That he's survived this long is a testament to his notorious intensity.
As the prototypical enforcer of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chieftain Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud was known to 4-wheel recklessly beneath U.S. drones, test his favorite weapons (the AK-47 RPG) in front of journalists and passionately orate al-Qaeda's cause. None doubted his courage or commitment to Nek Mohammad, the TTP's forerunning tribal chief and one of America's first drone victims. Except right-hand men don't always make the best leaders, due to their skill set, and Hakimulkah has experienced growing pains since taking hold of the group's reigns in August 2009. Falsely reported dead after an alleged shooting interrupted the TTP's shura to replace Baitullah, Hakimulkah emerged from a fierce leadership dispute with a tentative grip on his title as Emir.
The TTP's head has survived two more obituaries since August 2009. The first - and realist - occurred in January 2010 after Hakimullah took credit for organizing the double-agent bombing of Forward Operating Base Chapman, which oversees a large component of the CIA's intelligence and drone operations in Pakistan. The explosion claimed the lives of seven personnel, spawning a vendetta that seemingly ended with a drone strike on Hakimullah - only the strongman later resurfaced to taunt Washington by organizing a failed bombing attempt in Times Square. A 2012 strike yielded a similar game of information cat-and-mouse.
Throughout this time Hakimullah has endured the duress generated by the TTP's competing leadership. North Waziristan's Hafiz Gul Bahadar, who claimed his own piece of Baitullah's fallen crown, soon dropped out the Taliban-brokered Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen and refuses to acknowledge Hakimullah's superiority. The TTP's de facto boss has also been permanently challenged by Waliur ul-Rehman, the TTP's foremost strategist and commander of South Waziristan. Rehman maintains ties with Islamabad and presents the opposite image of Hakimullah: mature, supportive of group cohesion and focused on attacking U.S. troops Afghanistan rather than Pakistan. And now, according to Pakistani security officials plugged into Waziristan, he's closer than ever to displacing the TTP's volatile head.
“Rehman is fast emerging as a consensus candidate to formally replace Hakimullah,” one army official told Reuters. “Now we may see the brutal commander replaced by a more pragmatic one for whom reconciliation with the Pakistani government has become a priority.”
“If a leader doesn’t behave like a leader, he loses support," said another source. "For the longest time now, Hakimullah has done the dirty work while Waliur Rehman is the thinker. Taliban fighters recognize this."
The combined interviews of three Pakistani officials and local actors paint a standard picture of Hakimullah: a "short-tempered" and "trigger-happy" man who shoots in a second. A naturally divisive personality, the veteran jihadist considers himself and al-Qaeda as one and the same, and thus views Islamabad as a traitorous state to the Muslim Umma. His attitude has resulted in an intense (and sometimes violent) debate over the selection of TTP targets, and whether the group should strategically focus on Afghanistan or Pakistan. Many of the group's sub-commanders would prefer to concentrate on Afghanistan's front, as this strategy draws less heat from Pakistan and tribal authorities, but the TTP has been unable to steer itself in one direction since its formation in December 2007.
Interestingly, Reuters completely leaves out a festering wound opened last July, around the same time that Islamabad would have received its field intelligence on Hakimullah. The TTP's besieged strongman also inherited his predecessor's dispute with Maulvi Nazir, an ally of Rehman and proponent of negotiations with the Pakistani government. Their long-standing conflict stems from Nazir's resistance to allowing Uzbek militants to operate in his territory, triggering several alleged confrontations with Baitullah (one of many reasons for Mullah Omar's Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen). On July 5th, Hakimullah's associate Wali Mohammad (Baitullah's younger brother) was gunned down in South Waziristan's Kaloosha village. Hakimullah's circle suspected that Nazir ordered the assassination due to Wali's growing influence in the area.
In apparent retaliation, a "preliminary investigations conducted by the Ahmedzai Wazir tribesmen" (Nazir's tribe) believes that a November 29th suicide biker was dispatched to Wana's Ajab Noor Mosque by Hakimullah. Nazir narrowly survived the attack, but the TTP's hierarchy could become a casualty.
U.S. officials "caution about expecting an imminent transition," adding that Hakimullah still enjoys followers. True, Hakimullah has always commanded his own militia and will continue to operate on his terms if evicted from the TTP's throne. He could pose even a greater danger working under his own initiative, cooperating with rogue groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). However the implications of his demotion remain measurable: the TTP will be more useful to the Afghan Taliban and Islamabad with Rehman at its helm.