ISLAMABAD: The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has received one more major setback with the February 8, 2018 killing of its deputy ameer, Khalid Mehsud alias Said Khan Sajna, in a CIA-manned American drone strike in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where most of the Pakistani Taliban fighters had moved along with the deadly Haqqani network ever since the start of the Operation Zarb-e-Azab in Waziristan by the Pakistan Army in June 2014.
According to the foreign media reports, Sajna was driving a double-cabin pickup in the Morgha area of the Paktika province when a US drone fired two missiles, killing Sajna, his nephew Ismail and both his body guards. Although the Americans have not yet confirmed Sajna’s death, the TTP spokesman has announced that their deputy ameer was killed in a US drone attack on February 8 around 3:00 am. The TTP spokesman also tried to give an impression as if Sajna was killed in Pakistan and not in Afghanistan. “We confirm the killing of our deputy leader, Khalid Mehsud in US drone strike in Gorveek area of North Waziristan. The slain commander had actively participated in the ongoing fight against the Pakistani security forces and like his predecessors, finally met his end in a US drone strike. We congratulate our mujahideen on the martyrdom of Khalid Mehsud,” said the Taliban spokesman.
The Taliban spokesman added that after consultations with the TTP Shura (council) members, Mullah Fazlullah has named another senior militant commander from South Waziristan, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, as the deputy head of the TTP and the leader of South Waziristan militants. In a related development which also confirms Sajna’s death, the TTP’s Mehsud Halqa (Mehsud Circle) has announced appointing Maulana Azeem Bin Ali aka Maulvi Khatir as the acting ameer of Mehsud Halqa. It may be recalled that Khalid Mehsud alias Said Khan Sajna was the ameer of TTP’s Mehsud Halqa till his death on February 8, 2018. Before Sajna, his spokesman Azam Tariq (his real name was Raees Khan) was also killed, along with his son and seven other Mehsud militants, in a drone strike in September 2016 in Afghanistan’s Paktika province.
The killing of Mehsud shows that Washington has started to pay some heed to Islamabad’s calls finally. The confirmation of Mehsud’s death comes as the CIA-manned drone attacks have massively increased in eastern Afghanistan, targeting drug labs of different Taliban factions and Islamic State hideouts as President Donald Trump looks to the sky to force the insurgents to the table. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban and the IS militants have reacted violently, launching a wave of deadly attacks across the war-torn Afghanistan, including in Kabul, in a devastating display of defiance. However, the good news for Pakistan is that the TTP leadership is also being increasingly targeted by the American drones in recent months. In fact, at least six top Pakistani militants have been droned by the Americans in Afghanistan in recent years including Commander Omar Khalid Khorasani, Commander Khalifa Omar Mansoor Naray, Commander Mangal Bagh, Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, Shahidullah Shahid and last but not the least, Commander Khalid Mehsud alias Sajna.
Born in the Dawah Toi village, located between Makeen and Sara Rogha in South Waziristan’s Ladha subdivision, the 46-year old Sajna belonged to the Shabi Khel clan of the Mehsud tribe. Sajna had two wives, both from the same Mehsud clan. His father Malik Mohammad, is an influential tribal elder. Sajna took control of the Taliban’s powerful Mehsud faction after the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud, the previous ameer of TTP, who too was droned by the American CIA on November 1, 2013 in North Waziristan. After a brief power tussle, the central TTP Shura had announced Mullah Fazlullah to be the successor of Commander Hakeemullah Mehsud. But Sajna had objected to Fazlullah’s selection to lead the Pakistani Taliban, maintaining that he was not only a non-Mehsud but also didn’t belong to Waziristan.
By appointing Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud as the new deputy ameer of the TTP, the Taliban have actually brought in a Sajna-like Waziristani Mehsud who happens to be a cousin of the TTP founder, Commander Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah was also droned by the American CIA on August 5, 2009 in South Waziristan. Sajna was an active militant commander who had taken part in the Afghan civil war from the Taliban side and had joined the TTP right after its inception in December 2008, upon its launched by Baitullah Mehsud. Sajna was an influential leader, being a Waziristani Mehsud, a tribe that enjoyed a dominant role inside the TTP. He was considered a close aide of the TTP leader Waliur Rehman who had nominated him as his successor to head the South Waziristan chapter of the TTP.
However, after the death of Waliur Rehman in May 2013 in a US drone attack, Hakeemullah Mehsud, then TTP head, sidelined Sajna by appointing Sheharyar Mehsud as the head of the TTP chapter of South Waziristan. Sajna, who also had serious differences with the TTP ameer Mullah Fazlullah, subsequently broke away from the TTP and launched his own faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in July 2014. But in January 2016, Sajna settled his differences with Fazlullah and rejoined the TTP, only to be appointed as the deputy ameer of the organization as well as the head of the TTP in South Waziristan. Sajna was a dominant figure in the TTP which is a loose alliance of several militant factions from Waziristan to Bajur and Darra Adam Khel and Mohmand to Khyber Agency.
However, the Pakistani military establishment has taken a sigh of relief with the death of Sajna. Over the past several years, Pakistan has accused the Afghan government of harbouring the anti-Pakistan Taliban commanders on its soil, exactly the way the Afghan government has been accusing the Pakistani establishment of providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban and their affiliates, especially the deadly Haqqani terrorist network. The TTP, which had converted Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal district into its headquarters during the time of its founding chief Baitullah Mehsud, came to be seen as an existential threat by the Pakistani security establishment which was under attack by the TTP in almost every nook and corner of Pakistan.
Therefore, Pakistan had to conduct numerous military operations starting from 2007 to weaken and dislodge the TTP from the Waziristan tribal region. The highly resilient and undeterred conglomerate of the Pakistani Taliban finally received a crushing blow when Baitullah Mehsud was targeted by an American drone while he was resting on the roof of the house of his father-in-law in August 2009. Baitullah’s death kicked off a vicious power struggle among the TTP leaders, most of whom come from Waziristan’s Mehsud tribe. But a young Hakeemullah, who was serving as the driver-cum body guard of Baitullah, finally prevailed and was recognized as the successor of the founding TTP ameer.
The dreaded Hakeemullah soon proved his mettle by launching a series of reckless attacks in the cities and towns, especially targeting the Pakistani security forces and military installations. However, he was killed in a CIA manned drone strike on November 1, 2013 in North Waziristan. The TTP came to a crossroads after the killing of Hakeemullah and the leadership crisis divided the once strong umbrella organization into small groups and factions. The division eventually paved the way for a non-Waziristani and non-Mehsud Taliban leader, Mullah Fazlullah, to become its head. Hailing from the district of Swat, Fazlullah prefers to live across the border in Afghanistan instead of making Waziristan or any other area in the tribal belt his headquarters. Mullah Fazlullah’s fidayeen attackers have made Pakistan their key target.
Coming back to Sajna, the Pakistani intelligence agencies say he was getting support from the Zadran tribe in Bermal district of Afghanistan’s Paktika province. He used to remain in close contact with the top commanders of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network led by Commander Sirajuddin Haqqani. Unlike Mullah Fazlullah, who is hiding in eastern Afghanistan, Sajna was living in Afghanistan’s southeast along with his fighters. Majority of the Mehsud Taliban shifted to Bermal district and gathered there under the banner of Sajna following the launch of the Operation Zarb-e-Azab by the Pakistani security forces in June 2014. Afghanistan’s Bermal district has strategic importance for the Waziristani Taliban, as it shares a border with both South Waziristan at the Angoor Adda area and North Waziristan at Shawal and Dattakhel. There are several crossing points that the Taliban usually cross on foot. It takes around 30 minutes by car to cross into Bermal from Waziristan via Angoor Adda.
The killing of Sajna is a serious blow for the TTP, but his elimination was imminent given the fact that he had become a target of the American drones ever since the US State Department decided to add his name to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in October 2014. The American State Department press release had accused Sajna of indulging in terrorism and masterminding the May 2011 fidayeen attack on Mehran Naval Base Karachi (which had destroyed two US-supplied P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes). The PNS Mehran is the headquarters of Pakistan Navy’s Naval Air Arm which is located near the PAF’s Faisal Air Force Base of Karachi. In the course of the terrorist assault, 15 attackers had killed 18 military personnel and wounded 16 others.
However, the Americans desperately wanted Sajna dead or alive ever since the May 2016 miraculous rescue of Ali Haider Gilani, the abducted son of former Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani. He had been a captive of Sajna and his release became possible when the US NAVY SEALS carried out a covert raid in the Gayan district of the Paktika province of Afghanistan on May 10, 2016 to target Sajna and his deputy, Zia Mehsud. While Sajna was lucky to have survived the American raid, Zia and another hostage-taker were shot dead by the US NAVY SEALS. As the American drones had spotted the suspicious hideout of the Sajna group on the Afghan side of the Pakistani border in the day time on May 10, 2016, the US NAVY SEALS were dispatched in a stealth chinook helicopter the same night to possibly capture them alive.
While Sajna was away at the time of the US raid, Zia Mehsud and the other hostage taker decided to abandon their hideout at dusk along with their captive to go atop a high rocky mountain, in a pre-emptive move to seek refuge. The party of three started climbing the steep cliff-like mountain which took them almost two hours. As their feet touched the mountain top, which was an expanse of a flat surface, a stealth American Chinook helicopter suddenly appeared in the dark sky. The rest is history as both the Taliban militants were eventually shot by the raiding party after they offered resistance and tried to use their weapons.
To jog memories a bit, it might be recalled that Ali Haider Gilani, son of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, was abducted from the historic Multan district of Punjab province on May 9, 2013 during the general election campaign. The abductors killed Ali’s accompanying bodyguard and driver before forcefully pushing him into their vehicle. Ali was contesting a seat in the Punjab provincial assembly, while three other members of the family, including his two elder brothers, were running for the national assembly seats.
During subsequent investigations by Pakistani agencies, it transpired that Ali Gilani was seized in a joint operation conducted by al-Qaeda-linked Punjabi Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants who took their hostage to the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan. The heavily forested ravines of the Shawal Valley had been a stronghold of Sajna in the past. Once in the Shawal area, Ali Gilani found himself in the custody of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) led by Maulana Asim Umar, a former commander of Punjabi Taliban. The launching of AQIS had been announced by al-Qaeda ameer, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, on September 3, 2014, in a 55-minute video posted online.
Ali Gilani came to know that there were several other foreign hostages too including an American, a Chinese, a German and an Italian. Ali Gilani spent the next 18 months of captivity in the highly uninhabited Shawal area on the Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border along with an American national Dr Warren Weinstein. Both the captives had the bitter-sweet twist of fate inclining towards them in different ways. Dr Warren, a US Aid worker and director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates who was kidnapped from the Model Town locality of Lahore in August 2011, had reportedly converted to Islam and had changed his name from Warren to Ishaq.
The two were provided books to read and Gilani and Weinstein found a common interest in the novel series Vampire Diaries by L. J. Smith. They both used to share the books and discussed them. However, in the end, Dr Weinstein remained unlucky to have been killed accidentally by none other than the American CIA in a January 14, 2015 US drone strike in the Shawal, as announced by President Barack Obama at a White House press conference on April 23, 2015. The drone strike also killed the Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto. But Ali Haider Gilani had a narrow escape that day as he was present in the same locality at the time of the US drone attack, but was sleeping a few meters away in a separate hut. The deadly drone strike was carried out two years after Ali Gilani’s abduction.
Soon after the US drone attack, Ali was shifted to another locality and handed over to Commander Said Khan alias Sajna who gave his custody to his No. 2, Zia Mehsud. Interestingly, Ali Gilani was befriended by his new captors who treated him well due to his sociable behaviour. On several occasions, Ali had also played cricket with Said Khan Sajna who used to visit his hostage and held lengthy discussions with him. As the Pakistan Army focused the Shawal Valley in January 2016 as a part of the Operation Zarb-e-Azab against the Taliban, Sajna and his fellow militants decided to shift their operational base to Gayan district of Paktika province of Afghanistan which was quite close to the Pak-Afghan border and where Sajna has finally been killed reportedly.
Ali Gilani was also shifted there and he was still in the custody of Zia Mehsud and his guard. Hardly a week before the raiding party of the US NAVY SEALS had recovered Ali in a commando operation, Zia Mehsud had made his wife and two kids travel from Karachi in Pakistan to his new hideout in the Gayan district of Paktika province to join him. Keeping the surroundings devoid of manpower was part of his strategy. Knowing well that the drones were monitoring the area, Zia Mehsud tried to give an impression to those manning the drones that a family was living in the house [where Ali was being kept].
Two hours before the deadly operation that would kill Zia Mehsud and his guard, Gilani was told by his captor to pack up his necessary stuff and start walking with them. Zia had decided to leave his family behind. It was night time and Gilani had to follow his captors in the dark on the altitude of a rocky mountain for about two kilometers. While Gilani himself had no luggage, he was told to carry a knapsack bearing a hefty amount of 500000 euros. The militants had no idea that the drone that had been following them for days had been tracking them and their movement. As soon as the climbers reached the top of the mountain at an open space, a stealth helicopter suddenly appeared in the sky, wheezing above their heads. Both the militants were spotted by green laser beams, forcing them to frantically run in opposite directions. The beams continued to follow them both in their respective directions. As they didn’t respond to the warnings by the NAVY SEALS to stop and surrender, both were shot at by the sharp shooters – Zia Mehsud in his face and the TTP guy in the neck.
As the operation had begun, Gilani had also started to run in a third direction and had fallen down in the dark. Since he wasn’t on the ‘capture or kill’ agenda of the SEALS, they tried to find out who he was by asking him questions in Pushto from the dark. Upon seeing two pairs of eyes looking at him through night vision goggles, Gilani told them to speak in English since he was not a terrorist but a hostage. The SEALS told him to remove his shirt, put his hands behind his back and kneel on the ground. While Gilani obeyed, he was suddenly tied at the hands from behind and was asked to identify himself.
That is the beginning of how the capture operation for Saeed Khan Sajna and Zia Mehsud flipped on its side and became a rescue operation for Ali Haider Gilani. Gilani told his name and his father’s adding he was the former Prime Minister of Pakistan. One of the NAVY SEALS asked the other if Gilani could be trusted but the answer was No. While one of the SEALS commandos held a tied up Ali Gilani at gun point, the other who was connected to the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, started to confirm his identity. After five minutes, the identity was confirmed and the SEALS turned to Gilani, to congratulate him, untie him, before taking him on board to fly him to the Bagram air base from where he was finally shifted to Pakistan.
Although having been rescued, the Americans were not quite done with their job. A senior US military intelligence officer, who had identified himself as George Fletcher, took twelve hours to debrief Ali Haider Gilani, confirming the identity of those two killed in the operation [by showing their dead bodies] and several other TTP and al-Qaeda leaders still wanted by the Americans. The American intelligence officials were keen to know more and more about Said Khan Sajna’s location as he was considered to be among those who are in touch with the fugitive al-Qaeda ameer, Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri.