Notwithstanding Pakistan’s public outcry, the CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) locally known as drones have played an ever-greater role in eliminating notorious militant commanders, both locals and foreigners, in the so-called lawless tribal region separating mainland Pakistan from Afghanistan.
Since the launch of the first-ever drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal territory in June 2004, which took out militant commander Nek Muhammad Wazir, UAV operations gradually escalated until 2013. The next three years witnessed a steady slow down before a dramatic increase in the second half of 2017.
In the latest such strike, media reports, quoting a single Taliban source, suggest the killing of another ruthless Taliban commander: Abdul Wali alias Umar Khalid Khorasani. However, reliable sources suggest that Khorasani is alive. Several Pakistan and foreign media outlets apparently confused Umar Khalid Khorasani with commander Umar Mansour, the previous Taliban leader who was reported dead in a drone strike in October 2016.
Since 2004, the year when Pakistan sent, for the first time, regular troops into the tribal areas to target al-Qaeda and their local affiliates, support for the Taliban has increased not only in that region but even in the settled districts and cities.
Unable to rein in the Taliban leaders due to the stature they had attained in the tribal milieu, the Pakistani security forces and government have entered numerous clandestine deals with some commanders, such as Nek Muhammad and Baitullah Mehsud, despite their open and visible challenge to the state.
The majority of the top Taliban commanders emerged from the platform of the now almost defunct Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organization of various militant groups cobbled together by Baitullah Mehsud to resist Pakistani security forces and fight the NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan.
Over the years, the TTP turned their guns against the Pakistani state, earning the nom de guerre of “bad Taliban” in Pakistan’s security circles. However, despite numerous military operations, none of the “bad Taliban’s” top leaders was killed or arrested.
This is why when the drones started targeting the top Taliban leaders, the tribesmen nicknamed the UAVs “Ababeels,” a reference to a Quranic verse about the holy birds that targeted the army of Abraha, who had planned to raze Baitullah (House of God) in the Saudi city of Mecca. Pakistan also named one of its drones, produced at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Ababeel.
Below is a brief account of some of the top Taliban leaders who evaded the Pakistani security forces operations, but targeted in missile attacks by UAVs. The drone strikes have at once dealt a crushing blow to the TTP and are seen to be an imminent threat to peace and security in Pakistan.
Umar Mansour alias Umar Naray
Umar Mansour was targeted by a U.S. drone in July 2016 in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. He was heading the Geedar group of the TTP in Darra Adamkhel, the once flourishing unlicensed arms market just southeast of Peshawar city.
Besides spearheading many other terrorist attacks, Mansour was wanted by the Pakistani authorities on charges of masterminding the January 2016 attack on a Bacha Khan University in northern Pakistan. He is also said to have masterminded the attack on an army-run school in Peshawar, killing 132 schoolchildren and over a dozen other staffers.
Last week, as the TTP announced a successor of Umar Mansour, several Pakistani and international media outlets apparently confused Umar Mansour with chief of the Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) Umar Khalid Khorasani and reported the latter’s death.
The dreaded Taliban commander was targeted by a drone in November 2013 in North Waziristan tribal district. The successor of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud was a sworn enemy of the Pakistani government.
He catapulted to fame in the Taliban hierarchy after the capture of 300 Pakistani soldiers in 2007. Later, he launched daring attacks on NATO supply convoys earning him the distinction to lead the Taliban in the Khyber, Orakzai, and Kurram tribal districts.
It was under Hakimullah Mehsud that the TTP forged complex alliances with other militant groups not only in the tribal areas, but cities such as Karachi.
Wali Rahman Mehsud
Wali Rehman was the second-in-command to Hakimullah Mehsud. He was responsible for launching attacks against the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Rehman was carrying a $5 million bounty from the U.S. government.
He was killed in a drone strike in May 2013, months before the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud. The successive targeting of the two top leaders in drone strikes damaged the TTP beyond repair. The group fragmented due to ethnic, tribal, and organizational feuds soon after the killing of Wali Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud and was finally defeated when the Pakistani security forces launched the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in June 2014.
Nazeer was not only known for leading a Taliban faction in South Waziristan, but also for being on the list of “good Taliban” from Pakistan’s point of view. He was targeted by a drone in the first week of January 2013.
Mullah Nazeer remained a crucial target for the drones as he was responsible for sending fighters across the border to fight the NATO and ISAF troops. Although he was in a peace deal with the Pakistani government, Nazeer was also responsible for hosting al-Qaeda operatives. Unlike the TTP, Nazeer’s faction never launched attacks against the Pakistani security forces earning him the distinction of “good Taliban.”
Known as “Ustad-e-Fidayeen” (teacher of suicide bombers), Qari Hussain was initially reported killed in a drone attack in October 2010. However, the Taliban denied reports about his death. He was again reported dead in a drone strike near Miramshah, headquarters of North Waziristan tribal district, on January 12, 2012.
Qari Hussain is believed to have trained Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who attempted to detonate a bomb at the Times Square on May 1, 2010. He appeared in the TTP video footage claiming a connection with the would-be Times Square bomber. However, a TTP spokesman later dissociated the group from any connection with Faisal Shahzad.
Qari Hussain is also believed to have trained the Jordanian Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al Balawi, who killed seven CIA officials in Afghanistan’s Khost province on December 30, 2009.
Baitullah Mehsud was the founding leader of the TTP and an ardent supporter of “jihad” against the NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan. Although he was focused on fighting across the border in Afghanistan in his early days, Baitullah never spared the Pakistani troops and even targeted the cities with his squads of suicide bombers when Pakistan launched military operations in South Waziristan and Swat. It was under Baitullah Mehsud that the Taliban expanded their attacks from the tribal areas into the cities and even expanded their areas of influence.
Pakistani officials charged Baitullah Mehsud in the assassination of former two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in November 2007. Baitullah Mehsud was targeted with a missile launched from a drone on August 5, 2009.
Nek Muhammad Wazir
The killing of Nek Muhammad Wazir, in June 2004, was the first militant leader killed by a drone strike in the Pakistani tribal areas. The same strike was also the first launched by a CIA-operated drone.
Muhammad was an ally of the Afghan Taliban who was preparing the tribal youth to fight across the border against the NATO/ISAF troops. In his adolescence, Muhammad fought alongside the Afghan Taliban and in the aftermath of 9/11, he hosted foreign militants who crossed the border into Waziristan to escape arrest or killing by U.S. troops.
When Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf, for the first time, sent regular troops into the Waziristan tribal region to tame Muhammad and arrest or kill the foreign militants, he launched counterattacks on Pakistani installations.
Nek Muhammad popularity was touching its peak, mostly among his fellow tribesmen, when a top officer of the Pakistan army announced a peace deal and garlanded him in the presence of hundreds of locals in April 2004. A few months later, he was killed by a U.S. drone.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.