, including Foreign Minister Mehmood Qureshi and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, confirmed that Beitullah had indeed been killed, though they mentioned they were waiting for hard evidence, including DNA confirmation. While the Pakistani military initially refrained from commenting on the outcome of the strike, security officials speaking anonymously confirmed the ministers’ statements. Although militants had earlier denied the Taliban chief was anywhere near the area that the strike took place, on Friday a TTP spokesman and a senior TTP deputy, Kafayatullah and Maulvi Faqir Muhammad respectively, confirmed the reports that Beitullah had been killed in the strike.
While Beitullah has been prematurely declared dead in the past, both U.S. and Pakistani officials say they have strong reason to believe Mehsud is dead. According to Dawn News Online, the U.S. has shared with the Pakistanis surveillance footage from a drone showing the missile strike and its aftermath. The video feed reportedly confirms the sequences of the strike and that Mehsud has been killed. Numerous news agencies reported a heavier-than-normal Taliban-constructed cordon around the area following the attack.
Shortly after news of Beitullah’s death, rumors emerged in the media of a shura taking place in Sara Rogha, South Waziristan, to decide the TTP leadership succession. TTP deputies Hakimullah Mehsud, Wali-ur-Rehman, and Azmatullah were said to be likely successors. Qari Hussain Mehsud, another TTP deputy, had received some mention as well. The shura’s final decision was reportedly postponed following reports of differences emerging between the different factions involved. According to Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), a Taliban commander, speaking anonymously, said the shura had delayed its decision due to internal dissent. According to this commander, most shura members wanted to pick Hakimullah but others wished to honor Baitullah’s wish to see Wali-ur-Rehman in charge.
On Saturday, Hakimullah Mehsud and Maulvi Umar, another Taliban spokesman, both called separate AP reporters claiming that Beitullah Mehsud was still alive and that the TTP chief had not been hit in the strike. However, when the AP reporters inquired as to why the refutations had not come earlier, no answer was given and when asked if Beitullah could call AP to confirm that he was alive, the spokesmen said it was “not possible at the moment.” Commander Noor Syed later said that Baitullah was alive but gravely ill and that he would release a video on Monday disproving allegations of his death. However, Noor said the TTP chief could not make a live television appearance as that risked his being targeted by yet another strike. It remains to be seen whether any footage released can be verified as having been filmed after the strike. Adding to the confusion on Saturday in Pakistan, reports filtered out into the television news media of a shootout occurring during the reported shura in Sara Rogha.
Pakistani news agencies, including the state-run TV channel, PTV, reported that Hakimullah Mehsud had been shot by Wali-ur-Rehman, or one of his supporters, following disagreements regarding the leadership succession. While one Taliban commander, Noor Syed, denied reports of a shootout, Interior Minister Rehman Malik made a statement confirming that the clash had taken place and that one of the two commanders had been killed. Malik maintained that it was unclear whether Hakimullah Mehsud or Wali-ur-Rahman had been killed, but indicated that further confirmation would be received within forty-eight hours.
Sunday brought little clarification as to what transpired at the alleged succession meeting. DPA reported that Turkistan Bhittani, a Taliban defector and pro-government militant commander, claimed rumors of the shootout were true. According to Bhittani, dozens had been killed in the shura clashes including Qari Hussain, a cousin of Baitullah’s and a senior deputy in the TTP. However, Bhittani himself was not present at the meeting and his claims cannot be verified. Later on Sunday, Reuters reported that it received a call from Wali-ur-Rehman; the caller claimed that both he and Hakimullah were alive, and that neither a shootout, nor a shura, had ever taken place. However, according to the New York Times, the Pakistani government on Sunday continued to stand by its information that both Beitullah and Hakimullah were dead. According to the report, both Pakistani and U.S. officials had received reports of a power struggle amongst the Taliban following Beitullah’s demise. U.S. National Security Advisor, James Jones, told Fox News on Sunday that he was almost certain Beitullah had been killed; he also commented that the reports of dissent amongst the Taliban top brass were a sign of good progress in Pakistan.
According to local and international news media, Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman were the likeliest to succeed Beitullah. News reports claimed that while Beitullah preferred Wali-ur-Rehman as a future successor, Hakimullah, Beitullah’s cousin, wielded more power and would likely assert control. On Saturday, Dawn News reported that Wali-ur-Rehman, a political leader within the TTP, was expected to take over the top leadership position and Hakimullah, an operational commander in the TTP and recently head of Taliban forces in Khyber, Orakzai, and Kurram agencies of the FATA, would become the overall second-in-command. This apparently led to a dispute in which Wali-ur-Rehman, or a supporter of his, started an exchange of fire that killed Hakimullah and gravely wounded Wali-ur-Rehman.
According to AP reports published on Friday, Qari Hussain Mehsud, also a cousin of Beitullah’s and a senior deputy in the TTP, was strongly opposed to the succession of Wali-ur-Rehman. If Rehman was responsible for Hakimullah’s death—and survives his own injuries—he will likely monitor reactions from Qari Hussain. Hakimullah’s killing may prompt Qari Hussain to seek revenge against Wali-ur-Rehman as well as present him with an opportunity to seize the top slot in the TTP command structure. Although Qari Hussein had been reported as Beitullah’s likely successor in recent months, his name received little prominence in the media until news of the shura clashes emerged on Saturday.
The proliferation of reports regarding the shootout during the Taliban shura cast doubt upon the statements of militant commanders claiming Beitullah is alive. The shura would likely only be taking place if Beitullah Mehsud had, indeed, been killed. The U.S. drone strike targeting Beitullah took place on Wednesday, giving plenty of time for Beitullah to either appear in person or to make a statement himself disproving his death. If Beitullah were alive and his silence was deliberate, it would be directly contributing to a bitter struggle within his own organization to fill a spot that is not vacant. A prominent security analyst and former chief administrator of the FATA, Mehmood Shah, suggested that the Taliban claims do not appear to be true and are more likely manifestations of a power struggle within the TTP. It is possible that the deputies’ claims that Mehsud is alive are aimed at maintaining some sense of unity amongst the wider group until a successor can be agreed upon.
Assuming the stories behind the power struggle are true, and whether or not Hakimullah was killed, the strike on Beitullah has clearly exposed serious fragmentation within the TTP. While individual TTP commanders always maintained a certain level of autonomy, Beitullah’s stewardship had centralized the Pakistani Taliban to a greater degree than ever in the past. Beitullah’s removal will likely deliver a big blow to the unity, cohesion, and capabilities of the Pakistani Taliban. Whether or not reports of the shootout are true, it is clear the Taliban have entered a period of great uncertainty. Unless there can be some rapid reconciliation between the feuding groups, it appears that outside mediation by the Haqqani network, Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, or potentially someone in the al Qaeda senior leadership, will be required to maintain the unity of the group and to prevent the many disparate factions from splintering. Such action risks the Afghan Taliban or Al Qaeda gaining a stronger foothold in the Pakistani Taliban command structure, something the personality of Beitullah Mehsud had thus far mitigated. For the Pakistani government, Beitullah’s neutralization presents the best opportunity yet to fracture the Taliban.
Maulvi Nazir and Maulvi Gul Bahadur, arguably the most important Taliban commanders in Waziristan after Beitullah, have yet to react to the ongoing reports and it remains to be seen where they position themselves. Gul Bahadur’s reaction could be especially telling, as the North Waziristan commander had recently started attacking Pakistani security forces in North Waziristan, apparently honoring the pact he and Nazir had signed with Beitullah in February 2009. It remains to be seen whether he will continue his opposition to the government now that Beitullah is dead.
It will also be important to watch for a reaction from the Pakistan military. From the beginning, the Pakistani army stated its latest operation in South Waziristan, Rah-e-Nijat, was to be a punitive operation targeted specifically against Beitullah Mehsud. Now that it appears he may be dead, it is a matter of debate whether the Pakistanis will seize the opportunity to dismantle the TTP at its weakest or whether it will declare that its objectives have been met and once again leave Waziristan to its own devices.
“Pakistan Taliban: 'Leader Mehsud Is Dead'”, Sky News, August 7, 2009. Available at