Pakistani Taliban picks 28-year-old chief

Pakistani Taliban picks 28-year-old chief
# 24 August 2009 12:57 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. The Pakistani Taliban have appointed a new chief, militants said Saturday, selecting a top commander known for his ruthless efficiency in staging attacks, including a major hotel bombing and a deadly assault against the Sri Lankan cricket team.
The appointment of 28-year-old Hakimullah Mehsud could herald an increase in attacks as the group tries to prove it is still intact and operational, analysts say. It comes after weeks of speculation and reported infighting among Taliban commanders to replace Baitullah Mehsud, the group’s former chief who was reportedly killed in an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike in northwestern Pakistan.
Several top Taliban commanders have insisted Mehsud is alive, but have provided no proof. U.S. and Pakistani officials are almost certain he was killed in the strike.
The government said it was investigating the reports that Hakimullah Mehsud had been chosen as the new Taliban leader.
Two close aides to another commander, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, told The Associated Press that a 42-member Taliban council, or shura, appointed a new head because Baitullah Mehsud was ill.
"I do confirm that a shura held Friday ... has elected Hakimullah Mehsud (as) the new chief of the Taliban," said one of the aides, Bakht Zada, adding that it was a unanimous decision. "Now all these talks of differences should end. There have not been any differences ever."
Mohammad had announced earlier this week that he had taken over interim control of the Taliban until a shura could pick a new leader because Baitullah Mehsud was too ill to lead. Beyond the statements of Mohammad’s aides, there was no other confirmation about the new appointment. The commander himself was not reachable.
Pakistan’s Taliban is a loose alliance of disparate groups and tribal factions that Baitullah Mehsud had managed to unify, rather than a cohesive unit. If true, the selection of Hakimullah Mehsud is likely an attempt to shore up an organization reeling from the loss of its leader, said Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis with Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
"It’s an attempt to stabilize the group after the initial reports of infighting. ... I think that the group is trying to emerge out of a crisis," Bokhari said, noting that the loss of Baitullah would have been "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 has a reputation as Baitullah’s most ruthless deputy. He had been considered one of the top contenders to take over. 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 have said he has been behind threats to foreign embassies in Islamabad, and there is a 10 million rupee ($120,000) bounty on his head. His men have been blamed for attacking U.S. and NATO supply convoys traveling through northwestern Pakistan en route to Afghanistan, and he claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.
He had also threatened suicide bombings in Pakistani cities in retaliation for a recent army offensive in the Swat Valley, which has been winding down in recent weeks.
While it is unclear whether he will be able to maintain unity within the Pakistani Taliban like his predecessor, he was likely chosen for his operational capabilities, said Bokhari, the analyst, adding that a revival to some degree of suicide bombings could be expected.
"At this point the goal of the TTP is to let the outside world know that it’s very much alive and kicking, and how it will do that will be based on its ability or inability to stage suicide bombing attacks," he said.
More attacks would demonstrate that the Pakistani Taliban was intact and able to operate despite recent setbacks, he explained.
"I think that the decision of the shura to appoint this particular individual is based on that consideration."
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government had received intelligence reports about Hakimullah’s appointment "as the chief terrorist" but that there was no official confirmation.
Zada said the shura had spoken by phone to Faqir Mohammad and Maulana Fazlullah, the notorious commander of the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern Swat Valley, to offer them the slot, but that they both refused citing personal reasons. He said the two said they were not young enough to assume the leadership of the militants. Mohammad is believed to be in his 50s, and Fazlullah between 35 and 40, while Hakimullah is just 28 years old.
Another close Mohammad aide, Sher Zamin, also confirmed that Hakimullah had been elected as the new Taliban chief.
"It is a consensus among all Taliban that Hakimullah Mehsud is the best choice," he told The Associated Press.
Separately, security forces prevented a suicide bomber from entering a civilian area in the town of Kanju in the Swat Valley, the army said. The bomber blew himself up to evade capture after security forces gave chase, killing three soldiers and wounding one more, said spokesman Lt. Col. Akthar Abbas.
Also Saturday, a car bombing in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar killed at least two people. Senior police official Nisar Ali Khan. AP
Khan said officers were trying to determine the identity of the victims, who were believed to be members of a militant group, Ansarul Islam. The group has a long-running enmity with Lashkar-e-Islam, and both are accused of trying to impose their own Taliban-style rule in the Khyber region near Peshawar.
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