Al-Qa'ida intervenes in battle for control of the Pakistan Taliban

Militant organisation in disarray as authorities try to prove that leader was killed in US drone strike last week

Omar Waraich,Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 11 August 2009 07:43

Al-Qai'da militants may be trying to install their own "chief terrorist" to succeed Baitullah Mehsud as the head of the Pakistan Taliban following his death during a US drone strike, Pakistan's top security official believes.

The head of the country's interior ministry, Rehman Malik, said the Pakistan Taliban was in disarray following last week's targeted killing of Mehsud and that in the ensuing uncertainty al-Qa'ida was using its influence to try to ensure it selected his replacement.

Mr Malik voiced his concern as Pakistan said it was trying to collect DNA evidence to conclusively confirm the Taliban commander's death in the rugged and inaccessible wilds of Taliban-controlled South Waziristan. Pakistani authorities will try to compare a sample to the DNA of one of Mehsud's brothers, killed in a previous strike.

"It will take some time for them to regroup," Mr Malik told the BBC.

"The other thing which is a bit worrying is that al-Qa'ida is getting grouped in the same place, and now they are trying to find out somebody to install him as the leader, as the chief terrorist, in that area."

Both Islamabad and Washington have both said that there is credible evidence pointing to Mehsud's death. General James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, put the accuracy of that intelligence in the "90 per cent" category.

Yet since news of his death emerged late last week there have been a series of conflicting reports and claims, both as to whether he was actually killed and concerning the struggle to find a successor. On Sunday, there were reports of a shootout between Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman, two militant commanders among those tipped to succeed the dead leader.

Hakimullah was said to have been killed in the shootout, but yesterday he telephoned reporters to say that he was unharmed and even that Baitullah Mehsud was still alive as well.

"There is neither any rift in the Taliban ranks nor will they fight against each other," he told the Associated Press. "This propaganda cannot divide us. And I will say again Baitullah Mehsud is alive."

Al-Qa'ida, whose leader Osama Bin Laden is still believed to hiding in Pakistan's remote border regions, had long wielded a strong influence over the Pakistan Taliban. Indeed, Mehsud's close links to the network is considered one of the reasons for his eventual emergence three years ago as the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a loose coalition of more than a dozen Pakistan militant groups.

Earlier this year when Washington placed a $5m (£3m) bounty on his head, it described the fearsome militant leader as "a key al-Qai'da facilitator".

Mehsud had also forged deep alliances with southern Punjabi militant groups, who in turn provided foot soldiers in Pakistan for al-Qai'da. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a vicious offshoot of the sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba group, is believed to have worked with al-Qai'da in the devastating September 2008 attack on Islamabad's Marriott Hotel.

"Al-Qai'da has always been their boss," said Shaukat Qadir, a retired army brigadier turned analyst. "These people, all the different factions, have been factions controlled by al-Qai'da. What al-Qai'da does is provides them with advisers. The Mehsud group, led by Baitullah, had the maximum numbers of al-Qai'da advisers."

In the aftermath of his apparent death - by a CIA missile strike last Wednesday - reports have emerged of jockeying between other Taliban leaders as to who will seek to take charge of a militant movement that perhaps numbers 20,000 fighters. While Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali-ur-Rehman are among those most often cited as likely successors, another possible direction for the group would be to fall under the control of the rival Waziri tribe who concentrate their fire on US and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan, using the tribal areas as a staging ground for the cross-border assaults.

Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan both boast thousands of fighters under their command. The pair had in the past fallen out with Mehsud over tactical differences, before entering non-aggression pacts with the Pakistan Taliban leader.

Much of those differences centred on the question of priorities; Bahadur and Nazir considered waging jihad in Afghanistan most important while, in contrast, Mehsud fought largely Pakistani targets. A focus on Afghanistan may suit the Haqqani network.

Mr Malik, who said the government was taking "all those measures which are necessary" to confront the continuing threat from militants, did not specify who he believed might be al-Qa'ida's preferred candidate to lead the Pakistan Taliban.

It is all but inconceivable, however, that the Taliban would agree to unite behind an Arab or "foreign" leader and would only back a Pashtun.

Succession war: Taliban leadership rivals

* Hakimullah Mehsud Believed to be aged in his late 20s, Hakimullah has long been considered Baitullah Mehsud's senior lieutenant and has been identified as his likely successor. Last year, he said that he was the Taliban commander for the Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai tribal areas. Highly mobile and considered ruthless, he is the cousin of Qari Hussain, another feared Taliban leader blamed for a series of suicide bombings. Reports of Hakimullah's death on Sunday proved inaccurate when he phoned news agencies to confirm that he was alive.

* Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani From their base in Waziristan, the Haqqanis mount attacks on US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin was a senior mujahideen commander and a favourite of US and Pakistani spies. He was considered a close aide of Mullah Omar. He is said to be now aged in his 70s and it is rumoured that he is seriously ill or has died.His son, Sirajuddin, has taken charge in his absence. Also known as Khalifa, Jalaluddin has been accused of attacking the Indian Embassy in Kabul and of kidnapping the New York Times journalist David Rohde. The Haqqanis are unlikely to take control of the Pakistani Taliban, but may well step in and influence the succession wars. Analysts argue that perhaps, this will lead to a stronger focus on fighting in Afghanistan.

* Hafiz Gul Bahadur Based in North Waziristan, Bahadur is a descendant of Mirza Ali Khan, a Waziri freedom fighter who fought against British rule in India. He has emerged as a powerful warlord with links to senior leaders and al-Qa'ida. In 2005, when Pakistani forces pushed into North Waziristan, Bahadur directed the counter-offensive. The government was forced to agree to a ceasefire. This year, Bahadur and his ally Maulvi Nazir dropped their differences with Mehsud and agreed to work together, after the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar called for unity. Bahadur, 48, fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad.

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