Baitullah Mehsud from a recent Taliban video.
Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud was not killed in yesterday’s airstrike in South Waziristan, US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
“Baitullah is alive,” one official old The Long War Journal. “We’re aware of the reports that he might have been killed and we are looking into it, but we don’t believe he was killed.”
The late night airstrike on a compound operated by Ikramuddin Mehsud, Baitullah’s father-in-law, in the village of Zanghra in the mountains near Baitullah’s home town of Makeen, killed Baitullah’s second wife and two other Taliban fighters. One of Baitullah’s two brothers was also reported to have been killed.
Witnesses on the scene immediately said that Baitullah was not among those killed. He reportedly visited his wife but left an hour prior to the attack.
But more than one day after the US strike in South Waziristan, rumors have surfaced that Baitullah was killed in the attack. The local Taliban are said to have cordoned off the area for over 36 hours to prevent outsiders from viewing the attack site, fueling conjecture that Baitullah is dead.
Earlier today, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman speculated that Baitullah was killed.
“We suspect he was killed in the missile strike,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Geo News. “We have some information, but we don’t have material evidence to confirm it.”
Pakistan’s chief military spokesman later denied reports the strike killed Baitullah.
Later today, a US intelligence official told ABC News that “there is strong indication” Baitullah was killed.
“Efforts are under way to determine for certain whether it was Mehsud, but there are hopes that it is him,” the official told the television network.
The Taliban have not issued a statement to confirm or deny Baitullah’s death. In the past, the Taliban and al Qaeda have released martyrdom statements upon the death of their senior leaders.
Reports of senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in Pakistan have been highly unreliable. In the past, al Qaeda leaders Ayman al Zawahiri, Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, Abu Obaidullah Al Masri, Adam Gadahn, Ibn Amin, and Rashid Rauf have been reported killed in strikes, but these men later resurfaced. Similarly, Sa’ad bin Laden was recently reported killed, but he is now thought to be alive. And Abu Khabab al Masri was reported dead several times before he actually was killed in a July 2008 strike.
Pakistani Taliban leaders Mullah Nazir, Mullah Fazlullah, Faqir Mohammed, Omar Khalid, Hakeemullah Mehsud, and Qari Hussain, as well as Baitullah, have in the past all been reported killed, only to resurface later.
Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most powerful Taliban commander
Baitullah is the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the unified command of scores of local Taliban fighters throughout the Northwest Frontier Province and the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. He has also allied with North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar and South Waziristan leader Mullah Nazir to form the Council of United Mujahideen. The group has pledged its support to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and overall Taliban commander Mullah Omar, and has vowed to battle the Pakistan, US, and Afghan governments.
Based out of South Waziristan, Baitullah has become the most prominent Taliban leader in Pakistan. He commands tens of thousands of well-trained fighters, who conduct suicide and conventional attacks against Pakistani, Coalition, and Afghan forces. Since 2004, Baitullah’s fighters have defeated the Pakistani Army in several engagements. In January 2008, the Pakistani Army agreed to a cease fire after abruptly ending an operation 10 days into a battle with Baitullah. He has been implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shortly after her return from exile in late 2007.
Baitullah is closely allied with bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda shelters in Baitullah’s tribal areas and maintains scores of training camps and safe houses in the region.
Baitullah has openly stated his intentions to conduct attacks against the United States and the West. He “poses a clear threat to American persons and interests in the region,” the State Department said earlier this year, when it offered up to $5 million dollars for information leading to his location or capture.
Possible successors to Baitullah include his cousins Hakeemullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud. Hakeemullah directs Taliban operations in Arakzai, Kurram, and Khyber. Qari Hussain is a military commander in South Waziristan who also trains children to become suicide bombers. Hafiz Gul Bahadar is also a candidate to take over the Pakistani Taliban in the event of Baitullah’s death.