Al-Qaida wants to choose the next Pakistani Taliban leader to replace Baitullah Mehsud, a top Pakistani official claimed Monday — a move that could help the terror group maintain its sanctuaries near the Afghan border.
Pakistani and American officials are confident Mehsud died in a CIA missile strike last Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal region, despite Taliban denials. Militants are said to have been meeting in recent days to determine Mehsud's successor.
One contender, Hakimullah, phoned The Associated Press on Monday and railed against Pakistani government claims that he himself had been killed in deadly infighting among the top contenders to succeed Mehsud. He also insisted the Taliban chief was alive and his supporters unified.
Mehsud's death would be a major blow for the Pakistani Taliban. He had succeeded in bringing various Islamist militant factions under a unified if loose command which posed an unprecedented threat to the Pakistani security forces. Al-Qaida is believed to have seen him as a key ally.
Al-Qaida seeks an ally
Pakistani intelligence officials and Taliban sources have told AP that during the weekend Arab fighters as well as Afghan Taliban joined shuras, or meetings, held by local militant commanders in South Waziristan on who should succeed Mehsud.
"Al-Qaida is getting grouped in the same place, and now they are trying to find out somebody to install him as the leader, as the chief terrorist, in that area," Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik told BBC radio.
He later told a private Pakistani TV station that al-Qaida is "trying to bring someone who suits them, who can work more effectively for them. Those who were investing money in them must be attempting to bring the man of their choice."
Malik did not suggest who al-Qaida favored as a candidate, and the substance of his claims could not be independently verified.
Maintaining unity of Taliban
The unity of the Pakistani Taliban concerns al-Qaida because the stronger the Pakistani militant network, "the greater the ability of al-Qaida people to be able to hide, to be able to move around," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban.
Al-Qaida leaders and fighters fled into Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. Several senior al-Qaida leaders have since been killed or captured inside Pakistan and top figures, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, are suspected to still hide in Pakistan's tribal regions.
Foreign militants are believed to shelter both in South Waziristan — Mehsud's redoubt — and in neighboring North Waziristan, despite repeated U.S. missile strikes and years of intermittent Pakistani military operations to flush out militants.
Analysts say al-Qaida offered logistical guidance and money to Mehsud, who in turn provided suicide bombers and other assets.
"He was an efficient leader, a charismatic leader. Therefore he was an asset to al-Qaida," said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's northwestern tribal regions. "He was one man who was able to unify all the Taliban in Pakistan. The new leader may not be able to do so."
If the Pakistani Taliban fragment and the various groups decide against attacking Pakistani targets, then al-Qaida's agenda in Pakistan could be harmed, said Shaun Gregory, a Pakistan expert at Britain's Bradford University.
Al-Qaida has encouraged Pakistanis to rise up against their government and armed forces because of their alliance with the U.S.
While Taliban have escalated their campaign in Pakistan in the past two years — rather than focus just on mounting attacks on Western forces in neighboring Afghanistan — the resulting bloodshed has eroded sympathy for the Taliban among Pakistan's largely conservative Muslim people, and galvanized public support for Pakistani army campaigns against the militants.
Reports of conflict within Taliban unclear
Conflicting reports have emerged about clashes between rival Taliban factions during a meeting, or shura, allegedly to select Mehsud's replacement. Some reports said one or both of the leading contenders — Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman — were killed or wounded.
However, on Monday, Hakimullah spoke to an AP reporter who was familiar with his voice and claimed that the reports of infighting were all part of a government propaganda campaign aimed at disturbing the militants. Hakimullah specifically lashed out at the interior minister, calling him a "liar."
"There is neither any rift in the Taliban ranks nor will they fight against each other," Hakimullah said. "This propaganda cannot divide us. And I will say again: Baitullah Mehsud is alive."
Also Monday, a Taliban commander in the Makeen area of South Waziristan told AP that Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman addressed militants on wireless radio from an unknown location late Sunday. He said the address came after Taliban militants were told that Mehsud himself would deliver the speech.
Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah both told the militants not to fall prey to propaganda in the media and to stay united, said the commander, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Analysts have suggested that could be in the interests of top commanders within Mehsud's alliance, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, to deny their leader was dead until they could agree on who would replace him.
Threat of militant violence continues
Attacks Monday underscored the continued militant threat.
Three suspected militants were killed by troops retaliating after a remote-controlled bomb exploded near a security checkpoint in North Waziristan, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
The army confirmed the clash but said casualties were unconfirmed.
In a statement, the military said that militants also attacked a security convoy elsewhere in North Waziristan, and that troops fired at them, killing three. Three troops were wounded, the statement said.
Separately, a bomb exploded near a local government official's vehicle in Peshawar, the main northwest city. City police chief Safwat Ghayur said the official was safe, but that his guards began shooting after the blast, killing a passer-by and wounding another.