Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, better known by the nom de guerre ‘Imam’, is dead, brutally executed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The videotape of Imam being shot and his body dragged around emerged only days ago, but reports suggest he was killed in January this year, 10 months after he was kidnapped. His death, as also the earlier killing of Khawaja, provides intriguing insights into the TTP threat and its relations with the Afghan Taliban.
The details are known but here’s a quick recap.
The story started in March last year when Imam, along with two other companions, former air force officer Khalid Khawaja and British freelance journalist Asad Qureshi, went to North Waziristan. The real reason for the visit remains a matter of debate, but the ostensible one was to do a documentary on US Predator attacks in the agency for Channel 4, which had commissioned an independent film company to shoot it. Qureshi was the media person and the two former military officers, both known to be sympathetic to the Taliban, were with him to facilitate his work and use that documentary to agitate the issue in the courts and with the public.
From Bannu they went to Mir Ali and then disappeared. A series of videotapes emerged in April last year which confirmed they were in captivity. The group that held them called itself the Asian Tigers, a front for the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ). The group’s operational head was Sabir Mehsud and the man dealing with the media and holding negotiations was Usman Punjabi, an LJ member.
Three jirgas were put together to intervene with the group and secure the release of the kidnapped men. Two of them had the backing of Taliban heavyweights. They failed and Khawaja was the first to go, shot in the head. It was amazing because it showed that some groups, affiliated with the TTP, had no regard for the Afghan Taliban even as these groups have been perpetrating violence within Pakistan on the pretext of jihad.
When I spoke with Khawaja’s son, Osama, shortly after a videotape showed his father confessing to being a “spy” and working for the ISI and the CIA, he clearly said that his father was on a mission to tell the TTP that their ranks had been penetrated by hostile agencies and they should stop attacking Pakistani interests. This was also corroborated by other sources. However, for various reasons, no one was prepared to own publicly the two former officers even as efforts were mounted to get them out.
Interestingly, the demands included not just the release of TTP terrorists but also money. At some point, Sabir, the man heading the group, thought Usman Punjabi was negotiating independent of him. He got Punjabi and his five men killed. This in turn got Hakeemullah Mehsud to send his men and kill Sabir along with his bodyguards. Their bodies were found in Razmak’s main bazaar with a letter saying Sabir was killed to avenge the death of Khalid Khawaja.
After Sabir’s killing, Col Imam and Qureshi were taken over by the TTP directly. Qureshi was released after his relatives paid a huge sum to the TTP but Imam was not released. It is intriguing that the TTP, which killed Sabir ostensibly for executing Khawaja, brutally killed Imam in January this year on charges that had nothing to do with Imam.
Interesting also is the fact that the TTP charge sheet included drone attacks and some other issues, mostly dealing with the Afghan Taliban and their struggle, even as the Afghan Taliban were trying their best to get Imam released. A number of smaller details, criminal activities, operational choices, target acquisition etcetera make analysts believe that there is something deeply amiss vis-a-vis the TTP.
The loose confederation of groups and the brutality with which they have attacked Pakistan’s interests is another issue that one has to take note of; coupled with this are multiple reports about the penetration of these groups by hostile agencies.
One thing is clear: The TTP, for all its rhetoric about the Afghan jihad, is focused on Pakistan. And in that focus it has attacked, and continues to attack, Pakistan on the pretext of Islamabad being a US ally in the war on terror. Interesting it would be to find out what the real agenda is.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2011.