Reports of Pakistani Taliban leader’s death are premature

Hakeemullah-Mehsud-new.jpg

Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud in 2008.

Rumors that the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has been killed in a US airstrike have resurfaced in the Pakistani press. But the Taliban have denied the reports and the Pakistani Army and US intelligence officials have no indication that he was killed.

On Sunday, Pakistan TV broadcast reports that Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud died of wounds suffered in a US airstrike on Jan. 14 in a region along the North and South Waziristan border. The strike, which targeted Hakeemullah, killed 15 terrorists, including two Arabs and several Uzbeks. Hakeemullah has been buried in a graveyard in the Mamondzai region in the Arakzai tribal agency, according to the report.

The Taliban have denied that Hakeemullah was killed. “Hakeemullah is alive and safe,” Azam Tariq, Hakeemullah’s spokesman said. “The purpose of stories regarding his death is to create differences among Taliban ranks, but such people will never succeed. People who are saying that Hakeemullah has died should provide proof of it — we have already proved that he is alive and we have provided two audio tapes of him to all the media.”

Azam is referring to the two audiotapes of Hakeemullah that were released within two days after the Jan. 14 Predator strike. On one tape, Hakeemullah provided a specific date to confirm he was alive.

“Today, on the 16th of January, I am saying it again — I am alive, I am OK, I am not injured… when the drone strike took place, I was not present in the area at that time,” Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, said in a recorded statement that was played for reporters. Hakeemullah provided a specific date to confirm he was alive.

Qari Hussain Mehsud, one of Hakeemullah’s top commanders, also contacted Pakistani television stations to deny that Hakeemullah was killed.

US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said there is no indication that Hakeemullah was killed either during or after the Jan. 14 airstrike.

“We’ve seen no evidence he was killed, nor do we hear chatter of a leadership crisis in the Taliban ranks,” a senior official said.

The Pakistani military, which has reported Hakeemullah killed multiple times in the past, is hesitant to confirm the current report of Hakeemullah’s death.

“I don’t have the confirmation, my sources have not confirmed it, whether he is dead or alive,” Major General Athar Abbas, the military’s top spokesman told reporters.

Last summer, the Pakistani government insisted that Hakeemullah was killed during a clash with South Waziristan Taliban leader Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The government claimed the two killed each other during an argument over who would replace Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US airstrike in South Waziristan on Aug. 5. The Taliban denied that the clash ever took place. Both leaders later appeared together in several tapes, but the government insisted that a body double was standing in for Hakeemullah.

The Pakistani Army were also quick to claim Hakeemullah was killed after the Jan. 14 strike, but backed off the assertions after Hakeemullah released the Jan. 16 tape.

Hakeemullah is considered an able and dangerous leader. He has orchestrated the Taliban’s attacks on NATO’s supply columns moving through Khyber in 2007 and 2008, the Taliban suicide campaign in Pakistan in the fall of 2009, and the tactical retreat from the military’s operation in South Waziristan, also in the fall of 2009. He has vowed to continue attacks until the military withdraws from the northwest.

It is unclear who would replace Hakeemullah if he was killed in the strike. Waliur Rehman was the other front-runner to lead the Taliban after Baitullah’s death, but he has been ejected from his stronghold in South Waziristan.

The US air campaign in Pakistan has had success over the past two months. Since Dec. 8, 2009, the air campaign in Pakistan has killed two senior al Qaeda leaders, a senior Taliban commander, two senior al Qaeda operatives, a wanted Palestinian terrorist who was allied with al Qaeda, and a wanted Abu Sayyaf operative.

Already this year, the US has killed Mansur al Shami, an al Qaeda ideologue and aide to al Qaeda’s leader in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu Yazid; and Haji Omar Khan, a senior Taliban leader in North Waziristan. Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, the Abu Nidal Organization operative who participated in killing 22 hostages during the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am flight 73, is thought to have been killed in the Jan. 9 airstrike. And Abdul Basit Usman, an Abu Sayyaf operative with a $1 million US bounty for information leading to his capture, was killed in a strike on Jan. 14.

In December 2009, the US killed Abdullah Said al Libi, the top commander of the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s Shadow Army; Zuhaib al Zahib, a senior commander in the Lashkar al Zil; and Saleh al Somali, the leader of al Qaeda’s external network [see LWJ report, “Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010” for the full list].

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

25 Comments

  • Peacock says:

    “we have already proved that he is alive and we have provided two audio tapes. . . ”
    The later of the two tapes referenced by Azam Tariq were released on 16 January, the day before a second missile strike, also purportedly targeting Hakimullah, and rumored to have been the coup de grace, occured.
    I think it is significant that Azam is NOT promising forthcoming proof, i.e a statement, but resting only on a now dated statement that never proved Hakimullah was unharmed, only alive.
    This, along with inconsistent taliban reports following the initial strike(s) (“he was wounded”, ” no, he left 40 minutes earlier”) doesn’t pass the smell test: if no proof of life arrives in the next several days, I say Hakimullah has met the same fate as his predecessor.

  • Setrak says:

    Orakzai agency? Would he really have been transported from North Waziristan to Orakzai agency during the winter while injured?
    That’s what’s making me very skeptical.

  • Rookie says:

    This will never end, under actual circumstances.
    The remote areas of Waziristan, the hostile primitive population living for a thousand years + from pillaging and killing others, and also those last minute calls from ISI operatives to the intended drone targets will make this game run forever.
    Wipe the entire area with nukes, or they will get ones and they will use them, for sure. Remote places are not so easy to find, this is one of terrorist’s best hideouts/training places.

  • jav says:

    rookie:
    if russia nuked the whole of western america 40 years ago, i honeslty think we wouldnt be in this mess in afghanistan/pakistan…….
    i actually think we wouldn’t be in afghanistan at all

  • Setrak says:

    Using nukes would be a great way to make the US hated in ways difficult to imagine or predict.

  • KaneKaizer says:

    Audio tapes only fuel speculation that he was badly injured. Really, how difficult is it to record even a cell phone video of Hakeemullah saying “Today is [date] and I am Hakeemullah Mehsud, alive and well.”? That’s really all he needs to do to make those making the claim look like fools, and yet he chooses not to do it.

  • Baitullahs Still Dead says:

    We went through this same minuet when they were picking up the pieces of Baitullah with tweezers and forceps. Hey Hakee, we hardly knew ye, but we got ya nontheless. Say hi to Baitullah for us.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Fox News (from Pakistan state television) reported Hakeemullah’s probable death an hour or so ago.
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,584402,00.html

  • ed says:

    DEAD OR NOT WE NEED TO KEEP THE PRESSURE ON THEM.

  • Paul says:

    If it is true they should do what he did….dig up his body and display all 5 pieces of it for all to see and dare the taliban to take it down.They want to kill like animals…. we’ll treat them like animals.

  • Mr T says:

    We can’t see you.

  • Rookie says:

    @ jav, Setrak
    As one living in a former communist country, under Soviet boot then and probably under heavy Russian influence now, I can tell you that Russian government, as criminal as it was/is, is far, far away from the insane hatred on the jihadis and supporting population.
    Comparison between Russia-US relation and these animals has no ground. It’s true that if 40 years ago the CIA was thinking twice before training and arming religious fanatics, things would be different today – maybe. We fought here for 1000 years with islamic invasions, is not like they become violent just since 1947.
    When a nuke will blossom over one of your cities, the concern about world’s opinion on US will seem foolish, at best.

  • Reader says:

    Cockroaches don’t die,
    they simply multiply!
    We need to change the CONDITIONS
    which attract cockroaches.
    That means peace
    in the Middle East!

  • steve m says:

    jav, did you really mean to say western america?

  • David m says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/01/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Doug Hylton says:

    Decapitation on this level appears to have little military value. There is no land taken, the positions remains the same. The Taliban still have shadow governments in 33 of the 34 Afghanistan provinces ready to take over and there appears to be an abundance of young commanders ready to take his place. Yes there is some short lived confusion as they fight over who will succeed him but the new commander is just as capable and vicious. Look at the Israeli history on decapitation. They took out Abbas al-Musawi in 1992 and he was replaced by Hassan Nasrallah who appears to be just as capable and maybe more careful because he rarely comes out of his bunker. The policy of Decapitation does appear to be a crude form of natural selection as the more inept and careless commanders are eliminated.
    This Decapitation policy would make military sense if right after a massive drone attack we sent in the troops to secure the area but this is not happening. We need to decide what are goals are in this war. Just killing people for the sake of killing is insanity. War is an extension of diplomacy what do we want from the enemy? Originally we went in there because the Taliban were harboring terrorists but now Mullah Omar says he will not allow terrorists to operate from Afghanistan. Didn’t we achieve our goal? We have e been there ten years now and it appears that we have lost sight of our goals.
    Of course the Taliban are not talking with us they have no reason to talk with us. The Taliban are dug in and waiting for us to leave and we will leave. Some of the European countries are already getting skidish and they will leave first. When we leave the Karzai government will fall like a house of cards in a windstorm and the top officials will be looking for asylum elsewhere. There will be much bloodshed. The Karzai government soldiers will throw down their guns and run from the Taliban. The Taliban are not fighting for money they are fighting for god and you can’t buy that kind of ferocity for $9 a day.

  • kp says:

    The fact that US intelligence sources say that they didn’t hear “chatter” is important.

    Post strike the predators are doing SIGINT and watching the response of the Taliban on the ground. Recall what happened when Messud Sr was killed: big cordon around the area; lots of activity; lots of chatter on VHF/UHF radio (and perhaps even cell phone and HF). It was clear just after the strike that they had killed him in situ. So if they’re saying “no” for these strikes then it’s clear they didn’t see the same post-strike response.

    Of course there is still a possibility the Taliban changed their tactics post-drone strike (difficult to do as you give up a lot of coordination and some security but possible). Or that he was wounded and died some time later (though that would show up in more generalized “chatter” SIGINT, vehicle movement and other forms of communications.

    And yes when they switch from video to audio there’s always a reason. He probably looks beat up (as I doubt he changed is appearance). Well see if he comes up with a “It’s February first and I’m still alive tape”.

  • T Ruth says:

    jav as a Pakistani Brit obviously feels compelled to support his Pakistani brethren. (Despite Gordon Brown having declared that 75% of terrorism in the UK emanates from Pakistan.)
    His reaction to Rookie (whom he mistook to be American) was a Pavlovian one hatefully directed towards America. With little realisation of what a friendless country Pakistan has become and if anything, it is America that continues to support it!
    Anyway his comment is intended to detract from the main discussion so don’t expect to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue.
    On the subject of nukes, Rookie may have been a little over the top on the use of nuke power, but:
    A) he did say that “they will get ones and they will use them, for sure.” (ie AQAM). And i agree with him wholeheartedly on that REAL risk (and open secret of AQ). I simple DO NOT trust the Pakistani ability to secure them and i don’t need to go into how irresponsible the Pakistani State is.
    B) that was one helluva robust response by Rookie and it comes with the credibility, albeit to jav’s disappointment, that he has experience of the demonic Soviet state, but that was a picnic with the rain man and his teddy bears, compared to the so-called-religious barbarians we’re dealing with here.
    Bottom-line: the UN should force Pakistan to give up its nukes. If it doesn’t comply, as they say, all options are open.
    Time being, the American people are being mislead by this Administration for not highlighting, with crystal clarity, the true reality of the risk of nukes in Pakistan.
    NUKES + INSECURE PAKISTAN = RISK SQUARED
    Join the dots, for God’s sake! And if one can’t, at least join the two-halves of the brain!!

  • Mr T says:

    Doug said: “but now Mullah Omar says he will not allow terrorists to operate from Afghanistan. ”
    Yeah, right.

  • T Ruth says:

    Doug: “War is an extension of diplomacy what do we want from the enemy?”
    First, lets define the enemy. In the worst scenario we don’t want the enemy to make a nuclear attack–dirty bombs, fizzle-sticks or fully assembled, delivered by powered paragliders, missiles, whatever.
    Where is the power diplomacy with regard to this real and present risk? You see any?
    ————————————–
    Doug: “Originally we went in there because the Taliban were harboring terrorists but now Mullah Omar says he will not allow terrorists to operate from Afghanistan.”
    –And you believe this bandit?
    –Do you have any evidence that he has renounced terrorism?
    –But Pakistan has amply proved that it is willing to allow terrorists to operate, even co-operate, from,and with, Pakistan. So should US troops be transferred to Pakistan (owners of Hotel Sovereign in Waziristan with guest houses in Quetta, Karachi and throughout the terroritories) ?
    —————————————
    Doug: ” The Taliban are not fighting for money they are fighting for god and you can’t buy that kind of ferocity for $9 a day. ”
    Kindly don’t be fooled and buy that kind of cloak. They are fighting for power, not for God. They were created expressly for that purpose by Pakistan and now they are fighting for the same objective, power, in Pakistan too. Left unchecked this ambition will spread like a cancer well beyond AfPak.
    ——————————
    By all means fight this fight with a Greater Power Diplomacy but then please understand your enemy and then take the diplomatic fight out there: don’t just sit there, say surge when you know the pipeline will trickle the delivery over 9 months, and then say, right we have 9 more months and we’re out. Oh please America, diplomacy is not about pleasing your own people. It is about displeasing your enemy, with a little, or lot, of help from your friends and managing their displeasure. At the moment, Pakistan (who you make no mention of) is doing just that and doing it very well.
    By the way you know that the term AfPak is now dead. Read more at
    http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/01/20/team_obama_scuttles_the_term_afpak
    (Tip: also read the third comment to that article left by Bowman–Bill sorry for being obtuse but we all accutely need some dramatic relief here.)

  • Stu says:

    Check out today’s Miliary.com regarding the absurd rules of engagement in Afghanistan.
    If Taliban fighters ambush Marines and Marines shoot back, all the insurgents have to do is step out in the open, drop their weapons, and current ROE prevents our guys from killing the cretins who just finished doing their best to kill them. The point of the recent article is that Marines are seething with revenge, yet their commanders are telling them not to kill the insurgents because of Afghan reaction to people being killed. This is totally crazy. Either get our Marines out of this hellhole or let them do their job. Oh, and to the contributors in this forum who claim predator attacks will not win the war: They are correct. Only grinding down the enemy’s will to fight will win it. The PC white-collar managers in Washington seem determined to lose this war. It really looks that way. Forget the drones, the U.S. military on the ground, the nation building, the schools, paying bribes to the corrupt regimes, roadbuilding, forget it all. Just make it clear. Let’s either fight or leave with a promise, no more terrorism, or else. Else what? Fill in the blanks.

  • Render says:

    Doug – “Decapitation on this level appears to have little military value.”

  • EBK says:

    Stu, I was in Farah Province for OEF 2008, and after engaging ourselves in a situation that you described in your first sentence, our CAS (usually AH-1W Cobras) would literally fly over 50+ taliban standing out in a field with their weapons thrown all over the place. Did the gunner zip them with his 20mike mike? Negative. EOF/ROEs are a joke.

  • Warren says:

    New article from Fox regarding Meshud
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,584765,00.html

  • charley says:

    Death confirmed.
    http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/03-taliban-confirm-hakeemullahs-death-ss-01
    KARACHI: The Taliban based in Orakzai Agency confirmed on Tuesday that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakeemullah Mehsud is dead.
    According to a DawnNews report, Mehsud died on Sunday in Multan after succumbing to injuries received in a drone attack in Shaktoi village.
    However, Alam Tariq the offiicial Taliban spokesman has not yet made a statement.
    Sources said that Maulvi Noor Jamal has been nominated as Mehsud’s succesor.
    Government officials too have confirmed his death.
    American and Pakistani officials had been saying Mehsud was dead since the past few weeks.
    Maulvi Noor Jamal is a native of the Orakzai Agency and rose to power as the leader of the Taliban in the Kurram tribal area.
    He was also given responsibilities for Orakzai when the military began the Waziristan offensive in October.
    Jamal is in his late thirties and was a maulana at a local madrassah before he was made the leader of the Taliban in Kurram.
    He had a close relationship with Mehsud and is known for his brutality.
    One resident who left Khurram for fear of being wanted by him said Jamal “…kills humans like one will kill chickens.”

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