(Reuters) – The Pakistani Taliban have sacked the movement’s influential spokesman, according to a statement received by Reuters on Tuesday, in a sign of growing divisions within the deeply fractured group.
The move followed last week’s release of an audio message purporting to have been recorded by the spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, saying he and a group of other commanders had defected to the Middle Eastern jihadist group, Islamic State.
The authenticity of that recording, posted online, could not be independently verified and Shahidullah’s mobile phone has been switched off ever since.
“As far as allegiance to ISIS (Islamic State) is concerned, (Taliban leader) Amir Mullah Fazlullah has clarified that our allegiance is to Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid,” they said in the statement.
The leadership said Shahidullah Shahid was a nom de guerre and the spokesman’s real name was Sheikh Maqbool. It did not name his successor.
One Taliban commander told Reuters Shahidullah’s pledge of allegiance to IS was a move to seek publicity.
“He used our name and tried to make it big news in the media,” the commander said.
The Pakistani Taliban have been deeply divided for years, with dozens of smaller groups jostling for influence, although the movement itself says its divisions are exaggerated by the Pakistani authorities to discredit the group.
The powerful Mehsud tribe has virtually refused to accept the authority of the group’s new leader, Mullah Fazlullah, who came to power last year after his predecessor was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the remote mountains on the Afghan border.
Moreover, militants from the Mohmand region have split from the main Taliban movement and formed a separate group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.
There is little evidence of direct contacts between militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Islamic State leaders, although the Middle Eastern group’s radical rhetoric is likely to have captured the imagination of many fighters.
There are many fundamental differences between the Taliban and IS, and al-Qaeda-linked commanders are believed to be wary of Islamic State’s inroads into South and Central Asia.
Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan are fighting to topple governments there and set up a strict Sharia state based on Islamic law, whereas IS, which controls swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, wants to create a global caliphate.
Yet activists sympathetic to IS have been recently spotted in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, distributing leaflets praising IS, and Islamic State flags have sprung up at street rallies in Indian-administered Kashmir.
As it seeks to expand its mission globally, IS is likely to be keen to set up base in South and Central Asia, a region rife with anti-Western ideology and full of unemployed men ready to take up arms to fight for their beliefs.