The South Asia Channel

Rivals Fight for Pakistani Taliban’s Soul

The ongoing turf war between the different Taliban factions in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal region has exposed the intra-organizational and tribal rivalries and animosity that have long existed, but stayed dormant for years, mainly because of the charisma of leaders such as Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud.

The hidden rivalries first came to the fore in 2009, after Baitullah, the founder of the Pakistani Taliban -- known formally as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP - was killed in a drone strike, but the presence of his close confidantes, such as Wali ur-Rehman and Hakimullah, averted a full-fledged war.

However, now that all three men, along with several other key Taliban leaders, are dead, (Wali and Hakimullah were both killed in drone strikes, in May and November 2013, respectively) and the TTP command has gone to Mullah Fazlullah, a man who does not come from Waziristan and is hiding across the border in Afghanistan, there is little chance of suppressing the enmities any longer.

According to Sailab Mehsud, a journalist in the region who hails from the same Mehsud tribe, over the past two weeks, as many as 33 militants, including a senior commander named Kashaid, have been killed in attacks and counter-attacks between members of two factions: one led by Shehriyar Mehsud, a loyalist of Hakimullah; the other by Khan Said, alias Sajna, a close confidante of Wali. The majority of those killed belong to Shehriyar's group, which has accused Said of trying to forcefully take over the militant organization. 

Said was the most senior TTP commander after Hakimullah's death and was expected to be elevated to the rank of TTP chief. However, the Taliban's shura council (advisory body) picked Fazlullah instead. This further increased the grievances in Said's camp, which was already at loggerheads with Hakimullah loyalists because of Said's unilateral announcement that he was Wali's successor.

While this intra-TTP war seems to be a new phenomenon, local journalist Umar Daraz Wazir says its roots lie in old tribal rivalries and tensions that emerged after Baitullah's death, when Hakimullah and Wali struggled for command. However, they were able to resolve their differences with the help of other TTP commanders and agreed on a power-sharing structure, where Hakimullah was the TTP chief and Wali was his deputy. But that ended when they were both killed.

According to Sailab, both Shehriyar and Said belong to the same tribe, but Said is mostly supported by experienced Taliban commanders, while Shehriyar is leading the organization's youngsters.

Though the focus of their fighting is over TTP leadership, the two factions are also involved in a turf war in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial hub, where they generate most of their financial resources in the shape of extortions and kidnapping for ransom. Yet the Mohmand Taliban, led by commander Abdul Wali, alias Omar Khalid Khurasani, are also holding sway in the city. 

Khurasani has recently emerged as an imposing and strong Taliban commander who is regularly sending audio- and video-recorded messages and emails to the Pakistani media disregarding Shahidullah Shahid, the TTP's central spokesman, the only person assigned to issue statements on various matters regarding the TTP and its decisions.

Most recently, Khurasani issued several statements opposing peace talks with the Pakistani government, despite the fact that the TTP was engaged in the negotiations. And the group's killing and beheading of 23 kidnapped Pakistani security personnel in February severely jeopardized the painstakingly organized peace process.

Although Khurasani has been an active Taliban commander for a long time, his media appearances suddenly increased after Hakimullah's death. Since then, he has seldom heeded TTP orders and mostly acts as an independent warlord.

While it is unclear where this all of infighting will lead, Sailab says the emergence of Khurasani, yet another non-Mehsud commander (Fazlullah and his deputy, Khalid Haqqani, are the other two) is a serious cause of concern for Mehsud Taliban members, who believe only they have the right of TTP leadership.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times. 

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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