ISLAMABAD, (AP) – The commander named by members of the Pakistani Taliban as its new leader is as ruthless as his predecessor, taking credit for several attacks, and could order more in the coming weeks to prove the terror network is still in business.
Despite the naming of Hakimullah Mehsud to replace ex-chief Baitullah Mehsud, who is believed to have been killed in a CIA missile strike Aug. 5, questions remained Sunday as to whether the al-Qaeda-allied group was united behind their new leader.
A new Taliban leader could direct more fighters across the border in Afghanistan like other jihadi commanders in the northwest, joining insurgents there in the fight against U.S. and NATO forces as they try to stabilize the country eight years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Baitullah was mostly known for suicide strikes against Pakistani civilian, government and security targets.
Two close aides to another commander, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, told The Associated Press on Saturday a 42-member Taliban council, or shura, had appointed Hakimullah their new leader in an unanimous decision. Like other members of the network, they insisted Baitullah was alive but sick, hence the need for a new chief. U.S. and Pakistani officials are almost certain he is dead.
“Now all these talks of differences should end,” said one of the aides, Bakht Zada. “There have not been any differences ever.”
Mohammd Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militant groups, said he believed the Taliban had not agreed on a replacement, regardless of Mohammad’s aides’ remarks.
“Maulvi Faqir Mohammad is trying to manipulate the race by announcing to the press that Hakimullah is the head,” he said. “Until now there is no consensus,” he said, adding that supporters of Hakimullah’s major rival, Waliur Rehman, did not accept him.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government had received intelligence reports about Hakimullah’s appointment “as the chief terrorist” but there was no official confirmation. The Dawn newspaper quoted one unidentified intelligence officer as saying the announcement “was a ruse” as part of the ongoing power struggle.
Verifying information from the tribal regions is very difficult, especially since both the government and the Taliban have made claims in the past that turned out not to be true.
Hakimullah comes from the same tribe as Baitullah and had been seen as a likely replacement.
Earlier this month, Pakistani intelligence agencies claimed Hakimullah had been killed in a shootout between rival factions over who should take over a movement that controls large swaths of territory close to the Afghan border, up to 25,000 men and much arms and cash.
Hakimullah called The Associated Press and other news agencies after that battle to say he was still alive.
His apparent selection as head could shore up the Taliban, said Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
“It’s an attempt to stabilize the group after the initial reports of infighting,” Bokhari said, noting the loss of Baitullah was “a massive blow to the organization.”
As military chief of Baitullah’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban Movement, Hakimullah commanded three tribal regions and had a reputation as Baitullah’s most ruthless deputy. He first appeared in public to journalists in November 2008, when he offered to take reporters on a ride in a U.S. Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan.
Authorities say he was behind threats to foreign embassies in Islamabad, and there was a 10 million rupee ($120,000) bounty on his head. Hakimullah claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in the northwestern city of Peshawar, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.
Since Aug. 5, Pakistani officials have been eager to portray the Taliban as in disarray, saying commanders and the rank-and-file were fighting among themselves. At one point, Mohammad — who comes from a different part of the tribal region — claimed to have taken over the leadership.
While it is unclear whether he will be able to maintain unity, Hakimullah was likely chosen for his operational capabilities, said Bokhari, adding that new suicide bombings could be expected.
More attacks would demonstrate the Pakistani Taliban is still intact, he said.
“I think that the decision of the shura to appoint this particular individual is based on that consideration,” he said.
Another close Mohammad aide, Sher Zamin, also confirmed that Hakimullah had been elected as the new Taliban chief.