Key Taliban leader likely killed in airstrike, Pakistani officials say

By Haq Nawaz Khan and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 7, 2010

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN -- Pakistani officials said Saturday that a top Taliban leader was probably killed in an airstrike in the northwest, dealing another blow to a militant group that fighters say has been leaderless since January.

Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, an al-Qaeda-linked commander of the Pakistani Taliban, was almost certainly among a large group of insurgents killed Friday in a Pakistani helicopter gunship attack in the Mohmand region of the volatile tribal areas, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters. Mohammed was the top leader in another tribal area, Bajaur agency, and a deputy leader of the broader Taliban organization in Pakistan.

Analysts said Mohammed's death, coming amid stepped-up military operations and U.S. drone strikes, would help reduce the Pakistani Taliban to something more like the patchwork of local insurgencies that it was before it grew into a lethal umbrella group. Mohammed had been considered a candidate to lead the national organization.

"They're shellshocked," Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former Pakistani interior minister, said of the Taliban. "Pakistan is on the front foot right now."

A scattered Pakistani Taliban could help U.S.-led efforts to battle Afghan militants by disrupting their sanctuary in Pakistan's border regions.

The Pakistani Taliban's most recent leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is thought to have been killed or incapacitated in a January drone strike, and the campaign of suicide bombings he oversaw has tapered off. He took the helm after a missile fired by an unmanned U.S. aircraft killed his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud.

Analysts caution that the emergence of a new leader could recharge the movement. But no one has claimed Hakimullah Mehsud's place yet. One prospect, suicide-bomber mentor Qari Hussain, might have been killed alongside him. Another, Wali ur-Rehman, has declined to take the post, a local tribal leader said.

The tribal leader and two Taliban sources said the organization's top council had not convened a meeting in two months.

"We are unable to pass information to each other," one Taliban fighter in Kurram agency, a tribal area, said in a telephone interview. "On the one hand, security forces are chasing us, and on the other, Americans are firing missiles."

Malik said the Friday airstrike also probably killed Qari Ziaur Rehman, an Afghan commander of fighters battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Last week, Pakistan's army announced for the second time this year that it had cleared Bajaur of militants. The area is a key conduit for fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as those in Pakistan's tribal areas and the Swat Valley, where the Taliban briefly took power last year.

Khan is a special correspondent. Brulliard reported from Islamabad.

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