Taliban in troubled waters as splinter groups target leaders in Quetta

Kaswar Klasra | Sep 19, 2019 | 5 min read


During the Friday prayer on August 16, a powerful bomb tore through a grand mosque in Balochistan, Pakistan frequented by Taliban’s leadership, killing the brother and father of the incumbent chief of Taliban Mullah Haibatullah. His son received multiple wounds and is reportedly still under treatment.

Preliminary investigation revealed that it was an assassination attempt aimed at the 58-year-old Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzadah, who was supposed to lead Jummah prayers at the mosque in Kuchlak. His brother Mullah Hamdullah led the prayers in his absence. Investigations revealed that the bomb was placed exactly below the chair of the prayer leader.

The Kuchlak mosque with an adjacent madrasa is situated at a distance of 27 kilometres from Quetta in Balochistan. It is one of the most secure mosques in the entire province and frequented by Taliban leadership. Unless a security breach, an attack of this nature would’ve been difficult to pull off, experts say.

Ashraf Khan, one of the officers investigating the case, believes it was an insider job, he told 101Reporters. 

An expert on Taliban’s movement Muhammad Rashid too believes that an insider carried out the attack the on the well-guarded mosque.

While rumours about Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies’ involvement in the blast were circulating, a Taliban splinter group’s claim of carrying out the blast put the rumours to rest.

The High Council of the Islamic Emirate, a Taliban faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool, claimed responsibility of the attack adding that the prime target was Mullah Haibatullah, who, they believed, acted according to orders by the world powers.

"We had carried out [the] attack on Kuchlak Madrasa to eliminate Mullah Haibatullah who is striking a deal with USA against [our] principles. [The] attack was carried by people who were close to Mullah Haibatullah once," a source quoted Mullah Manan Niazi, deputy leader of the High Council, as saying.

Discord in Taliban

According to government officials, there have been rifts within the ranks of Taliban soon after the demise of Mullah Mohammad Omar which was announced on July 9, 2015, more than two years after he had actually passed away.

Afghan security officials believe that following the death of Mullah Omar, Quetta Shura, which comprises major Taliban leaders, kept running the movement both from Pakistan’s Quetta and Afghanistan’s Kandahar city. Quetta Shura, sources said, had been based on the outskirts of Quetta city including Kuchlak.

The United States of America had been asking Pakistan to act against Taliban leadership controlling Taliban movement out of their bases from the outskirts of Quetta. However, Pakistan remained in denial about the existence of Quetta Shura until a drone strike eliminated Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, former Taliban’s leader on May 21, 2016, soon after he crossed into Pakistan from Iran via land route through the Pakistan-Iran border.

Mullah Haibatullah took over as Taliban chief following the elimination of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Known as a noted religious scholar among Taliban ranks, Haibatullah had been issuing the majority of Taliban's fatwas during their tenure in Afghanistan. He was promoted to the head of the Taliban's Islamic courts during Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Unlike many Taliban leaders, he had been involved in Taliban’s ground operations against international forces in Afghanistan.

He was also bestowed upon the title Emir-al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful) that his two predecessors had carried.

Quetta has long been a refuge for senior Taliban leaders and was said to be frequented by Taliban’s leadership who fled from Afghanistan following US attack in 2001 which toppled their government in Afghanistan. Sources believe, Kuchlak has hosted Afghan refugees for decades and its madrasas have been a rich recruiting ground for the Taliban seeking young fighters to wage war inside Afghanistan.

According to sources, Haibatullah has been maintaining a close relationship with Pakistan’s security agencies for a long time. In fact, Pakistan initiated the US-Taliban peace talks through Mullah Haibatullah which in fact irked many of his associates who strongly opposed peace talks with the United State of America.  

Mullah Muhammad Rasool, one of Taliban commanders who strongly opposed peace talks with the USA, split from Quetta Shura and laid the foundation for the High Council of Islamic Emirates.

Afghan officials believe the High Council of Islamic Emirate has 8,000-10,000 well-trained guerrilla fighters and they have recently established a working relationship with the Islamic State (IS), who are making inroads in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

Hard to maintain order: Official

While Pakistan has been criticised for harbouring terror groups, the recent spate of attacks in and around Quetta is raising the pressure on Pakistan to quell the tension in the region. 

On September 4, a recent gun battle near Quetta, between the IS and Pakistan forces, claimed the lives of six terrorists. On September 5, twin improvised explosive device blasts claimed the life of a rescue worker and injured 10 others in the Khezai Chowk and Kharotabad, Quetta. 

A senior official from Pakistan’s counter-terrorism department told Asia Times that they had received intelligence reports that IS and Taliban-splinter groups have joined hands for target killing of Taliban leaders.

“ISIS and the Taliban’s splinter groups have joined hands to cause a catastrophe in Balochistan. They have the financial backing of an anti-Pakistan state. Such attacks can’t be ruled out in future, although we are trying hard to maintain law and order,” he stated.

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