By Zia Ur Rehman

November 8, 2013

The killing of ruthless Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike last Friday has left various factions of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bickering over his successor, commentators and tribal elders say.

Hakimullah, his uncle, and four others men were killed in a drone attack in the Darpa Danday Khel area of Miranshah town of North Waziristan on November 1.

He had survived two previous drone strikes in January 2010 and January 2012, but a number of key leaders of his group have been killed by missiles fired by remotely operated drones. The most recent TTP leader to die in a drone attack was the group’s South Waziristan chief Waliur Rehman, who was killed in the Chashma area of the agency on May 29. Hakimullah was cautious and changed hideouts frequently.

Belonging to the Woji Khel clan of the Ishangi branch of the Mehsud tribe, Hakimullah succeeded his mentor Baitullah Mehsud as the emir of TTP – an outlawed network of Pakistani Taliban factions that has claimed almost all major terrorist attacks in the country. Baitullah was killed in a drone strike in August 2009.

Hakimullah was Baitullah’s spokesman for a while in 2006, before the TTP’s shura (council) appointed him chief of the Mehsud Taliban in Kurram agency. Orakzai and Khyber agencies were added to his portfolio later.

As the head of Mehsud Taliban, Hakimullah and his key commander Faqir Alam Mehsud – who was known for his brutality – killed dozens of Shias and their Sunni allies in Kurram and Hangu districts, according to locals. Under the command of Hakimullah, the TTP formed alliances with other militant groups and spread across the country, especially strengthening their networks in Punjab and Karachi.

The Pakistani government condemned last week’s attack in line with its anti-drone stance, but security officials privately welcomed the killing of the TTP chief.

Khan Said, also known as Sajna, in a photograph released by Radio Mashaal (RFERL)

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who has been tasked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with carrying out peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, was quick to condemn the drone strike as an attempt to sabotage the negotiation process.

A European diplomat in Islamabad believes Hakimullah’s killing is a victory for both Pakistan and the US. “The American and Pakistani governments had both put money on his head, but now Islamabad is mourning Hakimullah’s death,” he said. “It seems they are afraid of reprisal attacks from the TTP.”

For now, the TTP is dealing with a crisis of its own – differences over who should be their new leader. “After the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, there were serious differences between the factions led by Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud,” said a journalist who belongs to the Mehsud tribe. The matter was seemingly resolved when the TTP shura appointed Hakimullah the new emir and made Waliur Rehman his deputy, but cracks in the organization were exposed again after Waliur Rehman’s death when his followers chose Khan Said aka Sajna as his successor without consulting Hakimullah.

Months ago, Hakimullah had replaced Sajna with a new deputy, Latif Mehsud. Latif was arrested by US troops from the Logar province of Afghanistan on October 5, 2013, where he had gone to hold talks with Afghan intelligence officials.

Differences between the two factions had spilled over to Karachi in the recent months. Hakimullah was especially angry over the killing of his Karachi operational commander Sher Khan by their rival Taliban faction, and had been planning to send 50 fighters down south to avenge his death.

A source privy to a Taliban council meeting said a majority of Mehsud members of the shura want Sajna to be their new emir, but members belonging to the Hakimullah faction, the Malakand faction led by Mullah Fazlullah, and the Mohmand faction led by Omar Khalid, opposed Sajna. They say he was involved in the killing of Sher Khan.

On November 3, the shura appointed Asmatullah Bitani aka Shaheen as the interim emir. Bitani, aged between 33 and 35 years, is an important Taliban commander from the Jandola area of the Tank frontier region. He is among the 20 most wanted terrorists and operates in South Waziristan, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.

Among the nominees for the new emir were three key commanders – Mullah Fazlullah of Malakand, Mullah Gul Zaman of Orakzai, and Hafiz Saeed Khan of Orakzai. But the Mehsud members of the Taliban shura may not accept a non-Mehsud chief. The Hakimullah faction has proposed Sheharyar Mehsud, a close aide of Hakmiullah and an important field commander as the new TTP leader.

Local journalists said Sajna is the most likely choice, because he belongs to the Mehsud clan, but his appointment may deepen the rivalries between the various Taliban factions. Analysts say Sajna favors peace talks with the government.

The writer is a journalist and a researcher.