Obscure figures take helm of TTP as leadership crisis intensifies

By Ashfaq Yusufzai


A Pakistani civil society activist holds a placard bearing the image of then-Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Mullah Fazlullah during a protest in Islamabad on January 16, 2015. Fazlullah was killed in Afghanistan in 2018. [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

PESHAWAR -- The outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is facing a leadership crisis as the militant group increasingly resorts to obscure figures to lead the group, say analysts.

The leaders of the TTP have no roots in the masses and are instead selected based on personal influence and power, said Khadim Hussain, a Peshawar-based security analyst.

In sharp contrast to political or social organisations in which leaders rise to the top by virtue of their long struggles, the TTP has been selecting its leaders based on who has the power to frighten and terrorise the public, he said.

Unlike politicians seeking power, TTP commanders have no need for leadership ability or for a winning ideology, said Hussain.

The main qualification for leaders in the militant group is their level of ruthlessness in terrorising the general public, said Peshawar-based security analyst Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah.

"The TTP or other militant outfits have been notorious for selecting their leaders not on merit but on the level of fear they create," he said.

Beheading their foes -- such as clerics or tribal leaders who stand up to them -- and killing troops or alleged spies are how they spread terror and coerce the public into submission, said Shah.

Unknown figures

The most recent appointment of Maulana Wali Muhammad, alias Umri, is the latest example of how obscure figures gain top positions in the TTP.

Muhammad, who became TTP chief after the killing of Shehryar Mehsud in Afghanistan in February, was supposedly a close associate of former TTP chiefs Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud and chief of the group's suicide bombing wing. Both Mehsuds were killed years ago.

However, the North Waziristan resident is still a relatively unknown personality.

After the Pakistani army's counter-terrorism Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014, the TTP leadership fled to Afghanistan. There, it continues to lose its leaders to US air strikes or clashes with local security forces.

Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, a member of the group's consultative council, and Qari Saifullah Peshawari, another leader, were killed in a clash with security forces in Afghanistan on January 31, the TTP acknowledged February 6.

Many TTP leaders over the years have been illiterate and engaged in odd jobs prior to becomings heads of the militant group.

Former TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, who was killed in Jalalabad in 2018, was a lift operator prior to starting a campaign against polio vaccination, and soon after became head of TTP Swat chapter in 2007.

Nek Muhammad Wazir, one of the first militant commanders in South Waziristan, worked in the transport sector doing menial jobs. He went to religious seminary for five years but was completely illiterate, and was killed in an airstrike in 2004.

"It is the main reason that TTP couldn't be kept united, as the network is divided into many groups that are unable to put up resistance to the security forces in both Pakistan and Afghanistan," Shah said.

"Back home in Pakistan, the TTP has no presence to carry forward its agenda," said Ajmal Khan, a Peshawar-based security analyst.

Those who do side with militants do so out of fear and do not mourn their deaths when they are killed, he said.

The leadership crisis has shattered the group and it continues to nominate little-known men as leaders, Khan said.

"The TTP has been known to offer leadership roles to those who have more armed men and resources to carry out acts of sabotage and frighten the public for the sake of their illegitimate rule," said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Jamshed Ayaz Khan of Islamabad, a terrorism specialist.

Other terrorist groups have the same idea of leadership, he said.

He named Mangal Bagh, emir of Lashkar-e-Islami and an uneducated ex-truck driver, as one example.

"Like other militants' leaders, Mangal Bagh has no education, no public standing or any other quality ... the only qualification was terrorism," Khan said.

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