Nek Mohammed was a local Taliban commander. He was the target of the first US drone strike to take place in Pakistan, on June 17 2004.
Most details of Nek Mohammed’s early life come from a detailed profile published in Pakistani newspaper Dawn by veteran Pakistani journalist M Ilyas Khan the day after his death. Khan praises his ‘Byronic good looks and proud tribal mien’, but also provides a detailed account of his youth.
The second of four brothers, Mohammed was born in 1975, according to this obituary – although another account, by Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad reports that he was a couple of years younger. He grew up in the village of Kalosha, close to Wana, South Waziristan, where his father owned a small patch of agricultural land.
He enrolled in a Wana-based madrassa, Jamia Dar-ul-Uloom Waziristan, where Mohammed began his religious education under Islamic cleric Maulana Noor Mohammed Wazir. He was reportedly an unruly student. One story from Mohammed’s school days recounts how tribal elders were forced to intervene after he stormed out of class ‘in a manner that was construed as a threat that he might return with a lethal weapon.’
It is unclear if Mohammed ever completed his education. The Asia Times reported after his death that he was expelled from the madrassa due to his ‘tough, rigid personality’. He reportedly landed a place at a college in Quetta, but Mohammed claimed he ‘never saw that college’, but ‘went to the jihad [in Afghanistan] instead’.
After leaving the madrasa, Mohammed was involved in a carjacking incident in the village of Dera Ismail Khan. ‘[He] tried taking [the car] to the Punjab [in northern Pakistan] but was intercepted by the police just across the bridge on the Indus River,’ according to Dawn’s obituary.
The Asia Times and Dawn reported that Mohammed opened a general store in Wana, but his ‘mercurial temperament’ meant he was unsuited for shopkeeping, according to Dawn. It was during this period that Mohammed is thought to have met Mohammed Gul.
Dawn’s obituary describes Gul as a tribesman from southern Afghanistan, and a fighter for the US-backed Afghan Mujahideen army in its offensive against Soviet troops in northern Afghanistan. He had moved to South Waziristan, where he was recruiting personnel to fight alongside the Taliban. Mohammed was among those called up to fight in Afghanistan.
Mohammed soon established himself as an able fighter with Gul’s group, participating ‘in many difficult fronts across southern and southwestern Afghanistan,’ according to Dawn.
After Kabul fell to the Taliban in September 1996, Mohammed succeeded Gul as a sub-commander of a key Taliban garrison at Kargha Lake, just outside Kabul, following the latter’s death. The Asia Times reported that he was just 18 years old at the time, while according to Dawn’s estimate he would have been around 21.
‘Nek commanded the Waziristani fighters at Bagram airbase, the Panjshir front line in Bamiyan, Mazar Sharif, Takhar as well as Baghdis, the venues for some of the bloodiest battles that the Taliban fought against Ahmad Shah Masoud’s Northern Alliance,’ Khan wrote in 2004.
Mohammed quickly established a reputation for extraordinary bravery and determination, according to a BBC profile written by Peshawar-based journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. His battlefield exploits earned him the acquaintance of senior militant figures, such as Saifullah Mansoor and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Reports suggest that by the late 1990s Mohammed was at times commanding ‘3,000 men’.
Several reports suggest Mohammed developed contacts with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later succeed bin Laden as head of al Qaeda – although it is not clear whether these connections were forged in Afghanistan or back in Pakistan following the US’s toppling of the Taliban administration in 2001.
When US and Afghan military forces launched Operation Anaconda, which aimed to flush Taliban militants from the Shahikot Valley in March 2002, thousands of foreign fighters including al Qaeda members were forced to flee across the border to Pakistan. Mohammed was reportedly influential in helping militants establish operations in his native South Waziristan.
As Mohammed continued to host and facilitate foreign militants, foreign funding continued to flow. According to Khan, ‘by December 2003, Nek and company possessed a fleet of 44 pickups, including a few bullet-proof vehicles, some of which were sold off while the others remained in the service of their “guests”.’
However he was angered by the Pakistani government’s support for the US invasion of Afghanistan, and his group of fighters was linked to an assassination attempt on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Christmas Day 2003.
Under increasing attack from Pakistani forces, the disparate Taliban groups in South Waziristan, one of which Mohammed commanded, came together around Wana, the key town in the agency. In March 2004, under pressure from the Bush administration, the Pakistani government launched Operation Kalosha II, which captured key Taliban strongholds in the areas surrounding Wana.
Mohammed’s reputation in militant circles was further burnished when he rescued Uzbek militant commander Tahir Yuldashev from Pakistani forces, Dawn’s obituary reported.
The army suffered higher casualties than expected in Operation Kalosha II – Asia Times estimates 120 people died – and the operation was deeply unpopular in Pakistan. In April 2004 the Pakistani government under General Pervez Musharraf signed a peace agreement with Mohammed. After government representatives travelled to meet him in a Wana madrassa, Mohammed boasted of the strong negotiating position his battlefield heroics had forged: ‘I did not go to them; they [the Pakistani authorities] came to my place,’ he said. ‘That should make it clear who surrendered to whom.’
Mohammed appeared publicly alongside Lt General Safdar Hussain, commander of Pakistani forces in South Waziristan. The two men drank tea together as Mohammed renounced militant activity in exchange for an amnesty from arrest.
The deal broke down almost immediately, however, with Mohammed apparently reneging on his promise to rein in local militant activity, claiming he was unable to provide the authorities with surrendered foreign fighters as had been agreed. Two months later, orders to kill and capture Mohammed were issued from Islamabad.
A week after the order was issued, Mohammed was in the courtyard of a house in Kari Kot, South Waziristan, when a CIA Predator drone fired a missile at the building. Mohammed died soon afterwards. It was the first known CIA drone strike in Pakistan; five others reportedly died too, including two children.
Musharraf acknowledged in April 2013 that a secret deal had been struck between Islamabad and Washington over drone strikes, with the US offering to kill Mohammed in exchange for the freedom to fly drones over Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Mohammed had reportedly married his second wife weeks before his death. According to Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain’s account of his death, Mohammed was quickly venerated and his grave, in his home village of Kalosha, quickly became a makeshift shrine. A sign on it read: ‘He lived and died like a true Pashtun.’
Photo credit: Reuters/Kamran Wazir
Pakistan Military Spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan (CNN, New York Times, Daily Times), Interior Minister Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat (Daily Times); Pakistan Intel sources (CNN); Pakistan officials (Washington Post); military spokesman, local residents, an associate of Nek Mohammed (Dawn); intelligence sources (Daily Times); more than a dozen US and Pakistani officials (New York Times)