On February 19, 2011, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a videotaped execution of Colonel Imam, a retired Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operative.[1] Colonel Imam, whose real name was Sultan Amir Tarar, wielded significant influence over Islamist fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He trained large numbers of Afghan fighters battling Soviet forces, and befriended scores of mujahidin leaders and commanders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, as well as the founder of the Afghan Taliban movement, Mullah Omar. During the 1980s, Colonel Imam escorted several U.S. and Western leaders—including the then-deputy director of the CIA, Robert Gates, and Congressman Charlie Wilson—during their visits to the Afghan mujahidin. Yet despite his legendary status in Pakistan, Colonel Imam was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman as TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud supervised the execution.

The kidnapping and subsequent murder of Colonel Imam is indication of the generational gap among Islamist militants in South Asia. In the previous decade, Colonel Imam would have been welcomed and honored by Islamist militants in the border region. Today, however, TTP militants considered him an enemy, and saw his status merely as a tool to bargain for a ransom and the release of imprisoned TTP fighters.

This article identifies the sequence of events that led to the murder of Colonel Imam, while also explaining what his death reveals about the evolution of the TTP.

The Kidnapping
In March 2010, Colonel Imam, former ISI operative Khalid Khwaja, British documentary maker Asad Qureshi, and their local driver Rustam Khan were kidnapped in North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).[2] Colonel Imam and Khwaja accompanied Qureshi to help the filmmaker create a documentary on the impact of drone strikes on civilians. The two former ISI operatives hoped to use their old contacts and goodwill in the region to gain access to North Waziristan, the stronghold of local and foreign militants.[3] Their decision to travel to North Waziristan seems ill-advised, as both former operatives had publicly criticized the Pakistani Taliban in media statements—claiming that the Pakistani Taliban were working as part of a foreign agenda to destabilize Pakistan. Indeed, after the kidnapping, one of the kidnappers defended the action by saying that Colonel Imam and Khwaja had called the Pakistani Taliban terrorists: “It is wrong of them to describe us as terrorists. We too are fighting jihad.”[4]

Others, however, argued that Colonel Imam and Khwaja went to North Waziristan on a peace mission to reconcile the militants with Pakistan’s security establishment.[5] These analysts reported that the former ISI operatives were trying to alert the TTP leadership about the presence of pro-India elements in their ranks and wanted to open a line of communication between the Taliban and the United States. None of these assertions can be confirmed, and the dominant view, which is shared by this author, is that the former ISI operatives were in the region to assist in the documentary, and that they miscalculated their standing among the militants.[6] They also likely thought that their plans to make a documentary on drone strikes with the help of Pakistan-born, British journalist Asad Qureshi would endear them to the militants, who have been arguing that the missiles kill a disproportionate number of civilians.

Regardless of their true intentions, the mission did not go according to plan. A previously unknown group called the Asian Tigers took credit for the kidnappings, but it later became clear that the group’s name was simply an alias to conceal the cell members’ identities. It eventually emerged that the Punjabi Taliban—jihadists who left Kashmir-focused militant groups and joined the TTP—were involved in the kidnapping operation. Usman Punjabi, or Mohammad Omar as he identified himself when contacting the media, became the link between the militants holding the four men and the outside world.[7] Usman Punjabi was also reportedly the man who invited the unsuspecting former ISI operatives to North Waziristan. The group actually holding the four men was led by Abdullah Mansoor, who had split from the anti-Shi`a militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and aligned with the splinter faction, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami.[8]

Khalid Khwaja was the first to be executed. On April 30, 2010, a month after the kidnapping, his body was found dumped in a stream in Karamkot village near Mir Ali in North Waziristan. A note was attached to his body, stating that Khwaja was an agent of the ISI and CIA.[9] After the killing of Khwaja, the militants received a hefty ransom for the release of Asad Qureshi and his driver, Rustam Khan. The “Asian Tigers” initially demanded $10 million for Qureshi’s release, although the ransom amount was reportedly less than that.[10]

With Khwaja dead and Qureshi and his driver released, differences emerged among the militants—who were still holding Colonel Imam. The differences led to violence when another militant leader, Sabir Mehsud, killed Usman Punjabi and five of his men. Although it is likely that TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud was aware of the kidnapping operation, Usman’s murder angered Hakimullah, who sent his men to kidnap and execute Sabir Mehsud and members of his militia, taking custody of Colonel Imam.[11] Hakimullah appeared to have intervened once the situation deteriorated after the two militant leaders, who were partners, turned on each other over disputes.

Once Hakimullah gained custody of Colonel Imam, it became clear that conditions for his release only became more stringent. Hakimullah wanted the release of a number of his men from Pakistani jails, in addition to the payment of a massive ransom. Although the demands were never made public, the media reported that the TTP demanded Rs 50 million ($590,000) and the release of an unidentified number of jailed militants.[12]

Colonel Imam’s family tried to pool money to pay the ransom. At one point, hopes for a deal emerged.[13] For that reason, his execution was sudden and shocking for all those trying to negotiate; the talks with the TTP had not yet broken down at the time of the execution. Even Afghan Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, other Afghan mujahidin leaders as well as Pakistani religious scholars failed to convince Hakimullah to release the former ISI operative.[14] In the filmed execution, which appears to have occurred in late January, Hakimullah is clearly visible, supervising the murder. Hakimullah’s presence in the video also dispelled rumors of his own death.[15]

In the videotape, Hakimullah accused Colonel Imam of a litany of offenses. Hakimullah appeared convinced that Colonel Imam had specifically traveled to North Waziristan to spy on the TTP and provide intelligence for Pakistan Army strikes as well as U.S. drone attacks. In the eyes of Hakimullah and the TTP, both Khalid Khwaja and Colonel Imam were spies, and their punishment was death. Their role as spies does not seem likely, as both retired military officers were critical of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and unhappy at Islamabad’s decision to break with the Afghan Taliban after 9/11. Additionally, if they truly were spies, one would suspect that the military would have made more of an effort to save them. The TTP also seemed to have miscalculated the importance of the two former ISI operatives, and as a result drafted demands that Pakistan’s government and military were unwilling to meet.[16]

The killings of Khalid Khwaja and Colonel Imam reveal the evolution of jihadist groups in Pakistan. While in the past these groups had ties to the Pakistani state, the government and security apparatus have lost control over many of the Islamist fighters operating in the border region. Pakistani Taliban militants remain committed to attacking government interests, and Islamabad is still struggling to respond.

Nevertheless, there has been some fallout for the overall Taliban movement in the wake of Colonel Imam’s death. The execution may have placed a wedge between the TTP and other Islamist militants, particularly the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Jihadist leaders who used to operate with Colonel Imam during the anti-Soviet jihad were clearly unhappy with the TTP and Hakimullah Mehsud, privately criticizing him for executing the former ISI operative.[17] In fact, some significant doubts have arisen about Hakimullah’s agenda after the incident. Although the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network have refrained from publicly condemning Hakimullah for killing the former operative, they are unlikely to trust him in the future.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior Pakistani journalist and political and security analyst presently working as Resident Editor of the English daily The News International in Peshawar. He has been reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Baluchistan since the early 1980s.

[1] “Taliban Release Video of Killing of Col Imam,” Express Tribune, February 19, 2011; “Pakistani Taliban Claim Shooting Colonel Imam Dead,” Associated Press, February 19, 2011.

[2] “Former ISI Operatives Kidnapped in North Waziristan,” The Nation, March 27, 2010; Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Colonel Imam Abducted in North Waziristan,” Asia Times Online, April 28, 2010.

[3] Personal interview, Khalid Khwaja, March 2010.

[4] Personal interview, Usman Punjabi, Winter 2010.

[5] Hamid Mir, “What Was the Last Mission of Khalid Khwaja?” The News International, May 2, 2010; Shahzad.

[6] Asad Munir, “The Death of Colonel Imam,” Express Tribune, January 26, 2011; Rahimullah Yusufzai, “The Kidnapped,” The News International, April 27, 2010.

[7] Personal interview, Usman Punjabi, Winter 2010; Shahzad; Amir Mir, “Kashmiri Behind Khwaja’s Murder,” The News International, May 1, 2010.

[8] Amir Mir, “Imam was Killed Last Month for Spying,” The News International, February 21, 2011.

[9] Zahir Shah, “Hakimullah in TTP Video of Colonel Imam’s Killing,” Dawn, February 19, 2011.

[10] Mir; “Col Imam is Still in Taliban Custody,” Express Tribune, February 15, 2011.

[11] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Kidnapped Ex-ISI Official, British Journalist Likely to be Released Soon,” The News International, May 7, 2010.

[12] “Taliban Release Video of Killing of Col Imam,” Express Tribune, February 19, 2011.

[13] Yusufzai, “Kidnapped Ex-ISI Official, British Journalist Likely to be Released Soon.”

[14] This information is based on the author’s confidential sources.

[15] Shah.

[16] Munir.

[17] Although Taliban leaders will not go on the record criticizing Hakimullah Mehsud, many prominent Taliban leaders told this author that the TTP is hurting their cause. They argue that Pakistani citizens are less likely to support the mujahidin due to the brutality of the TTP.

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