PESHAWAR: Senior militant commander Asad Afridi has emerged as the favourite to become the new leader of a deadly Taliban faction, militant sources said on Friday, days after a U.S. drone strike killed the group’s chief.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, has killed hundreds of people in bomb attacks and is considered one of the most dangerous militant groups.
The killing of JuA chief Omar Khalid Khorasani was a major boost for Pakistan’s anti-militancy campaign and is likely to help ease tension with uneasy ally the United States days ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Two JuA commanders told Reuters Afridi was nominated to take over during a meeting in Afghanistan by the group’s Shura, or leadership council.
“Asad Afridi was close to Omar Khalid, who had declared him his deputy,” said one JuA commander.
A second JuA militant, who is a member of the Shura, confirmed Afridi was nominated as the new chief.
Khorasani was seen as ruling the group with an iron fist.
“Our organisation used to be a one-man show. All powers were in the hands of Omar Khalid Khorasani,” the second commander added.
It is not clear if Afridi would change tack if he gets confirmed as JuA leader, but there are concerns within the group about his tribal power base.
Afridi belongs to the Zakha Khel area of Pakistan’s Khyber region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan, but Khorasini, and most JuA fighters, belong to the Mohmand region in FATA.
“The organisation was basically formed in Mohmand and the majority of the fighters and commanders are from Mohmand therefore people would have wished someone from the same area,” said the first JuA commander.
He said Afridi did not have a religious or formal school education but had a history of fighting and had at one point fought U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of the Taliban.
Khorasani was killed during a series of U.S. drone attacks this week in which at least 30 people were killed on the Afghan side of the border.
His death followed two years in which JuA has emerged as the most deadly Pakistani Taliban faction, and at one point allied itself with Islamic State before apparently re-joining the Pakistani Taliban.
The group bombed an Easter Sunday gathering at a park in Lahore last year, killing at least 70 people. In August 2016, it bombed a hospital in Quetta targeting the city’s most prominent lawyers, killing 74 people.
In June this year, JuA targeted the provincial police chief of Baluchistan, killing 13 people. The attack was also claimed by Islamic State.— Reuters