By Zia Ur Rehman

Dec 27, 2013

Mullah Fazlullah, the new emir of Pakistani Taliban, will move the network’s headquarters from the North Waziristan tribal region to the Dir region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, reports say. Fazlullah belongs to Swat and had fled the area because of a military operation in 2009. The move signals a serious rift between him and the Taliban militants of the Mehsud tribe from Waziristan.

The killing of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone attack on November 1 had left various faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bickering over his successor.

A majority of Mehsud members of the TTP shura (council) wanted Khan Syed, also known as Sajna, to be their new chief. But other factions, especially those loyal to Hakimullah, backed Fazlullah.

Fazlullah made his maiden visit to North Waziristan after he was made the TTP emir. “Mehsud militants of the TTP are not accepting a non-Mehsud chief, and that is why Fazlullah chose Dir as his headquarters,” said a source linked to the TTP. “He thought they could target him in North Waziristan.” He said Fazlullah had not been able to carry out any suicide attacks in the country to avenge Hakimullah’s death so far, and that indicated that we was a weak leader.

“One reason Fazlullah wants to operate from Dir is the increasing intensity of drone attacks in Waziristan,” another source said.

Earlier in December, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said Fazlullah was no longer operating from Afghanistan, and had moved to “an unknown location in the tribal areas”. But analysts believe his support is rooted in Malakand division and not in the tribal areas.

A princely state until 1969, Dir consists of two districts named Lower Dir and Upper Dir, and borders Swat, Bajaur Agency, Chitral, and Afghanistan.

Tribal elders and police officials in Swat and Dir say Fazlullah and his supporters ran away to the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan after a full-fledged military operation against them began in 2009. Those who were left behind continued to operate under the leadership of their Dir commander Hafizullah.

Dir has also been the base of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), whose founder Sufi Muhammad, belongs to the Lal Qila town in Maidan area of Lower Dir. Sufi Muhammad is Fazlullah’s father-in-law.

There have been reports of an increasing presence of Taliban militants in the region. An Awami National Party (ANP) leader in Dir, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said Taliban militants were still active along the border with Afghanistan, especially in the Barawal area. Fazlullah-led militants, often numbering in the hundreds, have attacked Pakistani border outposts in Dir from Afghanistan several times over the last few years.

Some analysts say the killing of Malakand division’s top military commander Maj Gen Sanaullah Niazi – along with two other officers – close to the Afghan border in Upper Dir on September 15 corroborated the concerns of the residents of the area about the growing presence of Taliban. The TTP later released a video of the bombing that killed Gen Niazi on the internet.

Mullah Fazlullah in a rare video appearance

“In 2010 and 2011, TTP militants were involved in several subversive activities including the killing of pro-government tribal elders and ANP leaders and bombing the police and security officials,” said the ANP leader. Since the 2009 operation, they have restricted their battles to hit-and-run tactics ideal for guerilla warfare in Dir’s rugged mountains.

A Pakistan Army soldier guards a post on the snow-capped mountains of Swat

Some analysts say the Taliban are not in a position to gain control of Dir. “Because of heavy presence of army troops and pro-government tribal militias, Fazlullah and his fighters will not choose Dir as their headquarters,” said a Peshawar-based journalist who covers militancy in the region. He said Fazlullah and his group will continue to use hideouts situated in the bordering Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.