The Pakistani Taliban announced it had appointed a new leader on Saturday after the militant group confirmed for the first time its former chief Maulana Fazlullah was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week.
Fazlullah is believed to have ordered the failed 2012 assassination of Malala Yousafzai, who became a global symbol of the fight for girls’ rights to schooling, and who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. His group—the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—was was also behind the massacre of more than 150 people, including more than 100 schoolchildren, at a Peshawar school in December 2014.
U.S. forces targeted Fazlullah in a counterterrorism strike on June 14 in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province, close to the border with Pakistan. U.S. officials had not said whether the strike was successful but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani later confirmed the killing to both Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister and Army chief in phone calls.
In a statement sent to AFP on Saturday, TTP spokesman Mohammad Khorasani confirmed Fazlullah was killed in the U.S. drone strike. “It is a matter of pride that all leaders of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have been martyred by infidels,” Khorasani said, referring to Fazlullah’s two predecessors who were also killed in drone strikes.
The group’s shura council elected Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud to replace him and also appointed as deputy Mufti Mazahim, also known as Mufti Hafza Ullah, he added.
Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing safe haven to its leaders—charges Islamabad denies. Pakistan, in return, has accused Afghanistan of sheltering the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistan’s Army called Fazlullah’s death a “positive development.” The militant leader went into hiding in Afghanistan in 2009 and his death “gives relief to scores of Pakistani families who fell victims to TTP terror including the [school] massacre,” the Army said in a statement after Fazlullah’s death was confirmed.
The 40-year-old Mehsud is a respected Islamic scholar or mufti as well as a fighter, and belongs to the fierce Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan district. He was the Pakistani Taliban’s chief justice and authored a book last year detailing the assassination plot of the country’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
Mehsud hails from Sararogha, a Taliban stronghold where Pakistan’s military has fought many pitched battles against fighters from the group in the past years. “With the appointment of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud the leadership of TTP has returned to Mehsud tribe in its home base South Waziristan as Fazlullah was from Swat,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, an acclaimed journalist and expert on the Taliban, told AFP.
Mehsud’s leadership could see the breakaway factions that emerged in the TTP after Fazlullah fled to Afghanistan in 2009 reunite, Yusufzai said.
Mehsud is reported to have studied in various seminaries in the cities of Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Karachi. He is also known as Abu Mansoor Asim. He fought against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 1990 along with Afghan mujahideen fighters.
Mehsud had also served as deputy of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2009 in South Waziristan. He says in his book that when the United States attacked Afghanistan after 9/11 he rushed to Kabul to fight but was saddened to see the fall of the Taliban.