Eight South Waziristan Taliban commanders, pictured in a ‘wanted’ poster: 1. Hakeemullah Mehsud, 2. Waliur Rehman Mehsud, 3. Qari Hussain Mehsud, 4. Azam Tariq, 5. Maulvi Azmatullah, 6. Mufti Noor Wali, 7. Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, 8. Mohammad Anwar Gandapur.
Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, a senior leader who was appointed interim emir for the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan last fall after the death of the group’s leader in a drone strike, has been gunned down in the Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan.
Asmatullah, his driver, and bodyguards were ambushed and killed as they were driving near Darga Mandi in the Ghulam Khan area of the Pakistani tribal agency. Family members and Pakistani officials confirmed his death, according to Dawn. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has not released an official statement announcing his death.
No group has claimed credit for killing Asmatullah, who has been the target of several assassination attempts, according to The News. The likely culprits are rival Taliban commanders, Pakistan’s military intelligence service, and a shadowy assassination squad thought to be operating inside Pakistan.
Asmatullah is known to be a rival of a Khan Said, a senior Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan leader who is also known as Sajna Mehsud. Sajna was rumored to have been appointed emir in early November 2013 after Hakeemullah Mehsud, the group’s former emir, was killed by the US in a drone strike last fall. But one day later, Asmatullah, who led the group’s shura, or executive council, was officially named interim emir. Several days later, Mullah Fazlullah was selected by the shura and appointed by Asmatullah to lead the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISID, also may have been gunning for Asmatullah. He is known to have captured and executed Pakistani troops in the past. And while last week’s execution of 23 Frontier Corps has been claimed by Omar Khalid al Khurasani and has not been linked to Asmatullah, the Pakistani military and ISID have been launching punitive raids against the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan’s forces in North Waziristan, Khyber, and Hangu.
Asmatullah may also have been in the crosshairs of what is believed to be an assassination team that is thought to be operating in Pakistan and directed by US intelligence. Nasiruddin Haqqani, a top leader in the Haqqani Network, was assassinated under similar circumstances in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in November 2013. Nasiruddin’s assassins have yet to be named. The same network is said to be helping the US target jihadists in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Asmatullah was a dangerous Taliban leader
Before joining the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Asmatullah was a member of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, an al Qaeda-linked group that operates in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s emir is closely tied to al Qaeda and its leader operates openly in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Asmatullah had served as a senior commander in the tribal areas for nearly a decade. He is among the 20 most-wanted Taliban commanders operating in South Waziristan, Tank, and Dera Ismail Khan. In 2009, the Pakistani government placed a $120,000 bounty on his head.
Before being appointed to the shura, Asmatullah was the military commander in the towns of Jandola and Tank in the district of Tank and reported directly to Hakeemullah. In late 2009, many Taliban commanders fled the Mehsud tribal areas of South Waziristan to avoid the Pakistani Army offensive that was launched in October of that year. Seeking to escape the military dragnet, the Taliban commanders fled to North Waziristan, Arakzai, Kurram, Khyber, and to areas in South Waziristan that are under the control of the Mullah Nazir Group.
In 2009, Asmatullah and some of his fighters relocated to the southern port city of Karachi, where he continued attacks. On Dec. 30, 2009, Asmatullah claimed that one of his fighters carried out the Dec. 28 suicide attack against a Shia religious procession in Karachi that killed 43 people and wounded more than 100.
By 2011, Asmatullah was back in the tribal areas conducting military operations. In December 2011, his forces overran a Frontier Corps fort in the settled district of Tank. Fifteen Frontier Corps troops were captured and one was killed during the raid.
After the assault on the Frontier Corps outpost in Tank, Asmatullah claimed credit for the attack and said it was carried out to avenge the death of Taj Gul Mehsud, who was killed along with 12 other fighters in a US airstrike on Oct. 26, 2011. Taj Gul Mehsud was a senior deputy to Hakeemullah.
Asmatullah has also waged jihad against US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan. In 2006, he openly recruited fighters to battle in Afghanistan and called for the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, in Pakistan.
“We are leaving for Afghanistan tomorrow, those who want to participate in Jihad can join us,” Asmatullah told a group of Pakistanis in the town of Jandola in the district of Tank.