During the Friday prayer on August 16, a powerful bomb tore through a grand mosque in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The attack on the mosque, frequented by Taliban’s leadership, killed the brother and father of the incumbent chief of Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah. His son received multiple wounds and is reportedly under treatment.
A month after the deadly and well-planned strike near Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan, experts and investigators believe that the job couldn’t have been done at one of the most secured mosques in the region without an insider’s hand.
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 as the bomb was placed exactly below the chair of the prayer leader. However, Mullah Habitullah didn’t go to the mosque on that particular day and his brother Mullah Hamdullah led the prayers in his absence.
The Kuchlak mosque with an adjacent madrasa is situated at a distance of 27 km from Quetta. It is one of the most secured mosques in the entire province and frequented by Taliban leadership. “I believe it is an insider job,” Ashraf Khan, one of the officers investigating the case, told
Muhammad Rashid, an expert in the Taliban movement, too believes that an insider carried out the attack 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 for 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 the US against [our] principles. [The] attack was carried out 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.
The US had been asking Pakistan to act against the 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 the US attack in 2001 which toppled their government in Afghanistan. Sources believe that 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 US.
Mullah Muhammad Rasool, one of the Taliban commanders who strongly opposed peace talks with the US, 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.
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 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.
The author is an Islamabad-based freelance writer and a member of
101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.