Mullah Fazlullah, the notorious Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) emir, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in June, along with four of his commanders, in the Marawar district of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan (Tolo News, June 15). With Fazlullah gone, the group will likely change direction under the leadership of its new emir, Noor Wali Mehsud.
Since taking over as TTP leader in 2013, Fazlullah has planned a relentless series of terrorist operations in Pakistan from his base in neighboring Afghanistan. Under his command, however, the group was unable to remain the efficient terrorist organization it had been under the previous two emirs, Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud. While Fazlullah was known for a series of ruthless acts of terrorism in Pakistan—including instigating the 2007 and 2009 Islamist insurgencies in Pakistan’s Malakand Division, ordering the attempted assassination of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and masterminding the shocking killing of school children at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014—on his watch, factions splintered from the group and a series of TTP commanders joined with Islamic State’s (IS) Afghan chapter, IS-Khorasan.
Pakistani officials should also note that Fazlullah’s elimination would likely only have been achieved with U.S. help. Despite the large number of military and security forces operations in tribal areas and settled districts in Pakistan, the Pakistani security forces have proved to be unable to eliminate significant senior jihadist figures. Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud, along with other key al-Qaeda leaders —such as Naek Mohammad Wazir, Qari Yasin and Atiya Abdul Rehman—have only been slain over the last 14 years as a result of U.S. drone strikes.
An Unlikely Leader
Fazlullah had been by some measures an unlikely choice for leader of the TTP as he was neither from the tribal areas nor, unlike the first two TTP emirs, from the Mehsud tribe.
Born in 1974 in the Kuza Bandia area of Swat, Fazal Hayat (a.k.a. Mullah Fazlullah) briefly studied at a madrassa but dropped out and joined Tehreek-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), the militant movement led by Moulvi Sufi Mohammad, a former district leader for the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami and who later became his father in-law (Dawn, November 7, 2013).
From the platform of TNSM, Fazlullah participated in Islamist insurgencies in 1994 and in 2001, amid the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Between 2007-2009 his fighters managed to overrun large swaths of the Malakand division of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, taking over territory as far as Swabi district, less than 100 kilometers from Islamabad. For six months, TNSM under Fazalllah ruled over the Swat Valley and Malakand Division. Fazal relocated to Afghanistan in 2009 after he was pushed out by Pakistani security forces. From there he masterminded terrorist attacks up until his death on June 13. 
The Fazlullah-led TNSM fell under the umbrella of the Pakistani Taliban when the TTP was formed by Baitullah Mehsud in 2007. The TTP provided human and material support to Fazlullah during his Islamist insurgency in Swat, and he later found safe haven in TTP-controlled areas.
Although he was not a member of the Mehsud tribe, Fazlullah managed to rise high enough in the TTP shura that after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike in 2013 he was selected as the group’s new emir. There was disappointment and anger among the TTP that Fazlullah was not from the tribal areas, nor a Mehsud, and a number of shura council members parted ways with the group as a result. Chief among them was Omar Khalid Khurassani, the former TTP emir of Mohmand district, who later formed his own faction of TTP, the Jamaat ul Ahrar.
Fazlullah’s strategy as TTP leader was to attempt to create an environment of fear and perpetual disturbance in Pakistan, and to some extent he was successful. Omar Mansoor Naray planned the December 2014 Army Public School attack on his directions. It was the most lethal terrorist attack in Pakistan’s recent past—TTP fighters killed 144 people, 132 of them school children (Dawn, October 18, 2017).
In other high profile terrorist attacks executed by Fazlullah, the group used an IED to attack the convoy of Lieutenant General Sanaullah Niazi, the man responsible for the Swat military operation against TTP. Niazi and four others were killed in the attack in the suburbs of Swat in September 2013 (News International, September 16, 2013). Prior to that, Fazlullah sent a team of assassins to target Malala Yousafzai, the teenage female education rights activist, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and two other girls who were part of Malala’s campaign (News International, June 16).
After losing Fazlullah, TTP’s central shura initially selected Fazlullah’s deputy, Omar Rehman (a.k.a. Ustad Fateh), as interim emir. Rehman was a contemporary of Fazlullah and hailed from Swat district. He played a pivotal role in the Islamist insurgency in Swat from 2007 to 2009 and had remained active perpetrating attacks on security forces.
Over time, however, a new TTP can be expected to emerge. The TTP’s central shura announced its appointment of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud as the new TTP leader on June 23, while Mufti Hazratullah was named deputy emir (NDTV, June 24).
Born in 1978, Noor Wali Mehsud hails from the South Waziristan district of the tribal areas of Pakistan and studied at madrasahs in Karachi, Gujranwali and Rawalpindi. (BBC Urdu, June 23). His selection indicates that the TTP shura is keen to avoid the kind of ructions that occurred following the selection of Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud emir.
Mehsud, another wanted Islamist jihadist, is notorious for masterminding major terror attacks, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on December 2007, and an earlier attempted attack at a rally she held in Karsaz, Karachi. Mehsud claimed responsibility for these attacks on TTP’s behalf in a 690-page book he wrote entitled, Inquilaab Mehsud South Waziristan: Farangi Raj se Ameriki Samraj tak (The Mehsud Revolution in South Waziristan: From British Raj to Oppressive America). He can be expected to plan lethal strikes in Pakistan and against U.S. interests in Pakistan to avenge the killing of his predecessor.
Fazlullah’s death in a drone strike reaffirms the importance of U.S. assistance to Pakistan in countering terrorism both at home and in the region. Islamabad would achieve less without it. Pakistani military operations have pushed the Islamist terrorists out of tribal areas of Pakistan, but the operations have not been enough to eliminate them, and a number have found safe haven in neighboring Afghanistan where the weakened government has been unable to tackle them.
Fazlullah’s death may help turn the page on the deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relationship, at least in countering terrorism in the AfPak region. For Pakistan and Afghan policymakers, it is time to capitalize on the opportunity provided by the transition to a new TTP leader, before the group begins to recover. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan could do more in partnership with the United States if they take advantage of the situation and stamp-out militant safe havens in the region, whether they belong to the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban.
 Author’s discussions with an Islamabad-based journalist (June 20, 2018)