SHAWAL, Pakistan – The Taliban have threatened to kill a Pakistani cricket star turned politician if he holds a planned march to their tribal stronghold along the Afghan border to protest U.S. drone attacks.
Although the Pakistani Taliban also oppose the strikes, which have killed many of their fighters, spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said they would target Imran Khan because he calls himself a "liberal" — a term they associate with a lack of religious belief. He also warned they would attack anyone who participates in upcoming elections.
"If he comes, our suicide bombers will target him," Ahsan told The Associated Press in an interview Monday in the militant group's stronghold of South Waziristan. "We will kill him."
The threat could come as a surprise to many in Pakistan who have criticized Khan for not being tough enough on the Pakistani Taliban and instead focusing most of his criticism on the government's alliance with the U.S.
Some of his critics have nicknamed him "Taliban Khan" because of his views and his cozy ties with conservative Islamists who could help him attract right-wing voters in national elections likely to be held later this year or early next year.
Khan, who is the founder of the Pakistan Movement for Justice party, has gained momentum over the last year after more than a decade in politics. He is perhaps the most famous person in Pakistan because he led the country's cricket team to victory in the 1992 World Cup.
Khan was once known for his playboy lifestyle and marriage to British socialite Jemima Khan. But they divorced several years ago, and he has since become much more conservative and religious. Khan has described himself as a liberal in various TV interviews, but he has also made clear that he is a practicing Muslim.
Ahsan, the Taliban spokesman, seemed to ignore that distinction and said the militants didn't want Khan's help in opposing drone attacks. Khan has said he is planning to lead thousands of people in a march to Waziristan in September to demonstrate against the strikes.
"We will not accept help or sympathy from any infidel," said Ahsan, referring to Khan. "We can fight on our own with the help of God," he said, as drones buzzed overhead.
The spokesman for Khan's party could not be immediately reached for comment.
Ahsan said the Taliban consider anyone who participates in elections, even Islamist parties, as infidels and will target them.
"The election process is part of a secular system," said Ahsan. "We want an Islamic system and will create hurdles to secularism."
An AP reporter interviewed Ahsan at a remote compound on a forested mountainside in South Waziristan. He was taken there from a compound in the Shawal area that housed several dozen Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns. Artillery fired by the Pakistani army regularly pounded the ground near the compound.
The military launched a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan in 2009 and has claimed to have largely cleared the area. But the militants regularly launch attacks, and the interview held with the AP indicated they move relatively freely.
Ahsan arrived for the interview in a pick-up truck with two other Taliban commanders. He was wearing a white shalwar kameez — the loose-fitting shirt and pants common in Pakistan and Afghanistan — and a woolen Chitrali cap. He spoke with an assault rifle laid across his lap, and he and the other commanders fired into the air in celebration at the end of the interview.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.