Leader of Pakistani Taliban thought to be dead after U.S. strikes

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 1, 2010; A01

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- U.S. and Pakistani officials said Sunday that they were growing increasingly confident that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban had died after being wounded in a U.S. missile strike, signaling the possible demise of an insurgent commander notorious for his role in a series of high-profile bombings, including a devastating strike against the CIA.

Pakistani state television broadcast news of Hakimullah Mehsud's death and said he had been buried in the Orakzai tribal agency after succumbing to injuries sustained in a U.S. unmanned aerial strike in mid-January. A senior White House official later said he was "95 percent" certain that Mehsud had been killed. A senior U.S. military official said he also believed Mehsud was dead. But other U.S. officials said the reports still needed to be investigated.

"While I can't confirm reports of Hakimullah's demise, here's to hoping they're true," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is one of the worst people on the planet."

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the state TV channel had relied on "local sources" in Orakzai, which the government could not confirm. However, Malik told a private TV news station that "the local tribal elders there and the local population say that he has been buried."

The senior army spokesman in Pakistan said military officials were investigating the reports but had not been able to verify them. The Taliban strenuously denied the claims.

If confirmed, Mehsud's death would be the second major blow to the Pakistani Taliban, an Islamist militia based in Pakistan's tribal region, in the past six months. The group's original leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone missile attack in August. The drone strikes that apparently targeted Hakimullah Mehsud reflect the growing threat that his organization poses not only to Pakistan, but also to the United States.

Hakimullah Mehsud, believed to be in his late 20s, has been closely associated with al-Qaeda and coordinated with the international terrorist network in launching strikes, including the December attack on a CIA camp in Afghanistan. His leadership of the Pakistani Taliban has been marked by audacious acts of violence and a growing interconnection with other extremist groups across the country. Mehsud has been described as a daredevil driver, a ruthless killer and an articulate advocate for the Pakistani Taliban's strategic goal of waging war against the Pakistani army in order to carve out an ethnic Pashtun Islamic emirate.

Unlike the Afghan Taliban, which focuses its attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban has trained its weapons on Pakistani government, military and civilian sites with the aim of destabilizing this nuclear-armed nation.

Pakistan had once nurtured the Taliban, but since last summer the Pakistani army has mounted a sustained operation against the Pakistani branch of the movement. The Pakistani Taliban is believed to have carried out dozens of suicide attacks across the country, including the bombings of two major hotels, public markets, and a variety of military and police targets.

Although the army drove the Taliban out of the Swat Valley and the South Waziristan tribal area, it has refused to pursue fleeing militants into North Waziristan despite U.S. pressure. Meanwhile, although militant attacks have continued, officials have been attempting to negotiate with the Taliban through tribal elders.

For several years, the United States has for several years been carrying out missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles in the semiautonomous tribal region that hugs the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The program, which is not officially acknowledged, has been a major source of controversy in Pakistan, but U.S. and Pakistani officials speaking anonymously have touted its effectiveness in eliminating key al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders.

American drone strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets near the Afghan border intensified after a Dec. 30 suicide bombing in Afghanistan killed five CIA officials, two agency contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer. The bomber, a Jordanian, made a video before his death in which he was shown with Hakimullah Mehsud and called on Muslims to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud.

Shortly after Baitullah Mehsud's death, Hakimullah Mehsud -- from the same clan as Baitullah but not a close relative -- was reported to have been killed in a squabble over who would take over the Pakistani Taliban. Those reports proved erroneous.

One Pakistani official said Sunday that his government was being careful in announcing death this time because "we don't want to look like fools again." The official said analysis of DNA records would be needed to make a definitive claim.

If Hakimullah Mehsud was killed by the drone strike, the Pakistani Taliban does not lack for potential successors. Both Wali ur-Rehman, the organization's military strategist, and Qari Hussain, who trains suicide bombers, are considered by intelligence officials to be possible heirs.

Hakimullah Mehsud was initially reported to have been killed or wounded in a Jan. 14 drone strike on a militant compound, but he then issued two statements saying he was alive. A second strike, on Jan. 17, that hit two vehicles was also said to have wounded him. There were unconfirmed reports Sunday that tribal elders in Orakzai said he had been taken there and buried four days earlier.

A military intelligence official in South Waziristan, reached by telephone late Sunday, said he had heard reports that Mehsud had died in Orakzai, where he apparently has relatives, after suffering serious injuries. "We are not sure of the reports. Only after getting solid proof can we say something," the official said.

Other sources in the tribal area said another Taliban leader might have been killed, leading to confusion about Mehsud's possible death. The sources also said, however, that if Mehsud were still alive and able to speak, he would probably issue a statement in the next day or two.

A Taliban source, contacted by phone in North Waziristan early Monday, insisted that Mehsud is still alive and expressed annoyance with the repeated reports of his death in recent weeks.

"Some of our friends have seen him," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It is not possible he has been moved to Orakzai because of the drone surveillance. He is somewhere between Mohmand and South Waziristan."

Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar. Staff writers Scott Wilson, Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick in Washington and Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.

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