A Who’s Who of the Insurgency in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province: Part One – North and South Waziristan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 18

Militants operating in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) include both Taliban and non-Taliban forces. However, the Taliban militants are much larger in number and have a lot more influence in the region. The Pakistani Taliban have close links with the Afghan Taliban and operate on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the Durand Line after the British diplomat who demarcated the boundary in 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand. The non-Taliban militants, on the other hand, are often pro-government and enjoy cordial ties with the Pakistan authorities and security forces.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) of North and South Waziristan

Most of the Pakistani Taliban militants are grouped in an umbrella organization, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The movement was launched on December 13, 2007, in a secret meeting of senior Taliban commanders hailing from the South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand, Bajaur and Darra Adamkhel tribal regions and the districts of Swat, Buner, Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Mardan and Kohat (The News International [Islamabad], December 15, 2007).

According to TTP deputy leader Maulana Faqir Mohammad and other senior commanders, the militants formed the organization to pool the resources and manpower of Pakistan’s Taliban to fight in self-defense if the security forces of Pakistan attacked their areas and also to extend help to the Afghan Taliban taking part in the “jihad,” or holy war, against U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in neighboring Afghanistan (Newsline.com.pk [Karachi], July 2008; The News International, July 29, 2007). Due to the military operations undertaken by Pakistan’s armed forces against them, the Pakistani Taliban now have a fight at home and are therefore unable to send many fighters to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban.

The TTP is headed by Baitullah Mahsud, based in South Waziristan and currently the most powerful Pakistani Taliban commander. In his late 30s, Mahsud is referred to as the “Amir Sahib” by his followers. Like many other Pakistanis, he began fighting as a young man during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan and later joined the Afghan Taliban. Presently, he is stated to be ill, suffering from kidney and heart diseases due to complications arising from diabetes. He reportedly named three of his commanders to run the TTP on his behalf, including Waliur Rahman who has been negotiating with the tribal jirgas, or councils, created by the Pakistan government (The News International, August 24).

The TTP is not a disciplined organization as two fairly recent events showed. First was the refusal of some components of the TTP to accept Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the Pakistani Taliban commander from North Waziristan, as deputy leader of the Baitullah Mahsud-led organization. Later in the winter of 2007-2008, Hafiz Gul Bahadur did not cooperate with Baitullah Mahsud when the latter was under attack from Pakistan Army. In fact, Bahadur warned Baitullah Mahsud against firing rockets at Pakistani forces camps in Razmak, which is located in North Waziristan. His plea was that he and his followers had signed a peace accord with Pakistan government in North Waziristan and therefore no action should be taken against the Pakistani security forces there as it would amount to violation of the agreement (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7). In simple terms, he refused to become involved in the fighting that was then taking place between Baitullah Mahsud’s Taliban and Pakistan Army in neighboring South Waziristan (Newsline.com.pk, July 2008)

Opposition to Baitullah Mahsud

Hafiz Gul Bahadur is now head of an emerging group of Pakistani Taliban commanders opposed to Baitullah Mahsud. The yet-to-be-named group also includes Maulvi Nazeer, the Taliban commander for Wana area in South Waziristan, and Haji Namdar Khan, the head of the Amr Bil Maruf Wa Nahi Anil Munkar (Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) group of militants operating in the Bara area of Khyber Agency. Namdar Khan was recently killed in Bara by a young man who was allegedly sent by Baitullah Mahsud’s group to eliminate him (The Nation [Islamabad], August 14). This was the second attempt on his life. The earlier attack was a suicide bombing targeting him some months ago, but he survived. Several of his men along with seminary students were killed in the earlier attack which took place inside an Islamic school in Bara.

In the second instance of TTP indiscipline, the TTP failed to take action against the Pakistani Taliban commander Omar Khalid (whose real name is Abdul Wali), in Mohmand Agency even though Baitullah Mahsud had sent a commission to investigate charges against him. In fact, TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar had publicly stated that Omar Khalid would be punished for attacking a rival group of Islamic fighters that had a training camp in Mohmand Agency. Omar Khalid’s men killed the group’s commander Shah Khalid and his deputy Obaidullah, along with several other fighters and captured more than 70 (Dawn [Karachi], July 20). The detained men, all belonging to the so-called Shah group affiliated with the Salafi Ahle-Hadith sect, were subsequently freed through the intervention of a jirga of religious scholars, including Maulana Sher Ali Shah, an Islamic teacher at the Darul Uloom Haqqani seminary in Akora Khattak near Peshawar. In the end, Baitullah Mahsud and the TTP just kept quiet and took no action against Omar Khalid as this would have created disharmony in the organization and possibly even caused a parting of ways between it and its chapter in Mohmand Agency.

South Waziristan

While discussing the leading figures of the ongoing insurgency in the NWFP, it would be worthwhile to start in South Waziristan, where the Pakistan Army began its military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in early 2004 and suffered heavy casualties in fierce clashes in Kalosha near the regional headquarters at Wana. The Wana region is inhabited by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, which has historically been a foe of the neighboring Mahsud tribe to which Baitullah Mahsud belongs. Both Ahmadzai Wazirs and Mahsuds are Pashtun, the ethnic group to which the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban belong, but they have long been traditional rivals in South Waziristan and competed with each other for political and economic power. Baitullah Mahsud was an obscure Taliban commander in 2004 when Nek Mohammad from the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in Wana was occupying the media limelight. The 27-year old Pakistani Taliban commander had fought the Pakistan Army to a standstill and forced it to conclude a peace accord with him largely on his terms. The signing ceremony was held in one of his strongholds, Shakai, near Wana, where the Pakistan Army’s Corps Commander for Peshawar, Lieutenant-General Safdar Hussain, publicly embraced and garlanded Nek Mohammad and hailed him as a partner in peace. Subsequently in February 2005 when the government signed a similar peace agreement with Baitullah Mahsud in Sararogha in South Waziristan, the same army general described Baitullah as a soldier of peace (The News International, February 10, 2005).

Commander Nek Mohammad was killed in April 2004 in a US missile strike on his hideout in a village near Wana. His death not only led to the collapse of the peace accord he had signed with the government but also resulted in a rift among his Taliban followers in Wana on the issue of his succession. Haji Mohammad Omar declared himself the new head of the Taliban in Wana but certain other commanders declined to accept his decision. Eventually, a five-member Shura, or council, emerged to jointly led the Wana Taliban. The Shura included Haji Omar, his brother Haji Sharif Khan, Javed Karmazkhel, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Mohammad Abbas. The Pakistan government subsequently made a peace deal with this Shura, sometimes called the “Wana 5,” and allowed it to form a so-called peace committee that was given an administrative role to man roadside checkpoints and provide security to the people.

Conflict with the Uzbeks

In 2007, serious differences emerged among the Pakistani Taliban in Wana over the presence of foreign militants belonging to Uzbekistan in the area. A majority of Taliban and Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen decided to evict the Uzbek militants, led by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) head Tahir Yuldashev, from Wana and Shakai. Backed by the Pakistan government and military with arms and money, they fought the Uzbeks and their tribal supporters and finally succeeded in expelling them from Wana. A young Taliban commander, Maulvi Nazeer, led this campaign along with his two deputies Malik Abdul Hannan and Maulvi Mohammad Iqbal. Hannan was allegedly killed in July 2008 by pro-Uzbek tribesmen commanded by Noor Islam, who is the brother of Haji Omar and Haji Sharif (of the Wana 5), while Maulvi Iqbal died fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan’s Paktika province in June 2008. Apart from Noor Islam, other pro-Uzbek commanders of the Pakistani Taliban from Wana include Haji Omar, Javed Karmazkhel, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Mohammad Abbas. They had to take refuge with Baitullah Mahsud in the area populated by the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan after being evicted along with the Uzbek militants. In recent months, the pro-Uzbek tribal fighters of this group have indulged in targeted killings of men belonging to Maulvi Nazeer’s group (Newsline.com.pk, July 2008)

As mentioned earlier, Baitullah Mahsud is the most powerful and dangerous Pakistani Taliban commander. He was accused of involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and blamed for sending fighters to Afghanistan to fight US-led coalition forces. He denied his involvement in Benazir Bhutto’s murder but conceded on more than one occasion that he was indeed sending his men to wage “jihad” against U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan (Newsline.com.pk, July 2008). Other Taliban commanders working under him include Waliur Rahman, who could succeed him in case of his death, and Qari Hussain, known for his strong anti-Shia views and also for training suicide bombers and sending them on their fatal mission. There were reports that Qari Hussain was killed in an airstrike earlier this year, but he appears to have survived (Daily Times [Lahore], January 27).

In North Waziristan, the most important Pakistani Taliban commander is Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who is also Amir (commander) of the Taliban shura there. He is now opposed to Baitullah Mahsud and has been trying to build a rival alliance of pro-government Pakistani Taliban without any appreciable success (see Terrorism Monitor, July 25). Two clerics who wield considerable influence on the Taliban in North Waziristan are Maulana Sadiq Noor and Maulana Abdul Khaliq.(Newsline.com.pk, July 2008) Other clerics affiliated to Pakistani parliamentarian Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F (Assembly of Islamic Clergy – JUI-F) also appear to have some influence on the Taliban operating in North Waziristan.

(Editor’s Note: The next part of this Terrorism Monitor article will cover the important Taliban and non-Taliban commanders in other tribal regions and districts of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province)