A planned protest march against US drone strikes in Pakistan, due to go through one the world’s most dangerous hotbeds of Islamic militancy, has hit a major snag after the Pakistani Taliban announced they would try to kill the leader of the procession, the former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan.
“If he comes, our suicide bombers will target him,” the Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told the Associated Press during an interview in a remote compound in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a mountainous and lawless region on the Afghan border.
During the interview, which concluded with a volley of automatic gunfire from his bodyguards, Ahsan said Khan was fair game because he was a “liberal” and anyone who participated in forthcoming national elections would be considered “infidels” and attacked.
His remarks have surprised many, including people in Khan’s camp, because of Khan’s unflagging opposition to missile strikes by remote-controlled drones against Taliban commanders, his repeated calls for ceasefires and negotiations with the Taliban and his own bitter attacks on Pakistan’s elite class of “liberals”.
He has even been dubbed “Taliban Khan” by some critics because of the support his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has received from notorious conservative Islamists parties, some widely regarded as fronts for militant groups.
On Thursday Khan promised to continue with the peace march in late September through Waziristan, an area that is home to a plethora of insurgent groups, including al-Qaida and the Taliban.
On Twitter Khan told his followers that “a man of faith doesn’t fear death” and that the planned “march against drones that have destroyed millions of lives in FATA is worth dying for”.
Speaking to the Guardian, he said he hoped his “peace caravan” would attract 100,000 people, most of them from FATA itself.
“Every man in the tribal areas is a warrior and carries a gun. We will be using them to protect us,” he said.
The march is also attracting international support, with activists from the US anti-war group Code Pink due to attend. The group is largely made up of women – including mothers whose sons have served in Afghanistan, some of whom are likely to attend the march.
Clive Stafford Smith, director of the rights group Reprieve, said some as yet unnamed British politicians were also due to attend as well as “a lot of media”.
“I have no desire to get myself or anyone else injured or killed,” he said. “But we are going to North Waziristan, absolutely, we are going where the drones are.”
North Waziristan, once dubbed “Terror Central”, does much to deserve its reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world.
It hosts a number of different militant groups and fighters from all over the world. The writ of the Pakistani army, let alone the state, barely runs outside the walls of a smattering of bases throughout the area.
It is a key safe haven for the Haqqani network, a Taliban-affiliated group that has used it as a base to launch spectacular attacks, including on high-profile targets in Kabul such as the US embassy.
With Pakistan reluctant to take the Haqqani network on militarily, the Obama administration has increasingly turned to unmanned drones to try to suppress the groups, a tactic the US claims is highly effective at killing carefully targeted militants.
Rights groups, however, say large numbers of civilians are killed as well – a claim that is extremely hard to test as independent researchers and journalists cannot travel freely to areas targeted.
“We are trying to open Waziristan up,” said Stafford Smith. “There is really no other war zone in the world where no one gets to go.”
Stafford Smith said he was responsible for ensuring the safety of the marchers from overhead drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
“My job is to make sure the CIA doesn’t do anything stupid,” he said. “I will write to Obama and tell him that if my picture comes up on his weekly PowerPoint please, please don’t call in the drones.”
It was revealed earlier this year that Barack Obama has a weekly briefing where he personally assesses which militants can be killed by drones.
Both Stafford Smith and Khan suggested the reported remarks of the Taliban spokesman did not reflect the movement as a whole, with Stafford Smith saying such a position would be “illogical” and “idiotic”.
In an email to Pakistani media on Thursday Ahsan partially retracted his statement, saying a decision to attack Khan would not be finalised until a week before the march.
Khan, who is an emerging force in Pakistani politics, said he suspected the remarks were somehow orchestrated by “political people who are threatened by me”.
He has long campaigned for dialogue with the militants, arguing that any military push into North Waziristan would be disastrous, causing “massive collateral damage and blowback in the cities of Pakistan through suicide bombings”.
“The ideological element of militants that want sharia law and not elections is only a tiny minority, not even 3%,” he said. “Most of them are fighting because of the collateral damage caused by this war.”
Khan’s critics, however, accuse him of being dangerously naive.
“This just shows to the Pakistani public how extreme the Taliban world view is,” said Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist who helped coin Khan’s unflattering nickname.
He said: “It’s this bizarre thing where Taliban Khan is hated by the Taliban, but Taliban Khan’s own politics ensures the average Pakistani remains confused about who the Taliban are and what they represent.”