Pakistani intelligence officials say Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud is alive

Pakistani intelligence officials had earlier deemed Hakimullah Mehsud
Pakistani intelligence officials had earlier deemed Hakimullah Mehsud "100 percent" dead. (Ishtiaq Mehsud/associated Press)
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By Karin Brulliard and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 30, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Even by the standards of a bullet- and bomb-dodging Taliban commander, Hakimullah Mehsud has displayed notable survival skills.

The Pakistani Taliban chief was thought to have died in a leadership duel last summer, only to stage a news conference a few days later. A U.S. drone strike in January was followed by intense speculation about his fate, then statements by Pakistani intelligence officials that he was "100 percent" dead.

On Thursday, those intelligence officials circulated another message: Mehsud is alive.

Earlier reports that Mehsud was dead -- repeated by U.S. officials -- were hailed as a potentially fatal blow to the Pakistani Taliban, a loose network of border-based militants that has carried out a cascade of suicide attacks in recent years. News of his survival again underscored the staying power of a group that Pakistan's military has targeted with unprecedented force in the past year. It also has exposed blind spots within the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence services, which struggle to develop reliable information in Taliban strongholds.

Offensives in the tribal areas over the past six months have scattered fighters and prompted some Pakistani officials to deem the Taliban hobbled, but its leadership remained at large and attacks continued. In the Swat Valley, where the Pakistani army pushed out militants last spring, a recent string of targeted killings has sparked fears of a Taliban resurgence.

But Mehsud is not necessarily back. He may have survived the January attack, three senior intelligence officers said, but he was wounded and has been sidelined ever since. He has been replaced by Wali ur-Rehman, a South Waziristan commander who was Mehsud's adversary in the leadership duel in August, they said.

The twists in reports about Mehsud's fate reflect significant human intelligence gaps in Pakistan's craggy tribal areas, officials and analysts said. More than 70 Pakistani agents and informants have been killed in the region since 2004, intelligence officials said, and there are regular reports of suspected spies whose throats are slit by militants.

"There was nobody to confirm it on the ground, actually," an intelligence official said of reports about Mehsud's death after the drone strike. "In these types of attacks . . . people come and take out bodies, which is what they play upon -- they say innocent bystanders have been killed."

Drone strike in January

The missile that slammed into South Waziristan on Jan. 14 was part of a stepped-up campaign of drone attacks carried out by the CIA under the Obama administration. One Pakistani intelligence officer said a video showed that a building where Mehsud was staying had been obliterated, leading analysts to conclude that there could be no survivors.

Although no body was found and Taliban fighters insisted that Mehsud was alive, officials concluded that the Taliban commander was dead when he did not publicly surface. Electronic and human intelligence gathered since, including intercepted phone calls, indicates otherwise, intelligence officials said. Accounts of Mehsud's survival were first reported by the Guardian, a British newspaper.

After the January strike, a White House official said the administration was "95 percent" certain that Mehsud had been killed. U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty, and on Thursday, a U.S. counterterrorism official said there was still no hard evidence either way. But he said it was strange that Mehsud had not emerged to resolve the mystery.

"If Hakimullah really is alive, let him prove it," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss counterterrorism operations inside Pakistan. "His group isn't one that traditionally led from the cave, in silence. His absence is the Taliban's problem, not ours. It's already been shown that he can be hit."

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