The US came close to killing Baitullah Mehsud, one of his senior deputies, and an Afghan Taliban commander during Tuesday’s airstrike that targeted the leaders as they gathered for the funeral of an aide killed in a separate Predator strike earlier that day.
Baitullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban movement, narrowly escaped the attack, as he left the funeral just minutes before the airstrike, US intelligence officials involved in the hunt in Pakistan’s tribal areas told The Long War Journal.
“We think we almost had him,” one official said, referring to Baitullah. “It was close.”
Qari Hussain Mehsud and Mullah Sangeen Zadran also dodged the US air blitz, according to US intelligence officials and reports in the Pakistani press.
Qari Hussain is a senior Taliban commander and possible successor to Baitullah. He runs suicide training camps in South Waziristan and recruits young boys to serve as suicide bombers.
Sangeen is senior deputy to Siraj Haqqani and a field commander for the Haqqani Network in eastern Afghanistan. Sangeen has led pitched battles against US and Afghan forces in Paktika province in Afghanistan.
Baitullah, Qari Hussain, and Sangeen were in the town of Makeen to attend the funeral of Khwaz Ali Mehsud, a mid-level commander of the Taliban in South Waziristan. Khwaz Ali, who was close to Baitullah, had been killed in a Predator strike earlier that morning.
Close aides to Qari Hussain said reports that their commander had been killed were false and he was not present at the funeral. Dawn claimed Qari Hussain was killed in the strike, but did not say if the report came from the Taliban or Pakistani intelligence officials.
Sangeen confirmed he survived the attack. In a phone call to The News, Sangeen denied being in South Waziristan.
“We have nothing to do with internal fighting in Pakistan,” Sangeen said. “Our job is to fight Jihad against the occupation forces in Afghanistan.”
A spokesman for Sangeen said his commander would release a videotape to prove he survived the attack. “Reports about Sangeen Zadran’s death are baseless and his video statement will be released within two days,” a Taliban leader named Noorullah who is based in Miramshah in North Waziristan told Dawn.
Three low-level Taliban leaders were reported killed in the strike. The commanders were identified as Maulvi Bilal, Khushdel, and Shabir Khan. Taliban sources claim that 30 Taliban fighters and 45 civilians were killed in the attack on the funeral.
South Waziristan is a major focus of the US air campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. The US has been targeting al Qaeda’s external network, which is tasked with hitting against targets in the West.
Of the 24 US strikes carried out in Pakistan this year, 16 of them took place in South Waziristan. Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Nazir’s areas have been hit eight times each this year. Both Nazir and Baitullah host al Qaeda training camps and shelter senior leaders of the terror group.