The militant commander named by the Pakistani Taliban as its new leader is as ruthless as his predecessor, taking credit for several bloody attacks, and could order more in the coming weeks to prove the terror network is still a force to be reckoned with.
While the naming of 28-year-old Hakimullah Mehsud suggests the Taliban are regrouping after the reported killing of their ex-chief Baitullah Mehsud in a CIA missile strike on Aug. 5, questions remain as to whether they will be able to unite around him, an analyst said.
Also unclear is the direction the movement will take under new leadership. Baitullah was known for ordering suicide strikes against Pakistani civilian, government and security targets, often in spectacular fashion in major cities far from border areas.
Hakimullah may decide to direct some or all of his forces across the border in Afghanistan like other jihadi commanders in the northwest, joining insurgents there in the fight against US and NATO forces as they try to stabilize the country eight years after the invasion.
Two close aides to another commander, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, said on Saturday that a 42-member Taliban council, or shura, had appointed Hakimullah as the new leader. Like other members of the network, he insisted Baitullah was alive but sick, hence the need for a new chief. US and Pakistani officials are almost certain that he is dead.
“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 it was a unanimous decision. “Now all these talks of differences should end. There have not been any differences ever.”
Pakistan’s Taliban are a loose alliance of disparate groups and tribal factions that Baitullah Mehsud managed to unify. They are believed to have up to 25,000 fighters based in the lawless northwestern tribal areas.
The selection of Hakimullah could shore up an organization following 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,” Bokhari said, noting the loss of Baitullah would have been “a massive blow to the organization.”
As military chief of Baitullah’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban Movement, Hakimullah commanded three tribal regions and has a reputation as Baitullah’s most ruthless deputy. He was considered one of the top contenders to take over. He first appeared in public to journalists in November last year when he offered to take reporters on a ride in a US Humvee taken from a supply truck heading to Afghanistan.
Authorities say he was behind threats to foreign embassies in Islamabad, and there was a 10 million rupee (US$120,000) bounty on his head.
Hakimullah claimed responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in the northwestern city of Peshawar and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.
He 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 if he will be able to maintain unity, he was likely chosen for his operational capabilities, said Bokhari, adding a revival of suicide bombings could be expected.