DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Taliban leaders will hold a meeting to decide whether a Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician will be allowed to hold a planned march to their tribal stronghold to protest U.S. drone strikes, the militant group's spokesman said Thursday.
Ahsanullah Ahsan said the Pakistani Taliban consider Imran Khan to be an "infidel" since he has described himself as a liberal — a term they associate with a lack of religious belief. But the spokesman denied a threat reported earlier by The Associated Press that the group would kill Khan if he holds the demonstration he has planned for September.
The Pakistani Taliban leadership council "will decide what to do a week before his arrival and will announce it," Ahsan told the AP by email. "It's sure and clear that we don't have any sympathy with Imran Khan, neither do we need his sympathy, as he himself claims to be a liberal, and we see liberals as infidels."
The AP reported Wednesday that the Taliban would target Khan with suicide bombers if he held his march, following an interview with Ahsan in a remote area of their militant stronghold of South Waziristan.
Khan has described himself as a liberal in various TV interviews, but he has also made clear that he is a practicing Muslim — a distinction the Taliban seemed to ignore.
The 59-year-old Khan is perhaps the most famous person in Pakistan because he led the country's cricket team to victory in the 1992 World Cup. He 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 founded the Pakistan Movement for Justice party about 15 years ago, but has only gained political momentum over the last year, riding a wave of opposition to drone strikes, the government's alliance with the U.S. and political corruption.
His detractors have criticized him for not being tough enough on the Pakistani Taliban, and have even 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.
As part of his political campaign, Khan has said he is planning to lead thousands of people in a march to Waziristan in September to demonstrate against U.S. drone strikes.
"A man of faith doesn't fear death & a march for peace against drones that have destroyed millions of lives in FATA (Pakistan's tribal region) ... is worth dying for," Khan Tweeted on Thursday.
Covert CIA drone strikes are very unpopular in Pakistan because many citizens believe they mostly kill civilians — an allegation denied by the U.S.
The Taliban regularly lash out at the attacks, which have killed many of their fighters and their former leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed contributed to this report from Islamabad.