Hakeemullah Mehsud -- not dead yet


Hakeemullah Mehsud (left), the Leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al Balawi (right), the suicide bomber who carried out the attack at Combat Outpost Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official claimed yesterday that the top leader of the Pakistani Taliban is still alive, but the Pentagon said today he is no longer in command of his forces.

An unnamed Pakistani intelligence official said that Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, survived a US airstrike in January, but may have been wounded.

"He is alive," the intelligence official told The Guardian. "He had some wounds but he is basically OK."

Senior Pakistani officials, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik, have insisted that Hakeemullah was killed in the Jan. 14 airstrike that killed 17 terrorists, including several Arabs and Uzbeks. Most news agencies have reported Hakeemullah as having been killed in the January strike.

But over the past few months, numerous Taliban leaders have denied Hakeemullah was killed, and Hakeemullah personally disproved one of the reports of his death [see timeline below on the reports of Hakeemullah's death].

The US Department of Defense said that while the status of Hakeemullah is unknown, there is no evidence he is in control of his forces in the field.

"I certainly have seen no evidence that the person you speak of (Hakeemullah Mehsud) is operational today or is executing or exerting authority over the Pakistan Taliban as he once did," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. "So I don't know if that reflects him being alive or dead, but he clearly is not running the Pakistani Taliban anymore."

US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal disagreed with Morrell's assessment.

"While we may not have communications intercepts or other intelligence to confirm he is alive, it isn't accurate to say that is evidence he is no longer in command," a senior US military intelligence official said.

"The Taliban and al Qaeda have tightened their operational security in the tribal areas and specifically in North Waziristan due to the Predator attacks there," the official continued, referring to the US air campaign that is targeting al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network.

US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal have been skeptical of the reports of Hakeemullah's death since the rumors first began on Jan. 15, 2010.

Timeline on reports of Hakeemullah's death

January 14, 2010: A US Predator strike in the Pasalkot region in North Waziristan targeted a religious seminary, killing 17 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. US intelligence officials told The Long War Journal that Hakeemullah Mehsud was the target of the attack but it was unknown if he was killed. Pakistani officials claimed Hakeemullah was killed.

January 15, 2010: A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that "all indications are that Hakeemullah survived the airstrike," but could not discount reports he may have been wounded. Top Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said "Hakeemullah is alive and safe." Pakistani officials continued to insist Hakeemullah was killed.

January 16, 2010: The Taliban provided a recording of Hakeemullah, who said he was alive and provided the date to prove it: "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." Pakistani officials continued to insist Hakeemullah was dead.

January 28, 2010: The News reported on new rumors of Hakeemullah's death. An unnamed senior Taliban leader denied the reports. "If you trust me, I can assure you he is safe and sound," the commander said. "I have spoken to him three hours ago and he was quite well."

January 31, 2010: Pakistan TV claimed Hakeemullah died on Jan. 17, just one day after he released his tape, of wounds suffered from the Jan. 14 Predator strike. Two unnamed tribal leaders claimed to have attended his funeral at a site in the Mamondzai area of Arakzai. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal maintained that there was no indication that Hakeemullah was killed either during or after the Jan. 14 airstrike, and dismissed reports that he was buried. Azam Tariq also dismissed the report of Hakeemullah's burial.

February 1, 2010: Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior deputy to Hakeemullah, denied his commander was killed, while talking to the media. Pakistani media reports also claimed Qari Hussain and South Waziristan commander Waliur Rahman Mehsud were killed in the strike that supposedly killed Hakeemullah. The Pakistani government has incorrectly reported Qari Hussain dead several times in the past.

February 2, 2010: The News claimed that Kurram Taliban commander Maulvi Noor Jamal, who is also known as Mullah Toofan, had taken control of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. Azam Tariq again denied the rumors and said no new tape of Hakeemullah would be issued, as intelligence services would try to use the information to obtain the current location of Hakeemullah.

February 3, 2010: An unnamed Pakistani intelligence official said Hakeemullah was very likely alive.

February 9, 2010: Samaa TV and Dawn claimed Hakeemullah died while traveling to Karachi for medical treatment for wounded suffered from the Jan. 14 strike. Hakeemullah supposedly died near the city of Multan. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal remained skeptical of the reports.

February 10, 2010: Maulvi Noor Jamal denied reports that he took control of the Taliban, and said Hakeemullah is alive. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he had "credible information that [Hakeemullah is] dead but I don't have any confirmation."

February 12, 2010: An unnamed Taliban commander said Hakeemullah was alive and would release a tape. "Now I am dead sure he is alive," the Taliban commander told The News. "I personally held a meeting with him and found him safe and sound."

March 15, 2010: Khalid Khawaja, a former ISI official and Taliban and al Qaeda supporter, claimed his representatives met with Hakeemullah in North Waziristan. "Two of my acquaintances were with Hakeemullah Mehsud on March 9 while Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas had claimed he was dead early last month," Khawaja said.

April 14, 2010: Senior Taliban commander Qari Zia Rahman denied Hakeemullah was dead, and said he, like Hakeemullah, had been encouraged to remain silent about reports of his death for operational security purposes. The Pakistani government has incorrectly reported Qari Zia Rahman dead several times in the past.



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READER COMMENTS: "Hakeemullah Mehsud -- not dead yet"

Posted by kp at April 29, 2010 6:11 PM ET:

One possibility that explains all the positive and negative evidence cited in the article (aside from the ISI's comment "basically OK") is that he survived the attack but was so injured that he can't communicate well anymore. Perhaps head or face or lung injuries. For example he's either brain damaged or has injuries that would prevent him from speaking or otherwise communicating. One could imagine that blast injuries that damaged his lungs could even give him brain damage from hypoxia without apparent external injury (e.g. Zarkawi who also survived two 500lb bombs on his location only to die shortly afterwards).

This would explain the lack of any video, audio, still photographs or SIGINT indicating he is alive and in operational control of the TTP. He could have gone completely off the grid which seriously compromises his ability to command the TTP. But As AZ and UBL have shown you can provide audio messages at least without damaging your OPSEC. I still think it significant that he hasn't come out and told his group (and fellow jihadis) that he's in command. After all it would be an example of "inshallah" if he could show that. But he's said to be alive so that leaves us with either alive and damaged or alive and holed up to the point of being ineffective.

The other significant comments from the unnamed source who said: "While we may not have communications intercepts or other intelligence to confirm he is alive, it isn't accurate to say that is evidence he is no longer in command The Taliban and al Qaeda have tightened their operational security in the tribal areas and specifically in North Waziristan due to the Predator attacks there."

That comment implies that they have used SIGINT sucessfully in the past (as I have suggested before) and that their OPSEC has improved to avoid SIGINT i.e. no radio or phones and more personal meetings which means they have to drive (or walk) which gives another way to keep track of them by monitoring vehicle traffic though I suspect they may have improved their OPSEC here too (rather than driving point to point use multiple vehicles running (semi)regular routes with hidden pickups and drop offs to avoid traffic analysis on the routes or tracking people as they move about.).

It also implies that their HUMINT (at least the military intelligence side) has not said "yes, he is alive and in control to the rank and file" either. I suspect they don't have HUMINT at the "officer" level in Mehsud's org so that might not give the whole picture but it seems the footsoldiers haven't been told that.

Of course this is all speculation and reading between the lines. The ultimate issue here (as Bil has pointed out before) is that absence of evidence in not evidence of abscence. But the circumstantial "absence of evidence" points to something being not quite right.

Posted by Zeissa at April 30, 2010 4:41 AM ET:

It seems he is very likely not a problem anymore.

Posted by BraddS at April 30, 2010 5:56 AM ET:

Excellent analysis, kp, as always. Guess we'll have to kill him a fourth time now...

Posted by Gerald Anthro at April 30, 2010 7:14 AM ET:

Also he maybe so traumatized he quietly quit.
Enough is enough metaphor. That kind of strike
would leave a significant mental impression
Serious post traumatic stress, to the point of resignation.

Either way he is reaping what he sowed.

Gerald
Internet Anthropologist

Posted by T Ruth at April 30, 2010 7:20 AM ET:

There is a contradiction in The Guardian's report as far as i am concerned. The opening line reads
"The Taliban leader in Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud, survived an American drone strike in January and is alive and well, a senior official with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency told the Guardian today."

When the Pak official is actually quoted as saying he is "basically OK". Basically OK? Why basically? Given the context of the strike, basically OK to me is not the same as alive and well. A cabbage is basically ok. My point is the author provides no evidence that he is well. Alive maybe, even probably, but kicking? Doesn't appear that way.

With the surge, i wonder if the Pak Taliban and Afghan Taliban are considering a full-scale merger under the auspices of their Holding Company, AQ. If one is to believe the reports, the bulk of them are together anyway under the N Waziristan sky. (Not to ignore other bases across KP, Baluch, Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir).

From Pak's perspective, i reckon the good and bad Taliban situation has become more confusing. The lack of response by the Pak Army is another sign of weakness.

The time is right for the US to spread its done campaign to other regions. If its true that this is already deeply unpopular amongst the Pakistanis, whats the risk? More importantly what is Pakistan going to do about it? Reject US aid?

Posted by JRP at April 30, 2010 10:01 AM ET:

Bin Ladin travels nowhere. He's hunkered down in Pakistan somewhere protected by the 3-ring circus of his own highly trustworthy security cadre; the Taliban; the Pakistani Intelligence Service. Zawahiri no longer travels by any means other than animal-driven wagon, cart, etc. etc. There is no way he will come near, let alone enter, a motorized vehicle. All the rest probably do travel either as pedestrians or in motorized vehicles, but all the rest are also expendable. If Bin Ladin and Zawahiri were eliminated (death or capture), the civilized world could declare the War on Terror over. For the lack of the political will to raise an old-fashioned army, enter Pakistan, and eliminate these two, the Western World is paying an enormous price in blood & treasure that, as Bin Ladin predicted, is slowly wearing down our economic strength. We recognize the problem, but we don't have the political will to solve it. If you don't have the political will to solve a problem that threatens your very existence as a society, that means you've lost the will to survive itself. Unfortunately and regrettably therein lie the seeds of our own destruction.

Posted by T Ruth at April 30, 2010 10:57 AM ET:

Apparently the Express Tribune of Pak recd a video of HM today with zero evidence of date. Who's playing too smart by half now?

Makes me even take the Pak official's assertions with a fistful of salt.

Whatever, i think the Pak people owe the US a big vote of thanks for having neutralised him. But that wasn't forthcoming when Baitullah was taken out, so spectacularly.

Now one recognises that the drones are allegedly 'unpopular' among the Pakistanis. Though a handful of Pak journalists have argued in favour. But isnt there such a thing as the Pakistani intelligentsia that see the utility of these strikes? This not so much as puzzles me but indicates the degree of conditioning of Pak society by their Establishment.

Another question, is the US doing enough to counter this propaganda? The Taliban by stringing out the death timetables deprives the opportunity of a spontaneous announcement of a win. And then since this is a covert action there is no official US announcement anyway. So its a bit like sitting in a football stadium where only one team is allowed to cheer when there is a goal while the other side sits there mum.

Well this video is a try but its certainly no goal.
http://tribune.com.pk/story/9965/video-of-hakimullah-mehsud-released-today/

Meantime it looks like the Asian Tigers kicked Khwaja out of the field like a football. God knows what that game is...

Posted by kp at April 30, 2010 6:08 PM ET:

Another interesting Tribune story I missed two weeks ago:

http://tribune.com.pk/story/6113/where-have-all-the-suicide-bombers-gone/

It emphasizes the problem of of suicide bombing: replacing your delivery mechanism can be a problem as you are guaranteed casualties on every operation.

It also states that the TTP can no longer organize suicide bombings.

They also have a comment from a Pakistani intel person saying the US were actively jamming Taliban comms (I presume during attacks perhaps and also to again additional ELINT/SIGINT info during non-attack communications e.g. how to they recover from jamming do that have back up channels and procedures).

An interesting read. Along with the comments: they seem rather like the comments on LWJ than anything else I've seen in the Pakistani media.

Posted by Rhyno327 at May 1, 2010 12:22 PM ET:

Does VEGAS have a line on things like this? Should have, its wat his 3rd time dead? LOL!! Bet if there was gambling $$ involved there would be proof out da yazooo..!!!