ISLAMABAD: The killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the former chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a US drone strike has exposed centuries-old rivalries within the group he led, making the insurgency ever more unpredictable and probably more violent.
His death this month has set off a power struggle within the outfit's ranks, which could further unnerve a region already on tenterhooks with most US-led troops pulling out of neighboring Afghanistan in 2014.
When a tribal council declared Mullah Fazlullah as the new leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)last week, several furious commanders from a rival clan stood up and left.
"When Fazlullah's name was announced, they ... walked out saying, 'The TTP’s command is doomed'," said one commander who attended the Nov. 7 'shura' meeting in South Waziristan.
Others at the shura declared loyalty to the new leader and stayed on to map out a plan to avenge Hakimullah's death.
The TTP operates independently of its Taliban allies in Afghanistan, who are fighting U.S.-backed forces there.
But the death of Hakimullah, a member of the dominant Mehsud tribe, and the rise of Fazlullah, a Swat Valley native and hence an outsider in the eyes of tribesmen, changes the picture in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Under Hakimullah, the TTP had been open to the idea of peace talks with the Pakistani government, even though no meaningful negotiations had taken place.
Fazlullah ruled out any talks and declared the start of a new campaign to attack government and security installations in Punjab.
"Mehsuds are not only unhappy with this appointment but there are reports of serious infighting among them that might come to the fore in the near future," said Saifullah Mahsud, director of the Pakistani think tank FATA Research Center.
"I think for now the anti-peace talks group among the TTP has prevailed and hence the appointment of Fazlullah," said Mahsud, who compiles data based on information provided by his sources on the ground in the tribal Pashtun areas.
Fazlullah's threat against Punjab has unnerved Pakistan's most prosperous and populous province, where attacks have so far been rare.
As the dynamic within the militancy evolves, powerful Punjabi groups are also beginning to turn their heads westwards, with many seeing the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as a chance to expand their reach to tribal areas.
During a recent meeting with Reuters in Mardan, a group of militants - who sat cross-legged on the floor of a mud-brick safe house sipping tea and eating biscuits - said the Afghan cause was close to their hearts
"We want peace in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar's leadership," said Abdurakhman, a member of Jaish-e-Mohammad.
"When the Americans leave, elders will sit down with Mullah Omar and decide. If there is a need to fight, we will recruit and send people there."
Sitting next to him, Farhatullah, a middle-aged man with the Hizbul Mujahideen group, said he used to fight against the Indian forces in occupied Kashmir but was now ready to go to Afghanistan.
"We are the reserve force," he said. "If needed I will ... take my gun, go there and fight."
The TTP publicly rubbishes any talk of a major rift among its ranks.
A Taliban spokesman has confirmed Fazlullah's appointment and said there would be no more peace talks with the government.
Operatives from al Qaeda and the Haqqani network are also working hard to smooth over any disputes, sources say.
Mullah Omar, the gallant leader of the Afghan Taliban, is said to have stepped into the debate and backed Fazlullah's candidacy.
Fazlullah knows Omar personally, having fought alongside his men in Afghanistan in 2001.
Fazlullah is still holed up in his base in Nuristan, favoured by many militants taking cover from U.S. drones.