Since its formation in 2007, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), often referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has executed hundreds of domestic attacks in Pakistan. Internal differences have long existed within the TTP over issues of clan, tribe, ideology and negotiations with the Pakistani government. These differences remained private while the TTP’s founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was in command. Yet when a U.S. drone strike killed Baitullah in August 2009, some of the TTP’s private disputes became public after two TTP leaders—Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rahman Mehsud—temporarily clashed over the issue of succession.[1] Eventually, the Afghan Taliban reportedly intervened,[2] and the two leaders agreed to share power, with Waliur Rahman relegated to Hakimullah’s deputy.

In 2013, a U.S. drone strike killed both Waliur Rahman Mehsud and Hakimullah Meshed in a six-month period. As a result, internal divisions within the TTP reemerged. After Waliur Rahman’s death in May 2013, Khan Said “Sajna,” Rahman’s deputy, declared himself the leader of Rahman’s faction, yet he reportedly took this action without the consent of TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud.[3] After Hakimullah’s own death later that year, the Khan Said faction expected to take over the reins of the TTP leadership, but the TTP’s shura (council) instead appointed Mullah Fazlullah, a prominent non-Mehsud Pakistani Taliban commander, in November 2013.

Fazlullah’s elevation to the top position in the TTP proved the final straw for Khan Said and his supporters. TTP fighters from the Mehsud tribe, who mostly supported Khan Said’s bid for TTP leadership, showed their disapproval by withdrawing from TTP operations.[4] In early 2014, Khan Said’s faction engaged in clashes and retaliatory assassinations with Fazlullah loyalists, including some Taliban members from the Mehsud tribe led by Shehriyar Mehsud.[5] In a bid to put an end to months of TTP infighting and to prevent Khan Said from tightening his grip over the Mehsud Taliban, Fazlullah formally sacked Khan Said and handed over the command of both North and South Waziristan to TTP Mohmand chief Omar Khalid Khurasani, another non-Mehsud TTP commander, in May 2014.[6]

On May 28, 2014, Khan Said’s faction officially announced their withdrawal from the TTP. Khan Said’s spokesman denounced the TTP for their attacks on civilians, kidnappings, extortion, and for targeting Pakistani government installations. Since this formal split, the Fazlullah-led TTP derives the majority of its support from the tribal areas and cities, but Khan Said has gained control of the core base of supporters in the Waziristan region.[7]

This article focuses on the broader implications of this split by discussing the positions of Fazlullah and Khan Said on Pakistan and Afghanistan, their policy toward negotiations with Pakistan, and their affiliation with groups such as al-Qa`ida, the Haqqani network, and sectarian jihadist outfits.

Position on Afghanistan/Pakistan
After escaping the massive Pakistani military operation in Swat in 2009, Mullah Fazlullah, also known as “FM Mullah” for his illegal FM radio channel, has reportedly been hiding in Afghanistan’s mountainous eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.[8]

A staunch critic of the Pakistani government, Mullah Fazlullah often denounced the Pakistani state, its political system and politicians, called the Pakistani military an “army of infidels,” and supported the use of violence to implement Shari`a law in Pakistan. Fazlullah boldly claimed responsibility for killing the commander for the Swat Valley, Major-General Sanaullah Khan Niazi, in a roadside bomb in September 2013.[9] Fazlullah’s aide and chief of the TTP in Mohmand tribal district, Abdul Wali (also known as Omar Khalid Khurasani), regularly issues statements stressing the need for armed struggle to remove Pakistan’s “infidel” rulers.

Khan Said, on the other hand, recently condemned the Fazlullah-led TTP for its attacks against the Pakistani government and security forces. Although Khan Said was the alleged mastermind of the spectacular jailbreak in Dera Ismail Khan city and the attack on a Pakistan Air Force base in Karachi in 2011,[10] he has not executed any similar attacks in Pakistan since he took over leadership of the Mehsud faction of the TTP in 2013—in what many view as a change in targeting strategy. After Khan Said condemned the TTP for killings, kidnappings, extortion and announced his separation from the TTP umbrella outfit in May 2014, some considered his group relative moderates who favor peace talks with the Pakistani government.[11] Khan Said’s predecessor, Waliur Rahman, who was a member of the religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) before taking up arms with the Pakistani Taliban, was also considered a relative moderate compared to others in the TTP leadership.[12]

Although Mullah Fazlullah was one of 10,000 volunteers who crossed into Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces in support of the Taliban in late 2001, he has not issued any statements against the Afghan government or the U.S. presence in Afghanistan since he was forced to flee Pakistan in mid-2009 during a major Pakistani military operation in Swat. Fazlullah’s recent silence on the issue, and his reported base in eastern Afghanistan, is one reason that Pakistan’s government has alleged that the Afghan government is providing sanctuaries and support to Mullah Fazlullah.[13] In several meetings that took place between top Pakistani and Afghan officials in June 2014, one of the key demands from the Pakistani side was for their Afghan counterparts to take action against Mullah Fazlullah.[14]

In contrast to Fazlullah, Khan Said’s group supports attacks in Afghanistan, and has joined hands with other groups such as the Haqqani network, Hafiz Gul Bahadar’s faction, and some factions in the Punjabi Taliban to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan.[15]

Peace Talks with Pakistan
Despite the fact that Fazlullah’s branch of the TTP engaged in negotiations with the Pakistani government through pro-Taliban cleric Samiul Haq earlier in 2014, Fazlullah himself never issued a public statement supporting the talks. Instead, his close aide Omar Khalid, who was against the talks from the start,[16] issued statements opposing the peace talks while the process was underway. Fazlullah’s TTP even violated the so-called month-long cease-fire by killing nearly two dozen kidnapped Pakistani paramilitary soldiers, showing their beheaded bodies on camera.[17] The act was seen as a deliberate move on part of Omar Khalid to scuttle the peace talks.

On the Pakistan Army’s list of so-called “bad Taliban,” commanders like Mullah Fazlullah and Omar Khalid are considered the most dangerous. Although the Pakistan Army, under pressure from the elected government, had agreed to the now failed peace talks with the TTP, the military leadership had serious reservations about Mullah Fazlullah, an official source in Islamabad told this author. “Fazlullah and Omar Khalid were not going to get amnesty even if the government and Taliban had agreed for a hand-shake as a result of the now failed peace talks,” said the official.[18]

Khan Said and his faction, on the other hand, have been in favor of peace talks and recently opposed attacks on Pakistani security forces, government and civil and military installations.[19] In a statement in May 2014, a spokesman for Khan Said’s group, Azam Tariq, said that “we consider the bombing of public places, extortion and kidnapping un-Islamic, and since the TTP leaders continued with these practices, we decided we should not share the responsibility.”[20]

Position on Al-Qa`ida, the Haqqani Network and Sectarian Militant Groups
After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Mehsud tribesmen in Pakistan played host to al-Qa`ida and later militant groups such as the Haqqani network in North and South Waziristan. After the TTP was formed in 2007, the group provided these fighters support and sanctuaries. Yet years of successive U.S. drone strikes have reduced al-Qa`ida’s presence in the Waziristan area.

Khan Said and his group have close ties to the Haqqani network and the Punjabi Taliban.[21] Several Arab militants belonging to al-Qa`ida as well as leaders of the Haqqani network were targeted in U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan, an area under the control of the TTP and commanders like Khan Said and Hafiz Gul Bahadar. Moreover, others have suggested that the Haqqani network has provided funding to Khan Said’s faction, as the Haqqanis hope to recruit more Mehsud fighters for the war in neighboring Afghanistan.[22]

Fazlullah also hosted al-Qa`ida leaders and sympathizers during his days in Swat before 2009. Yet since it is believed he now operates across the border in Afghanistan, and allegedly with the tacit support of Afghan intelligence,[23] it seems unlikely that he would have al-Qa`ida leaders in his circles due to the risks involved in operating in Afghan territory. Fazlullah’s commander in the Mohmand area, Omar Khalid Khurasani, however, has openly called Usama bin Ladin his leader and has called for international jihadist attacks.[24]

Both leaders are hardline Deobandis, but Fazlullah is more inclined toward Salafism, apparently due to the influence of his father-in-law, the cleric Sufi Muhammad, who founded the hardliner group Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat- e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Shari`a Law, TNSM) in the Malakand region in northern Pakistan in the early 1990s.[25] Sufi Muhammad led a rag-tag army of volunteers to fight alongside the Taliban following the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan in late 2001. Many of his fighters were killed, others were captured by the forces of the Northern Alliance, while Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law Fazlullah were arrested by the Pakistani security forces upon their reentry into Pakistani territory.

Both Fazlullah and Khan Said have never denounced sectarian killings and both leaders have supported sectarian leaders and groups in the past.

Grassroots Support
Khan Said has strong roots in the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan, a territory that serves as the headquarters for various militant groups. Khan Said, though a veteran of the Afghan jihad, never enjoyed the charisma of his rival, Fazlullah. In fact, very few people outside Waziristan knew his name before he succeeded Waliur Rahman in May 2013.

Unlike Khan Said, Fazlullah is from Swat, a well-developed city and tourist region in Pakistan. Mullah Fazlullah is considered to be a media-savvy commander. During his days in Swat, Fazlullah interacted on a regular basis with the local media.

Fazlullah ran a radio show while living in Swat from 2007 until 2009, and became a local household name. As a result of his charismatic Islamic sermons and demagogy, he accrued thousands of supporters. These individuals, who were not connected to militants or violent jihad, donated money at Fazlullah’s request to construct a large religious complex in Mam Dheri, Fazlullah’s native village, on the riverside in Swat.[26] Following his escape from the region in 2009, he is believed to have lost a great deal of local support.

Although several Pakistani analysts have interpreted the recent fragmentation of the TTP as the beginning of the end for the group, termination of the organization is unlikely because Khan Said is only leading the Mehsud Taliban, while the rest of the TTP is still united under the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah.[27]

Fazlullah continues to enjoy the support of the TTP core leadership in Mohmand, Orakzai and Bajaur tribal agencies, besides several cities in Pakistan, including Peshawar, Mardan, Swabi and Malakand. Khan Said’s support base is mostly among the Mehsud Taliban in parts of North and South Waziristan and the nearby districts of Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu and Tank. Moreover, despite Khan Said’s separation from the TTP, some Mehsud tribesmen under the leadership of Shehriyar Mehsud are still supporting Fazlullah’s faction.

The now-failed peace talks, initiated by the Pakistani government in March 2014, further highlighted the differences between these groups, as the Hakimullah group opposed the talks while Khan Said’s faction was supportive. Pakistani government efforts to engage in dialogue with these groups, combined with tribal rivalries over leadership, played a role in the final division of the TTP.

The Khan Said faction is now part of the so-called “good Taliban,” from the perspective of the Pakistani government, as he is presently focused on attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere abroad. Other militant factions part of the “good Taliban” include the Haqqanis, the Hafiz Gul Bahadar group and some factions in the Punjabi Taliban, as they are mostly focused on Afghanistan or India. Since Mullah Fazlullah is hiding in Afghanistan and managing most of the “bad Taliban,” some analysts have suggested that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could trigger a limited proxy war between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with each country leveraging militant groups against the other’s interests.[28]

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Mashaal Radio in Prague. Before joining the Pashto language service of RFE/RL, Mr. Khattak worked for the Sunday Times London, The News International and the Daily Times in Peshawar and Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. He wrote a research paper for the New America Foundation on the roots of insurgency in Pakistan’s Swat region. The paper was recently republished by Oxford University Press in Talibanistan.

[1] “Wali ur-Rehman: Senior Taliban Commander,” Independent, June 1, 2013.

[2] Personal interview, Mushtaq Yusufzai, Peshawar-based journalist, June 8, 2014.

[3] Nader Buneri, “Taliban Infighting Picks Up,” The Nation, April 11, 2014.

[4] Personal interview, Sailab Mehsud, Waziristan-based journalist, June 7, 2014. Sailab Mehsud belongs to the same Mehsud tribe and is respected among Taliban circles as a result of his more than three decades of reporting from the area.

[5] “Finally, Taliban Split into Factions,” Daily Times, May 29, 2014.

[6] “Fazlullah Sacks Top Commander to Stop Tribal Infighting,” Reuters, May 10, 2014; “Fazlullah Sacks Sajna as TTP Chief of SWA,” The News International, May 10, 2014.

[7] The TTP draws most of its support from the Mehsud tribe, and since Khan Said is also from the Mehsud (unlike Fazlullah), he enjoys more support within the TTP.

[8] Qasim Nauman and Safdar Dawar, “Militants Attack Pakistani Troops,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2014; Declan Walsh, “Pakistani Taliban Pick Hard-Liner as Leader, Imperiling Proposed Peace Talks,” New York Times, November 7, 2013.

[9] Amir Mir, “Fazlullah Has Mulla Omar’s Backing,” The News International, November 8, 2013.

[10] “Sources: Pakistani Taliban Chooses New Second-In-Command,” RFE/RL, May 30, 2013.

[11] M. Ilyas Khan, “Pakistan Violence: Mehsud Faction Walks Out of Taliban,” BBC, May 28 2014.

[12] “Wali-ur-Rehman to Replace Hakimullah Mehsud as TTP Head,” Reuters, December 6, 2012.

[13] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Mullah Fazlullah’s Rise Complicates Ties Between Kabul, Islamabad,” Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2013.

[14]“Winning the War,” Express Tribune, June 28, 2014; K. Iqbal, “Border Management: The Right Focus,” The Nation, July 7, 2014.

[15] Saeed Shah, “Pakistani Taliban Faction Condemns Violence, Breaks Away,” Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2014.

[16] The talks still proceeded because several TTP shura members wanted to engage in peace talks.

[17] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Mohmand Taliban Claim Killing 23 FC Men,” Dawn, February 17, 2014.

[18] Personal interview, Pakistani government official, July 2014.

[19] Khan

[20] Sailab Mahsud, “Key Group Breaks Away from TTP,” Dawn, May 29, 2014.

[21] After parting ways with the TTP, Khan Said came into the fold of the so-called “good Taliban.” The Haqqani network and Gul Bahadar are also considered members of the “good Taliban,” from Pakistan’s perspective. They do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan, as their focus is Afghanistan. For more, see Qaiser Butt, “Situationer: Sajna’s Departure Likely to Exacerbate Divisions within TTP,” Express Tribune, May 29, 2014.

[22] Declan Walsh, “Fractured State of Pakistani Taliban Calls Peace Deal into Question,” New York Times, April 20, 2014.

[23] Michael Georgy and Matthew Green, “Pakistan Accuses Afghanistan of Backing Taliban Enemy,” Reuters, August 5, 2012.

[24] Amir Mir, “Journalist-Turned-Militant Khurasani Wants to Seize Nukes, Topple Govt,” The News International, February 18, 2014.

[25] Hassan Abbas, “The Black-Turbaned Brigade: The Rise of TNSM in Pakistan,” Terrorism Monitor 4:23 (2006).

[26] These details are based on the author’s own reporting in the region throughout the years.

[27] That being said, since the majority of the TTP is from the Mehsud tribe, Khan Said likely enjoys more support than Fazlullah in Waziristan, as Khan Said is a Mehsud, while Fazlullah is not.

[28] Trofimov; Walsh, “Fractured State of Pakistani Taliban Calls Peace Deal into Question.”

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