On october 17, 2009, Pakistan’s military launched a new offensive in South Waziristan Agency, the stronghold of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The offensive comes in the wake of a series of major attacks launched by suspected TTP militants, including an October 5 suicide attack on a United Nations office in Islamabad, and the audacious October 10 assault on the military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.[1] In the days before the October 17 offensive, the TTP warned Pakistan’s government that any assault on South Waziristan would result in increased attacks on civilian and military targets in Pakistan. On October 28, the TTP seemed to deliver on its threat. The group was blamed for a powerful car bomb that killed more than 100 people in Peshawar just hours after the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s military offensive is significant because it follows on the heels of the August 2009 Predator drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP’s leader. Baitullah’s death left the TTP in disarray, as he had not established a clear succession plan. After three weeks marked by significant infighting, Hakimullah Mehsud was finally confirmed as the new leader of the TTP.[2] With Hakimullah at the helm of the TTP, the group may reach further into Pakistan’s Punjab Province due to Hakimullah’s links to Punjabi-based militant networks; this may allow the group to further solidify ties with local insurgent outfits that have been traditionally focused on neighboring Kashmir and India. Moreover, Hakimullah could move the TTP in a more sectarian direction as a result of his association with anti-Shi`a militant leaders. These factors mean that the TTP could become increasingly radical and dangerous under Hakimullah’s leadership. On the other hand, Hakimullah’s sectarian and potentially more aggressive agenda could spark infighting within the TTP and cause the loosely structured network to split into factions. Given these new challenges and broad lack of knowledge about the TTP, it is critical to understand the character of the group’s decision-makers. This article profiles Hakimullah Mehsud, who has now assumed the mantle of one of the most dangerous groups threatening Pakistan.

Personal History

Estimated to be 28-years-old and approximately six feet in height, Hakimullah has become a household name in the region. [3] He achieved prominence in November 2008 after he introduced himself to journalists in Orakzai Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and displayed his access to heavy weaponry. He grew up in South Waziristan’s Kotki, and his original name is Jamshed.[4] He is also known by his alias name, “Zulfiqar Mehsud.”

Hakimullah belongs to the Eshangai clan of the Mehsud tribe, which is a less influential clan than Baitullah’s Shobi Khel. Like other Pakistani Taliban predecessors such as Baitullah Mehsud, Abdullah Mehsud and Nek Mohammad Wazir, Hakimullah never completed his religious education. He attended a madrasa in Shahu village of Hangu District in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), but quit his studies early and joined the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.[5] Hakimullah received military training during the last few years of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he reportedly returned to Pakistan’s Waziristan.

Unlike his predecessors, Hakimullah never had the opportunity to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan because of his young age. He worked as a driver for Baitullah Mehsud when Baitullah emerged as a Pakistani Taliban leader in 2004 and became his chief spokesman in October 2007 under his alias name of Zulfiqar Mehsud. He married two women, one in South Waziristan from the Mehsud tribe and a second wife, from the Mamunzai tribe, in Orakzai Agency.[6] During his time as Baitullah’s driver and chief spokesman, Hakimullah reportedly served as a confidant to the former TTP leader.

Extensive Media Contacts

Hakimullah embraced his role as Baitullah’s chief spokesman, and he quickly established strong relationships with journalists. Unlike Baitullah, who refused to be photographed due to religious concerns about the capture of human imagery, Hakimullah has been willing to pose for photographs, and he recognizes the value of the media as a propaganda tool.

In November 2008, for example, Hakimullah invited more than a dozen journalists to his stronghold in Orakzai Agency. During the meeting, he identified Mullah Omar as his supreme leader, and said that Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qa`ida network was his ally.[7] He criticized Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari for ceding sovereignty to the United States and vowed revenge for Zardari joining the “infidels.”[8] Hakimullah boasted about disrupting NATO supply routes through Pakistan; to prove his point, he arrived at the interview driving an armor-plated Humvee that he claimed was commandeered from an Afghanistan-bound NATO convoy in Khyber Agency.[9] During the interview, Hakimullah said his men destroyed more than 600 trucks and shipping containers in Peshawar and Khyber Agency destined for NATO in Afghanistan.[10]

More recently, after rumors of his death, Hakimullah again appeared before journalists on October 4, 2009.[11] During the meeting, Hakimullah ended speculation of his death, and he also warned that he would avenge the killing of Baitullah Mehsud. Hakimullah likely used the press conference to improve morale among his followers; two other key Taliban leaders, Qari Waliur Rahman and Qari Hussain Mehsud, were also at the meeting.[12]

Military Capabilities

Recognizing Hakimullah’s value, Baitullah assigned Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber tribal agencies to his command in early 2008. By the end of that year, Hakimullah managed to gain significant control in these agencies, which some analysts argue is evidence of his leadership and military capabilities.[13] In these agencies, Hakimullah gained influence by controlling strategic smuggling and supply routes. Moreover, he assassinated potential opponents.[14]

One tactic employed by Hakimullah to gain power in these agencies was to exploit sectarian rivalries between the Sunni and Shi`a sects. This was particularly evident in Orakzai and Kurram agencies, where he targeted the Shi`a community indiscriminately and sent a wave of fear throughout the Shi`a population in Pakistan.[15] Hakimullah’s anti-Shi`a agenda is an outgrowth of his long association with Qari Hussain Mehsud, his cousin and a TTP commander. Before joining the TTP, Qari Hussain was an active member of the banned anti-Shi`a group Sipah-i-Sahaba and its militant wing, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.[16] Hakimullah reportedly relied on Qari Hussain’s access to suicide bombers to gain control of Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber agencies.[17] Qari Hussain, for example, is considered one of the TTP’s most important assets due to his training of suicide bombers; he is often called Ustad-i-Fidayin, or Trainer of Suicide Bombers.

The importance of this relationship is evident in the wave of attacks that hit Pakistan in October 2009. On October 15, Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, was assaulted by approximately three teams of militants, leaving more than 30 people dead. The TTP claimed credit for the attacks. Analysts believe that the TTP’s links to Punjab-based militants formerly (or currently) part of groups such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi are responsible for these strikes that are increasingly occurring in the heart of Pakistan. It is likely that Hakimullah’s relationship with Qari Hussain contributes to the TTP’s capability to strike deeper inside Pakistan.

In addition to targeting the Shi`a community, Hakimullah has undertaken other sectarian actions. In December 2008, for example, Hakimullah imposed Shari`a in Orakzai Agency and demanded local tribesmen seek the resolution of their disputes in Shari`a courts.[18] He then levied jizya (protection tax) on the Sikh and Hindu communities. This decision is unique and significant in the history of the tribal areas because the Sikh and Hindu communities have lived unharmed in FATA for centuries under the tribal traditions. Yet the new imposition of Shari`a forced them either to leave the FATA region or submit to the dictates of the TTP and pay the jizya. Consequently, reports state that many minorities have already left the area and others plan to follow suit.[19]

TTP More Prone to Splintering?

It is clear that Hakimullah Mehsud poses a serious threat to Pakistan and U.S. interests. It is believed that his militia includes 8,000 fighters and several hundred suicide bombers.[20] Nevertheless, there are some indications that Hakimullah’s appointment as the new head of the TTP could cause further splits in the group.

Within the TTP, for example, there are differences between Salafists and Deobandis. The Salafist members of the TTP practice a harsher interpretation of Islam and consider the Shi`a infidels. Deobandi followers, on the other hand, are more flexible in comparison and generally do not support killing Shi`a unless they themselves are attacked by them. Hakimullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain and the TTP spokesman Azam Tariq are more inclined toward Salafi-jihadism, and their past affiliations with the anti-Shi`a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi have made them highly sectarian.[21]

Baitullah Mehsud, on the other hand, was known for his ability to coalesce an array of diverse groups under a single leadership. This leadership allowed him to overcome disagreements with Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir, while continuing to host Uzbek fighters linked to al-Qa`ida.[22] Yet with Baitullah out of the picture, the TTP must be concerned about future cooperation from Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. On August 17, 2009, more than a dozen supporters of the Maulvi Nazir group were gunned down in the Laddha area of South Waziristan allegedly by Uzbek fighters part of Baitullah Mehsud’s faction.[23] The TTP is also facing challenges from the Abdullah Mehsud Group in South Waziristan and from Turkistan Bhittani in Tank District of the NWFP.

Pakistan’s government and intelligence agencies are aware of these differences, and they have been working to court tribal groups. The government’s goal is to keep as many tribal groups as possible out of its conflict with the TTP, with the hope that they will be able to eliminate the hardcore anti-Pakistan and Salafist leadership. This appears to be the goal of Pakistan’s offensive in South Waziristan, which went into full force on October 17. The increasing number of drone strikes has further shaken the Pakistani Taliban movement and disrupted its militant activity.[24]


The TTP has suffered a number of losses in the last few months. In addition to the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP’s chief spokesman, Maulvi Omar, was apprehended by authorities on August 17.[25] Muslim Khan, a well-known spokesman from the Swat faction of the group, was arrested along with another militant leader, Mahmud Khan, on September 10.[26]Sher Mohammad Qasab, a feared Pakistani Taliban leader known for beheading opponents, died in government custody on September 20.[27]

Despite these losses, the TTP clearly remains a dangerous organization. The October 5 suicide attack on a United Nations office in Islamabad, and the October 10 assault on the military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, show that the TTP remains highly effective under Hakimullah’s leadership. These two attacks have caused an irreparable loss of confidence in the Pakistan Army. Moreover, the October 15 attacks in Lahore show that Hakimullah retains strong links with jihadist groups with access to Punjab Province. In the face of the government’s major offensive in South Waziristan Agency, TTP spokesman Azam Tariq vowed that the group would continue such strikes if military operations against them were not ceased.[28] The assassination of a Pakistani brigadier amid heavy rush hour traffic in Islamabad on October 22 could be a sign of a new TTP assassination campaign.[29]

It appears that the TTP is currently at a crossroads, and its future could move in two directions. Either the TTP will successfully escalate its activities and increasingly make use of its Punjabi network to shake Pakistan, or it could splinter into smaller factions due to internal disagreements, heightened sectarian tendencies, or Pakistan’s current offensive against its central leadership.

Mukhtar A. Khan is a Pakistani Pashtun journalist and policy/security analyst based in Washington, D.C. Since 9/11, he has covered Pakistan’s troubled frontier for the media, including the BBC, Mail on Sunday, and Voice of America. He has visited the region frequently. Currently, he is working on a book about the increasing trends of militancy in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions and its spillover to the rest of the world. Mr. Khan is also working as Chief Media Strategist for AfPak Media Solutions and is Senior Adviser to the Pashtun Focus. He has also served as the Communication Officer for the Sustainable Development Networking Program and The World Conservation Union to help connect and improve the lives of disadvantaged people in Pakistan.

[1] Shaiq Hussain and Karin Brulliard, “In Pakistan, Militants Attack Army Bastion,” Washington Post, October 11, 2009; “Taliban Claims Responsibility For UN Pakistan Blast,” Agence France-Presse, October 5, 2009.

[2] Shortly after his appointment, there was speculation that Hakimullah was killed as a result of infighting. It appears, however, that it was his brother who died. For more, see Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Baitullah’s Death Finally Confirmed by Taliban,” The News, August 26, 2009; “New Taliban Chief Meets Reporters,” BBC, October 5, 2009.

[3] Information on his personal statistics was acquired through speaking with journalists who have interviewed him.

[4] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Hakimullah a Fiercely Ambitious Militant,” Dawn, August 27, 2009.

[5] Alex Altman, “Hakimullah Mehsud: The New Head of Pakistan’s Taliban,” Time Magazine, August 28, 2009.

[6] Riffatullah Orakzai, “Taliban’s New Leader: A Fiery and Emotional Commander,” BBC Urdu, August 22, 2009.

[7] Amir Mir, “A Young Turk Takes Over TTP, Ringing Alarm Bells,” The News, August 28, 2009.

[8] Imtiaz Gul, “Will Hakimullah Fit Baitullah’s Shoes?” Pulse, September 3, 2009.

[9] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Hakimullah Mehsud Unveils Himself to Media,” The News, November 30, 2008.

[10] Amir Mir, “The Top 10 Most Wanted Jihadis,” The News, September 1, 2009.

[11] “New Taliban Chief Meets Reporters.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sherazi.

[14] “Profile: Young Slayer Takes Up Reins of Pakistani Taliban,” Deutsche Press Agency, August 28, 2009.

[15] Ibid.

[16] For more on Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, see Arif Jamal, “A Profile of Pakistan’s Lashkar-i-Jhangvi,” CTC Sentinel 2:9 (2009).

[17] Kamran Khan, “Aaj Kamran Khan Kay Saath,” Geo TV, August 11, 2009.

[18] Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman, “Faces of Pakistan’s Militant Leaders,” Center for American Progress, July 22, 2009.

[19] “Sikhs, Hindus Dread Taliban Tax in Northwest Pakistan,” Dawn, July 27, 2009.

[20] Baitullah Mehsud gave Hakimullah control of 8,000 militants when he assigned him Orakzai, Khyber and Kurram tribal agencies. For more, see Amir Mir.

[21] Hamid Mir, “Capital Talk Show,” Geo TV, September 29, 2009.

[22] Yousuf Ali, “Taliban Form New Alliance in Waziristan,” The News, February 23, 2009.

[23] This was seen as retaliation for a 2007 incident when Maulvi Nazir killed and expelled several Uzbek militants from the area. See “17 of Maulvi Nazir Group Killed in Tehsil Ladha,” Geo TV, August 17, 2009.

[24] “Pakistan Drone Attacks Kill 10,” BBC, August 11, 2009.

[25] “Two Pakistani Taliban Leaders Captured,” CNN, August 18, 2009.

[26] For a profile of Muslim Khan, see Imtiaz Ali, “The Taliban’s Versatile Spokesman: A Profile of Muslim Khan,” CTC Sentinel 2:2 (2009). For information on his arrest, see Ismail Khan, “Swat Taliban Mouthpiece, Top Commander Captured,” Dawn, September 12, 2009.

[27] Robert Kennedy, “Captured Pakistan Taliban Commander Dies in Jail,” Associated Press, September 20, 2009.

[28] “GHQ Attackers Demanded Release of 100 Militants,” Dawn, October 13, 2009.

[29] Jane Perlez and Salman Masood, “Pakistani Brigadier Assassinated in the Capital,” New York Times, October 22, 2009.

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