By Zia Ur Rehman
February 28, 2014
The killing of Asmatullah Bhittani, a key leader of the Pakistani Taliban, is an outcome of an internal strife among various factions of the group, security officials and experts say.
Asmatullah, former head of central Shura (council) of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was shot dead on February 24 by unidentified gunmen in the Darga Mandi area near Miranshah in North Waziristan.
“He was travelling in his car on the main Dattakhel Road when unidentified gunmen shot and killed him along with three aides,” said a journalist based in Miranshah.
Asmatullah, popularly known as Shaheen, was appointed the acting chief of the TTP after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike in North Waziristan in November. He was later replaced by TTP’s current emir Mullah Fazlullah.
“Since the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, Asmatullah is the most the important leader of the TTP to have been killed,” said a security official based in Peshawar. There were also unconfirmed reports in late January, citing security officials, that Asmatullah was killed during the Pakistani military’s airstrikes on militant hideouts in North Waziristan.
Asmatullah, 36, belonged to the Khichi sub-tribe of the Bhittanis, and hailed from the Khichi village in FR Tank area. He was initially associated with Harkatul Mujahideen, a jihadi group led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, and later joined a Taliban faction led by Abdullah Mehsud. He had differences with Baitullah Mehsud in the beginning, but became part of the TTP when it was formed in December 2007. For a while, Bhittani also ran a shop selling Islamic cassettes in Jandola Baazar.
Asmatullah was appointed the commander for the towns of Tank and Jandola where he fought with Turkistan Bhittani, chief of a pro-government militia, and Zain Mehsud, cousin of Baitullah Mehsud and head of an anti-TTP militant group. He was among the 20 most wanted Taliban commanders and the Pakistani government had announced a Rs 10 million bounty on his head.
It is unclear so far who killed Asmatullah. Some analysts believe Asmatullah was supporting peace talks with the government and had been killed by the Taliban groups who opposed negotiations.
A Jamaat-e-Islami leader in Peshawar familiar with the peace process confirmed that when Professor Ibraheem and Maulana Yousaf Shah, members of the Taliban’s negotiations committee, went to meet the nine-member Shura of the TTP, they also met with Asmatullah. The JI leader said “anti-peace elements” killed Asmatullah in order to sabotage the dialogue.
There have been four attacks by gunmen on TTP-linked militants in the month of February, Mashaal Radio reported. Before the killing of Asmatullah on February 24, gun attacks on TTP militants were also carried out on the 5th, 17th and 19th of February, killing a number of Taliban men. No one has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.
“It is very confusing,” said the Miranshah based journalist. “We don’t know which group or individual could be behind the attacks.”
Asmatullah had survived five attacks on his life.
Some sources suggest that Khan Said alias Sajna, chief of the TTP in the Mehsud area, could be behind Asmatullah’s killing. “Asmatullah and Sajna lost several men in an armed clash after they developed severe differences, but then the TTP Shura had resolved the issue,” said a Mehsud journalist familiar with the affairs of the TTP in the area.
A section of analysts thinks that the Pakistani military is killing key Taliban militants in the area through a death squad. “Pakistan Army may be behind the killing of Asmatullah because he was involved in several key attacks on the security forces,” said an Islamabad-based security analyst. In December 2011, Asmatullah-led militants kidnapped about 15 men of the Frontier Constabulary. Eleven of the detainees were later killed.
The writer is a journalist and researcher