ISLAMABAD - Who tipped off about Hakimullah Mehsud’s whereabouts to help eliminate Pakistan’s presumably biggest enemy in Friday’s drone attack makes a tricky puzzle that may well be solved only in the times to come.
Whether it was an infighting between the militant factions embedded with the quest for grabbing the reigns of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or a pre-emptive move from the hostile militant groups to settle old scores or a coveted intelligence plan executed with mutual coordination between the security apparatuses of Islamabad and Washington that resulted in the elimination of TTP chief in a couple of latest predator strikes in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) remains to be determined in due course of time.
The vibes from security establishment suggest a linkage between Hakimullah’s elimination and the deep-rooted rage that certain Taliban factions held against his style of ruling the terrorist umbrella organisation. The tribal politicians, however, offer a counter-narrative.
In separate conversations with this correspondent, Nazir Khan and Kamran Khan, the incumbent and former lawmakers from NWA, sensed the role of intelligence sleuths in Mehsud’s killing. A retired general refers to the recent statements from Pakistan’s top military command that contained a tough message for the terrorists camouflaged with apparent support for peace talks.
Member National Assembly (MNA) from NWA Nazir Khan rejected the perception that a militant leader or faction could be instrumental in passing on the information to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) regarding Hakimullah’s whereabouts. “I believe, nobody within the ranks of TTP would have attempted to take such a risk. It’s seems to be the work of intelligence operatives.”
Elaborating on his stance, Khan said, the field operatives of foreign and Pakistani intelligence agencies were active in NWA. “It’s an open secret. There are people who work for Pakistan or foreign intelligence agencies to pass on ground information and there are double agents as well. In the presence of so many informers, the leakage of information about his (Hakimullah’s) whereabouts was not that difficult.”
Nazir Khan agreed to the argument that certain TTP factions had differences with one another but said they were united against drone strikes. “You can say they have an informal but strong pact to be united against drone strikes. This pact bounded every militant leader not to collude with the CIA against each other.”
Former MNA from NWA Kamran Khan believed Hakimullah Mehsud was taken out in Thursday drone strike in Miranshah that hit his car. “He and his two close accomplices Abdullah and Tariq were taken out then. The Friday attack targeted other members of Taliban Shura.”
He said that both the attacks were executed with ‘pinpoint accuracy’, which, he believed, was not possible without exchange of intelligence notes between the security apparatuses of Pakistan and the US. “Even if it was a case if an insider’s involvement, that insider surely would be an intelligence sleuth or a group of intelligence men who had penetrated within the Taliban ranks in the garb of militants. Only top Taliban leaders know about the movement of the TTP chief and several top commanders were killed in two drone strikes, which believes me to think this must be the result of exchange of intelligence coordinates through an operative or a double agent.”
A senior security official who was once involved in counter-terrorism operations in FATA, wishing not to be named, said the TTP chief’s elimination might have much to do with the victimisation of certain ethnic tribes of FATA at the hands of Hakimullah. “Mehsud sub-tribes were the worst to suffer, whose members were ruthlessly killed by Hakimullah’s men in a bid to crush opposition and revolt. It would be hardly any surprise if some tribesmen colluded with intel operatives to have him (Hakimullah) eliminated.”
The progress on peace talks, the official said, encouraged the TTP commanders not to stay underground, which helped in tracking them down through surveillance. “The peace talks hype well served as a tactical move for CIA. The TTP commanders believed they had a respite from drones, for the time being, at least. This encouraged them to move around (in NWA), which brought them under the intel radar.”
Asked if the Pakistan’s intelligence agencies had tipped off about Hakimullah’s presence in Dande Darpa Khel (NWA) where he was killed, the official said, “They (US) have a great deal of self-reliant surveillance system that acts as back up to the surgical strikes, in addition to their partial dependency on our intel coordinates. Every surgical strike does not necessarily have to be the product of mutual intel coordination, although, we are often in the loop,” the official said while hinting that the last two attacks did not come ‘out of blue.’
A former general recalls the recent statements from Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to establish that the military establishment was not ‘very happy’ with the flexibility the political leadership was showing to make peace with the militants amid no let up in militant violence. “This could be really a factor in explaining Hakimullah’s killing just ahead of peace talks,” the general, who also desired to stay anonymous, stated.
Addressing a cadets passing out ceremony in Abbottabad last month, General Kayani had said, “Terrorism is a big challenge for us and the national leadership has opted to give dialogue process a chance to tackle it. Pakistan Army supports this initiative...But it’s very important that this process brings unity and not division among the nation.... The use of force is a last option but if required, Pakistan Army is fully capable of doing that.”
Earlier in September, he had said in a statement, “It is understandable to give peace a chance through a political process but no one should have any misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms. Army has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists.”