By Joby Warrick, Joshua Partlow and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Without ever firing a shot at Americans, Baitullah Mehsud had managed to become something of an obsession for the CIA. Over 18 months, the agency tried three times to kill the stout, 5-foot-2-inch commander of the Pakistani Taliban, while spreading word of a $5 million bounty for his death or capture.
The agency apparently succeeded this week, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials said, when a missile launched by a CIA-operated unmanned aircraft homed in on the second-floor balcony of a villa in northwestern Pakistan where the reclusive, diabetic Mehsud was getting medical treatment.
The blast is thought to have eliminated a terrorist who was suspected to be behind the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and who was at the top of Pakistan's most-wanted list. Although Mehsud had been regarded primarily as a threat to that country, he was also a central figure in a network of South Asian and international terrorist groups whose operations had become increasingly coordinated in recent months. That alliance has exhibited an increasing ability -- and interest -- in striking targets in the West, former and current U.S. officials and terrorism experts said Friday.
"We were seeing different threat streams in the region, all coming together," said a former senior intelligence official who helped plan counterterrorism operations. "Most of these groups had become linked under Mehsud."
The apparently successful hit -- U.S. officials acknowledged that conclusive proof may be impossible unless a body is recovered -- was regarded by U.S. and Pakistani analysts as a devastating setback for the coalition of 13 Pakistani Taliban factions Mehsud had commanded. The confederation of tribally based groups was linked to a half-dozen suicide bombings in Pakistan that killed scores of people, including some Americans. . Terrorism experts say his apparent death will almost certainly disrupt Taliban operations inside Pakistan in the short term, while striking at least a symbolic blow against al-Qaeda as well as Taliban groups in Afghanistan.
It could also help ensure Pakistan's backing for continued U.S. efforts to battle al-Qaeda and loosely allied Taliban groups across the border in Afghanistan, sources said.
"When you take out someone who is that well-known, it creates a sense that momentum is on the side of the good guys and against the bad guys," said Paul Pillar, a former CIA counterterrorism official. "In these conflicts, people on the ground are looking to see who's winning and losing, because you want to be on the side of the ones who are coming out ahead."
The missile attack has launched a struggle for succession among the Pakistani Taliban factions, said U.S. and Pakistani officials, as well as Taliban members.
Although any one of a number of Mehsud's deputies could fill the void, his apparent killing is likely to sow fear and suspicion among his followers, making unity elusive, said John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director.
"The survivors quarrel about tactics, strategy and future leadership, while worrying that someone 'inside' might have betrayed them," McLaughlin said.
Neither the CIA nor the Obama administration has publicly confirmed the agency's role in the airstrike, but U.S. and Pakistani officials familiar with it said the Taliban commander was killed early Wednesday by a missile launched from one of the CIA's remotely controlled aircraft. More than 360 people have been killed in at least 31 such drone attacks this year. Although Islamabad has complained frequently about U.S. strikes, American and Pakistani officials have cited the string of hits on Taliban leaders and other insurgents, including foreign fighters, as evidence of improved cooperation between the countries' intelligence agencies. Indeed, the news of Mehsud's apparent death was widely welcomed in Pakistan.
"Pakistani and American officials are working closely to deal with a menace they both recognize," Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview. "If indeed the reports about Mehsud being killed are fully confirmed, this will be one of many events that bear evidence to the usefulness of Pakistani-U.S. cooperation."
According to Pakistani and American officials, as well as Taliban fighters reached by telephone Friday, Mehsud was staying at a house owned by his father-in-law in Zanghra, a village in the lawless border region of South Waziristan. Mehsud had summoned a local medic for help and was undergoing intravenous treatment for dehydration and stomach problems when the missile tore into the building, the sources said. Mehsud, his second wife and several bodyguards were killed, they said.
Taliban members confirmed Friday that Mehsud had been killed and was buried shortly afterward.
"Baitullah is no more with us," one Taliban fighter said.
A Pakistani intelligence officer based in the nearby town of Makeen said Mehsud's body had been "totally damaged except his head." The atmosphere in the region was described as tense, as security officials braced for a possible backlash from Taliban fighters.
Many Pakistani officials said that Mehsud's successor would be named quickly and that the group's formidable organization would ensure that it remains a potent force. Among the possible contenders were Wali-ur-Rehman Mehsud, a Taliban commander and spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud, and Hakimullah Mehsud, another close aide who has been linked to sectarian attacks on Shiite Muslims as well as NATO supply convoys heading to Afghanistan.
Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar who has met Baitullah Mehsud, said he doubted that killing him would fundamentally change the war. "Another Baitullah will emerge," he said. "This is an ideological war, this is not a local problem."
To those who studied his rise and fought with him -- and against him -- Baitullah Mehsud was no ordinary commander. From his base in the mountains of South Waziristan, he amassed a 10,000-strong army that worked closely with al-Qaeda operatives to impose a fundamentalist version of Islamic rule. Members waged a brutal war against troops and civilians who defied them.
While most other Taliban commanders trained their attention on NATO forces in Afghanistan, Mehsud pioneered the war against Pakistan, the country that helped create the Taliban movement in the 1980s.
In part because of the violence perpetrated by Mehsud and his lieutenants, Pakistan shifted its strategy from appeasement and negotiation with Taliban groups to military operations against some of them. In recent months, troops pushed into the Swat Valley to dislodge Taliban fighters, and regular Pakistani and U.S. airstrikes have pounded South Waziristan.
With reports of Mehsud's death, some analysts voiced concern that Pakistan's army may lose interest in pursuing plans to launch a ground offensive in South Waziristan.
Others said there is a danger that Mehsud's successor could draw the army into a deeper conflict by undertaking a major attack inside Pakistan to avenge the commander's apparent death.
"The army may now try to pressure groups in South Waziristan to break with Mehsud's party and reassert their own domination," said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Institute, a Washington research group. "August will be a very hot month on the frontier."
Partlow reported from Kabul; Khan and special correspondent Shaiq Hussain reported from Islamabad. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.