Terrorist groups often boast about their unity of purpose, the single-minded pursuit of their apocalyptic goals. But when it comes to leadership succession, history shows they are rarely united. The death of a charismatic leader often leads to fragmentation and infighting, followed by a loss of focus and effectiveness. Case in point: al-Qaeda's Iraqi arm never recovered from the killing of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi.
Is that the fate now awaiting Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after the death of its founder, Baitullah Mehsud? U.S. officials say it would be a mistake to count the TTP out, but they acknowledge that the group is more vulnerable than it has been in years. "Mehsud brought different tribal groups together under his banner of extremism," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "The loss of his leadership skills and experience would be significant. It wouldn't mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, but it would be a true setback for them, especially in the near term."
Reports from Pakistan say the leadership council of the TTP, the umbrella organization of insurgent groups united under Mehshud, has already begun consultations on who should succeed him as the emir, or prince. It's unlikely the council will meet under one roof, for fear of being obliterated, like Mehsud, by a missile from a CIA-operated drone. This means the discussions will have to take place through proxies and go-betweens, substantially delaying the process. Even in the best of times, succession in tribal leadership is rarely smooth. There are invariably multiple contenders, and it is common for outside moderators to be brought in to judge rival claims.
Still, experts believe that Baitullah's successor will likely be one of three top TTP figures: Hakimullah, Azmatullah and Wali-ur-Rehman. Of the three, Hakimullah Mehsud has the largest number of men at arms under his direct command: up to 8,000 fighters. He is thought to be in charge of recruiting and training suicide bombers. Azmatullah's claim may rest on his being the most closely related to Baitullah: they both come from the same branch of the Mehsud tribe. As a maulana, or Islamic scholar, he may have the best religious credentials of the three. Wali-ur-Rehman, long Baitullah's spokesman, is thought to have been his most trusted lieutenant. Said to have strong ties to many clans and tribes, he may be the least divisive figure of the three.
If these men can't agree on the succession, there's always the possibility of a compromise candidate. In the past, a pair of maulanas, Habib Gul and Faqir Mohammed, have been regarded as important TTP leaders. If the leadership struggle is protracted, the TTP's shura, or council, will call in a moderator: the most likely candidate for that role is Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, currently hiding out near Quetta.
Baitullah himself rose to the top of the Pakistani Taliban after a long internecine battle with other commanders, like Abdullah Mehsud, a onetime detainee at Guanténamo Bay. Once he had reached the summit, Baitullah was able to keep fractious tribal commanders in line by sheer force of will. It helped that, after a 2005 truce with Pakistani authorities, he had the time and freedom to consolidate his leadership. Many counterterrorism analysts believe he also had the covert help of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI. It helped, too, that the CIA's drone campaign was aimed primarily at the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and not at the TTP.
Baitullah's successor won't have any of those advantages. The next leader of the TTP will face threats from three quarters: challengers from within the group, a land assault by the Pakistani military and the CIA's deadly drones. Baitullah's death, says the counterterrorism official, proves the the TTP's "most senior leaders can be taken off the battlefield with great precision ... that places they thought were secure are anything but."
Much will depend now on what the Pakistani military does next. Since June, when the government of President Asif Ali Zardari announced the start of a major offensive against Mehsud, the military has confined itself to aerial attacks. Many officers are thought to be opposed to a ground campaign in difficult terrain against a united TTP. Mehsud's death gives the military the opportunity to go in for the kill. But another U.S. official worries that the Pakistanis will hold off and seek another truce. "There will be some [in the military] who say, 'Enemy No. 1 is dead, let's see if the next guy will do a deal,' " says the official. "And if I'm Mehsud's successor, I'll be happy to do a deal, to buy time and space to set my house in order."