Young slayer takes up reins of Pakistani Taliban

Islamabad, Aug 30 (DPA) Hakimullah Mehsud, who has been chosen as the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban, rose swiftly to the top echelons of the militant group through acts of relentless brutality and profound ruthlessness. Known as a man with a lively smile and quick wits, 29-year-old Hakimullah in recent years led a squad of 75 executioners whose main task was to carry out beheadings of opponents, defectors, alleged spies and captives.

The slaughter was aimed at strengthening the terror regime of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who died in a US drone attack in early August.

In private chats with fellow militants, Hakimullah, who is no relation to Baitullah, takes pride in telling stories of how he slit throats of “dozens of infidels and hypocrites” and “dispatched them to hell”.

The biography of the new Taliban leader, which is known through intelligence and Taliban sources, begins in Kotkai village near Jandola town in the north-western tribal region of South Waziristan, where he was born.

Hakimullah, whose original name is Jamshid Mehsud, spent his early years at an Islamic seminary in the Hangu district where he joined the student wing of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a religious political party of Deobandi Sunni Muslims.

Later, he joined with the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an extremist Sunni group believed to be behind hundreds of killings of minority Shiite Muslims over more than the past two decades.

After proving his skills with guns and bombs at a local terrorist training centre, Hakimullah headed for jihad against US-led international forces in Afghanistan early this decade. Months of fighting polished his skills as a guerrilla fighter.

Well-built and energetic, the militant joined his fellow clansman Baitullah on his return from Afghanistan and served as his bodyguard, chauffeur and later as his spokesman with a mock identity of Zulfiqar Mehsud.

But the photogenic fighter achieved prominence in late 2007 when he led a couple of dozen militants in seizing 300 Pakistani military and paramilitary troops in South Waziristan – a spectacular raid that raised serious questions about Islamabad’s capability to fight the Taliban in its ungoverned tribal belt along the Afghan border.

The Pakistani government had to release 29 militants, some high-profile Taliban leaders, in exchange for the soldiers.

From then on, there was no stopping the ambitious Hakimullah.

When Baitullah brought together 13 Taliban groups in Pakistan’s tribal region and the neighbouring North-West Frontier Province to turn them into an organised fighting force under the umbrella of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007, he appointed Hakimullah as the commander in Khyber, Orakzai and Kurram – three of the tribal region’s seven districts.

Hakimullah fit well into this new, powerful role. He had all the freedom to explore his wild and brutal nature, which lurks behind his wit and easy manners.

Following the beliefs of the Sunni extremist SSP, he targeted Shiite Muslims in all three districts. Hundreds of Shiites have been killed either in open fighting or executions carried out by Hakimullah’s death squad in recent years.

In mid-2008, he launched a series of raids on convoys carrying fuel, food and military supplies from the Pakistani port of Karachi for NATO troops in landlocked Afghanistan through the Khyber district. The assaults forced the US and NATO to look for an alternative route running through Central Asia.

He is also believed to have masterminded a number of deadly suicide attacks, including one June 9 on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, the main town in North-West Frontier Province, which borders the Khyber district. The suicide bombing killed around a dozen people, including UN officials.

Most of the bombers dispatched for those attacks were trained by Hakimullah’s cousin Qari Hussain – the head of Baitullah’s suicide squads. The influential Hussain later on helped him to become the new leader of Pakistan’s Taliban.

“Hakimullah had replaced Baitullah in many ways, even during his life,” said journalist Zahir Shah Sherazi, who in November 2008 met the young militant leader who was the right hand of a man who was suffering from diabetes and kidney problems.

“Because of his illness, Baitullah had turned into a mere name, a symbol by then,” Sherazi said. “Hakimullah was the actual man. He was overseeing all the operations and was also generating revenues for the TTP through ransom, bank robberies and other illegal activities.”

As a true loyalist to Baitullah, the young commander has been focusing more on spreading the Taliban ideology in Pakistan than fighting Western troops in Afghanistan – a trend that takes him on the wrong side of Islamabad’s unacknowledged distinction between good and bad Taliban militants.

By that definition, the good Taliban are those who fight NATO troops in Afghanistan and the bad ones turn on their own countrymen.

With the accession of hardliner Hakimullah to the Taliban throne, the strategic equation might not change for NATO forces in Afghanistan, but the threat of destabilisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan and a key US ally in the fight against terrorism looms large – a prospect that compelled the US administration to go after Baitullah.

“If the Pakistani government continues with its policy of following American dictates, (some day) we can try to capture Peshawar, Hangu and even Islamabad,” Hakimullah told Sherazi and other visiting journalists.

“And we have the strength to do it,” Hakimullah boasted.