Thursday, 27 Aug, 2009
PESHAWAR: With Hakeemullah Mehsud having been formally appointed the amir of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), replacing the dreaded Baitullah, the power-struggle is over (at least for the moment) and the first phase of transition in tribal areas’ extremist Islamic militant movement is complete.
Details regarding the process of his selection remain sketchy. But a few people outside the militant movement who have met Hakimullah know that he must have prevailed upon the TTP shura, leaving no doubt about a possible split in case anyone else was chosen to lead the movement.
Hakeemullah Mehsud’s meteoric rise to Fata’s nascent, but ferocious Taliban movement, is not entirely unexpected. It may take experts on the movement weeks, or possibly, months to understand and assess the 29-year-old new amir.
Who is this man? Is he related to Baitullah Mehsud? Will his policies be any different from his predecessor’s? Also, does he have the capability, acumen and desire to expand the TTP movement by bringing other militant groups into its fold?
With the passage of time it may be possible to get answers to some of these questions. But for some of us who were part of a group of Pakistani television journalists that had travelled to Hakeemullah-controlled part of the Orakzai tribal agency in November last year it was not difficult to immediately notice in him the ambition and desire to be in the leadership role.
In fact, the trip arranged by Hakeemullah’s men was largely designed to introduce the ‘young turk’ of the Taliban movement to the media and to air his views on religion and politics and his ambition to take the movement beyond Fata to mainland Pakistan.
It was a journey a few of us will forget. Some of us had travelled all the way from Peshawar. Others had joined half-way. At one point, Hakimullah’s heavily armed loyalists took control of our caravan. We spent a night somewhere in the Taliban territory, before being taken to Arkanjo Mamozai village in Orakzai Agency to meet Hakimullah and his band of ferocious fighters.
If a few of us were nervous it was quite understandable. Although quite photogenic, and unlike most other militant leaders, smartly dressed, his cold looks and wry smile left little doubt that he may not think twice before killing anyone.
Yet he was intelligent enough to grasp the significance and power of the media and tried to make the maximum of the presence of the television teams to express his views on issues ranging from the situation in Afghanistan, to TTP’s links with Mullah Omar and his Taliban movement, to Pakistan’s political scene, particularly his views about the Awami National Party. It was not difficult to see how much he hated the ANP.
At the same time, Hakeemullah also wanted to present himself as a modern man, who not only had the desire to ‘conquer’ rest of the tribal territories, but also someone who knew a lot about guns and machines. So, while at one point he sought the cameramen’s indulgence while showing off by speeding around in an armoured-plated Humvee that his men had captured during a raid on a convoy of American vehicles in the Khyber Agency, an hour later he invited the journalists to participate in a gun-shooting competition.
Comparisons between Hakeemullah and Baitullah would serve as a study of contrasts. While Baitullah was introvert and media-shy, the former is extrovert and media-savvy.
Some of the journalists did make an attempt, but soon gave up, realising the difference between shooting with a camera and a sub-machine gun. There was no stopping for Hakeemullah, who first fired dozens of rounds from a light-machine gun, then picked up a heavier gun and within seconds emptied the magazine.
And as if this were not enough, he fired a grenade using RPG, perhaps to prove that he was comfortable with all kinds of weapons. One of his close associates described it as Hakeemullah’s 'favourite toy'.
By now it was more than evident that this ‘image-building exercise’ was aimed at presenting him as a future leader of the local Taliban.
Hakeemullah Mehsud, after having lived for some time under the shadow of Baitullah Mehsud, had started spreading his wings early last year. Since he always believed in leading from the front, Baitullah had given him charge of three tribal agencies, and when we met him in November, he had gained a foothold in Orakzai, was actively involved in supporting the local Taliban in Kurram, and was making his presence felt in Khyber.
The young and battle-hardened Hakeemullah, whose real name is believed to be Jamshed, first rose to prominence by the name of Zulfiqar Mehsud, as a spokesman for the Baitullah-led militant group in 2007.
He also used the nickname of Hakeemullah and is now known by this name to most media personnel and also to Taliban fighters. Hakeemullah hails from Kotki village of Sarwaki subdivision and belongs to the Eshangai branch of Mehsud tribe. Having received rudimentary madressah education in Hangu, Hakimullah appears to be a fully trained warrior.
As Zulfiqar Mehsud, Hakeemullah had a few telephonic interactions with this correspondent, but it was during our visit to Orakzai Agency in November last year when I met Hakeemullah for the first time.
Ajmal Mehsud, a close associate of Hakeemullah who escorted us from the Giljo base of the Taliban at the Government Girls Degree College to Arkhanjo, was full of praise for his views and fighting skills.
'Hakeemullah is the best shooter and driver in the entire tribal area and no one except Shaheed Naek Muhammad could have matched him.'
More ambitious than his predecessor who mostly remained confined to South Waziristan, Hakeemullah explained to this correspondent his expansionist designs.
'If the Pakistan government continues with its policy of following American dictates, (some day) we can even try to capture Peshawar, Hangu and even Islamabad,' he said.
'And we have the strength to do it.'
He also did not hide his views about Al Qaeda. In an interview with Dawn News TV during the trip, Hakeemullah openly praised the international terrorist movement.
'We are Al Qaeda’s friends as both us the Taliban and the Arab fighters have shown our allegiance to Amir-ul-Momineen Mullah Omar of Afghanistan, but there is no Al Qaeda in South Waziristan. It’s only the US and the Pakistan government’s propaganda. They don’t have any proof.'
Hakeemullah’s nomination as the new TTP chief would be worrisome for Pakistani authorities, but more so for the NWFP government. Hakimullah is not a traditional mullah, as he does not have a proper degree from a religious school.
However, he knows how to exploit Pakhtuns’ religious as well as nationalist sentiments. 'We do not give two hoots to Awami National Party’s tirade against Taliban,' Hakeemullah had said in the interview.
'We can have an agreement with all the political parties but not with ANP,' he said.
While ridiculing the ANP in his typical style, Hakimullah was unable to hide his desire to expand the scope of his activities by claiming that once the ANP used to say that like them the Taliban too were Pakhtuns, but the way the situation was developing the ANP might soon take back its claim to be representatives of the Pakhtuns.
It may well be a far-fetched idea. But then this was in November last year, and Hakeemullah’s first direct interaction with the media. Now he is head of the powerful Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. So, if even half of what he had been claiming were to be believed, his ambitions may mean more trouble for the Pakistani authorities, and certainly for the ANP-led government in the NWFP.Source