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Commander's Accession Could Mark Increasingly Anti-Shi'a Course Of Pakistani Taliban

Hakimullah Mehsud talking with media at an undisclosed location in October 2009
Even before the death of Hakimullah Mehsud has been categorically confirmed, speculation is rife as to who would succeed him as the leader of Pakistan's most lethal extremist organization.

Of the possible suitors to head Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan, one name stands out -- Maulvi Noor Jamal, a militant commander best known by his nom de guerre, Mullah Tofan.

During a Taliban gathering last week, held amid continued reports that the 28-year-old Mehsud had died of injuries sustained in an attack carried out by U.S. drone aircraft in January, Mullah Tofan was reportedly mentioned as his most likely successor.

The Taliban have neither confirmed nor denied the reports that a successor has been chosen and, quite to the contrary, today fiercely denied the latest reports of Mehsud's demise. After media organizations today quoted Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik as saying that Mehsud had died, without providing details, the Pakistani Taliban told AFP that "Hakimullah Mehsud is safe and alive. The government and our enemies are waging a propaganda campaign."

But the organization has yet to fulfill pledges to prove Mehsud is alive, as it did last year after reports of his death emerged in August. Shortly afterward, Mehsud was presented to reporters before cameras. Also notable is that the death of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in the August attack, was denied for weeks until Hakimullah Mehsud was named as his replacement.

Increasingly Militant

The accession of Jamal would mark a new and even more violent course for the Pakistani Taliban , which has already become increasingly more militant in recent years.

Jamal, in his late 30s, is a former prayer leader who taught at a madrasah in Orakzai Agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas before being appointed as the Taliban commander for Orakzai and neighboring Kurram Agency. His rise to power hinted at the disarray the Pakistani Taliban faced within its ranks after it lost a large part of its former South Waziristan stronghold as a result of military operations conducted by the Pakistani military.

While most of the group's leaders derive from the ethnic-Pashtun Mehsud tribe that populates the South Waziristan tribal region, there have been no indications that Hakimullah's successor would come from his home region or even from within the tribe. While Wali-ur Rehman, a Mehsud tribal member from South Waziristan, would be the most likely to become the Pakistani Taliban's new leader if tradition were followed, his name has seldom been mentioned.

Crucially, the appointment of Jamal, reportedly a close aid to Mehsud, would be a strong indication that the Pakistan Taliban is on the path to strengthen the anti-Shi'a orientation it has increasingly exhibited. As a leader of the Taliban in Orakzai and Kurram, Jamal enforced a blockade of Parachinar -- the biggest town in Pakistan's tribal areas, where most of the 500,000 residents are Shi'ite.

Jamal also enforced a tax on Shi'a in his native Orakzai in the name of protecting them. The region is home to Sunni extremist fugitives from Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province, where thousands have died in simmering Shi'ite-Sunni violence over the past three decades.

Unlike other Taliban factions, which primarily attack Afghan and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan, Pakistan's Shi'ite communities are a prime target for the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani authorities blame the organization and affiliate groups for the twin bombings against Shi'ite worshippers in the southern seaport city of Karachi on February 5 that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

In a recent video footage, Jamal is seen flogging an unknown victim accused of being "against the Taliban". Locals have described him as willing to kill humans "like one will kill chickens," according to "The New York Times."

Islamabad-based Pakistani author and analyst Imtiaz Gul closely follows his country's protracted struggle against extremists. He tells RFE/RL that that if the deaths of Hakimullah Mehsud and a close aide, Qari Hussain, are confirmed, it would be a "fatal blow" to the Pakistani Taliban because its standing has been discredited as a result of the military operations in the northwestern district Swat and in South Waziristan over the past year.

Bombing Mastermind

Hussain, believed to be the mastermind of numerous suicide bombings in Pakistan, was once considered the man most likely to succeed Mehsud.

Gul notes, however, that the Pakistani Taliban counts "Africans, Arabs, Uzbeks, and [ethnic] Punjabi Taliban components" among its ranks, and that it would be difficult to predict whether they would all buy in to an anti-Shi'a campaign. "Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan is basically using terror to destabilize this country. And for that they are targeting anybody that comes their way," he says.

"And, of course, if they are close to the Kurram Agency [tribal district] where there are a lot of Shi'ites, then they can also, I think, victimize the Shi'ites. But largely, I don't think it's an anti-Shiite [movement]. It's an anti-West, anti-Pakistan, anti-military organization. And if its leadership is getting decimated gradually that doesn't auger well for this organization," Gul says.

Speculation of Mehsud's death was further fuelled today after Interior Minister Malik told reporters that, "I have credible information that he's dead, but I don't have any confirmation."

Gul says that "nobody has conclusive definitive" information about the Taliban leader's death. He does say, however, that the fact that the Pakistani Taliban has been unable to prove Mehsud is not dead could be telling. While audio messages purportedly made by Mehsud were released in mid-January, since then no new messages have emerged, and no video evidence that he is alive has ever been presented.

"I would say that, as has been the case with Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, that they didn't send out his audio tape to prevent confusion and chaos within the ranks of the TTP," Gul says.

"And my guess would be that he is dead. If he is not dead then they should have come out with the latest video evidence on him."

Security analyst and former brigadier general Saad Muhammad tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the Pakistani Taliban was in disarray after the death of Baitullah Mehsud last August. Having lost their key bases in South Waziristan stronghold, the Taliban leadership is now on the run and the group is poised for further fragmentation.

"Autonomous groups are likely to emerge in different regions. They are likely to continue to use the name of their umbrella organization [the Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan] but will have more operational independence," he says.

"Now you hear different names in different regions such as in Orakzai. In my opinion, similar organizations will continue to crop up and their regional autonomy will increase."

Gul says that despite its brutality, the current conflict in the region will ultimately end. And, he notes, groups such as the Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan tend to be self-destructive as a result of their reliance on extreme violence. "Ignorance has no future, and many Taliban groups basically represent ignorance," he says.

RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Daud Khattak contributed to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.