Analysis: Pakistani claims regarding Baitullah’s death, shura clash, are suspect

After several senior Taliban leaders went on the record to deny reports that Baitullah was killed in a US airstrike in South Waziristan, the Pakistani government’s claim that Baitullah is dead is now in doubt. Similarly, Pakistani government claims of infighting between potential successors to Baitullah also must be viewed with skepticism. Given the Pakistani government’s poor track record when claiming senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, the reports of Baitullah’s death are now suspect.

Taliban leaders Hakeemullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud, spokesman Maulvi Omar, and aide Qari Hidayatullah all spoke forcefully today insisting that reports of Baitullah’s death were false and that Baitullah would be issuing proof he was indeed alive.

Despite the Taliban’s denial that Baitullah had been killed, Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, is insisting Baitullah was indeed killed, and Malik upped the ante by claiming that two potential successors subsequently battled over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban.

Malik, who admitted to the BBC that he has no hard evidence Baitullah was killed, said Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud had a shootout at a shura meeting sometime on Friday in the Ladha region in South Waziristan. The meeting was purportedly held to choose a successor to Baitullah. The report was rebroadcast on Pakistani state television. Malik claimed that Hakeemullah and possibly Waliur were killed during the clash.

“Obviously, it is not a story made up by us,” Malik told the BBC “This fight must have happened because of the succession.”

“They [Hakeemullah and Waliur] had been fighting in the past and we have information that there has been enmity between Waliur and Hakeemullah since they were fighting together in Kurram valley,” he said. “Hakeemullah was replaced by Baitullah Mehsud with Waliur.”

But a Taliban leader from the Ladha region denied that a clash ever took place and claimed to have spoken to Waliur since the alleged incident.

“There was no fighting in the Shura,” a local Taliban commander named Noor Sayed told the media. “Both Waliur Rehman and Hakeemullah are safe and sound.”

Hakeemullah confirmed he was alive when he spoke to the media the day following Malik’s pronouncement that Hakeemullah had been killed. [After this report was published, Waliur Rehman spoke to the media and denied such a shootout occurred].

Malik is speaking as if the burden of proof is now on the to Taliban provide evidence they are alive, rather than on the government to prove they are dead.

“If Baitullah Mehsud is alive, or Hakeemullah is alive, why don’t they bring out a video,” Malik said to the BBC. “Every telephone has a camera on it. They can just get one out and show people that they are alive. I challenge them.”

Recent history favors the Taliban’s account

While it is still unknown if Baitullah survived the strike, the Pakistani government’s track record in accurately reporting on the deaths of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders is poor [see the list below]. The Taliban, on the other hand, have been honest about the deaths of their senior leaders. Each time they have refuted a claim of a leader being killed, they have been able to prove the commander is alive.

Since 2006, the Pakistani government has inaccurately reported on the deaths of 10 senior al Qaeda leaders. Some of these leaders were reported killed multiple times, only to resurface. Also during that time period, the Pakistani government wrongly claimed eight senior Taliban leader were killed. Again, these reports were disproved.

Most recently, Malik claimed that Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah was killed or seriously wounded during fighting against the Pakistani military. Multiple Taliban leaders denied the claim, and Fazlullah later broadcast on his illegal FM radio station in Swat despite the ongoing offensive.

The Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda have been accurate about the deaths of their senior leaders, and have issued martyrdom statements or eulogies for those killed. These extremist groups view the death of a leader or fighter while waging jihad to be an honor, and the deaths are used as propaganda for recruitment. Accurately reporting the status of the senior commanders is also crucial to maintain command and control among the rank and file.

For as long as The Long War Journal has tracked the reports of deaths of senior al Qaeda and Taliban commanders, there is not one single instance in which these groups practiced deception when it came to official reports on the death of one of their leaders.

Given these facts, the likelihood is that Baitullah Mehsud survived the strike, as reported first here at The Long War Journal on Aug. 6. And, if Baitullah survived the strike, there would be no need for the Taliban shura to hold a meeting to select a successor to Baitullah.

It may be possible the Taliban shura was held to discuss other issues, and Hakeemullah and Waliur did indeed clash, but this is also out of character for the Taliban. There is not a single recorded instance of such a shootout or armed clash at a Pakistani Taliban shura meeting.

Contentious meetings have been held between rivals such as Baitullah and Mullah Nazir, and yet these meetings have ended successfully. Also, any meeting to select Baitullah’s replacement would likely be attended by senior most Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, such as Siraj Haqqani and Abu Yahya al Libi. Lower level Taliban commanders would place themselves, their families, and tribes at great risk if they endangered the lives of the likes of Siraj and Yahya.

The Taliban typically carry out their vendettas by way of assassins, armed clashes, or raids. One such recent example is the feud between Baitullah and Zainuddin Mehsud. Their forces clashed regularly in South Waziristan, Tank, and Dera Ismail Khan. Baitullah ultimately had a bodyguard assassinate Zainuddin.

False reports:

The following al Qaeda and Taliban leaders were falsely reported killed at some point by Pakistani intelligence sources. These leaders later appeared in the media or on propaganda tapes.

Al Qaeda leaders reported killed who later resurfaced:

Ayman al Zawahiri: Several large news outlets reported that al Qaeda’s second in command was killed or seriously wounded in the May 14, 2008, airstrike in South Waziristan that killed al Qaeda WMD chief Abu Khabab al Masri. The Long War Journal was unconvinced that Zawahiri had been killed at the time. A week later, Zawahiri appeared on a videotape urging Pakistanis to fight the government.

Mustafa Abu Yazid: The Pakistani military claimed that Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda’s senior commander in Afghanistan, was killed in a battle in the Bajaur tribal agency in August 2008. The Long War Journal was highly critical of the reports of Yazid’s death. Al Qaeda never confirmed Yazid’s death, and the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies never presented evidence he was killed. Yazid has since appeared on multiple videotapes, including the Oct. 4 release that featured Adam Gadahn. The Pakistani military, who refer to Yazid as Abu Saeed al Masri, claimed Yazid was dead as recently as Sept. 26.

Abu Khabab al Masri, Khalid Habib, Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, Abd Rahman al Masri al Maghribi, Abu Obaidah al Masri, and Marwan al Suri

Pakistani intelligence reported that six senior al Qaeda operatives were killed in a US airstrike in Damadola in January 2006. The six operatives reported killed were: Abu Khabab al Masri, the WMD committee chief and senior bomb maker; Khalid Habib, a senior military commander in eastern Afghanistan who later became chief of al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army; Abd Rahman al Masri al Maghribi, Zawahiri’s son-in-law and a military commander; Abu Obaidah al Masri, al Qaeda’s external operations chief and commander in Afghanistan’s Kunar province; Marwan al Suri, the Waziristan operations chief; and Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, the external operations chief who also served as a commander in southwestern Afghanistan.

Nineteen months later, The Washington Post reported that all of the al Qaeda commanders survived the strike.

Four of the six later were killed, captured, or died of natural causes. Abd al Hadi al Iraqi was captured while attempting to enter Iraqi in late 2006. Abu Obaidah al Masri died of natural causes sometime in late 2007 or early 2008. Abu Khabab al Masri was killed in an airstrike in July 2008. Khalid Habib was killed in an airstrike in October 2008.

Adam Gadahn: Numerous Pakistani sources told multiple major news outlets that Gadahn was killed in the Jan. 28, 2008, airstrike in North Waziristan that killed senior al Qaeda leader Abu Laith al Libi. The Long War Journal was highly critical of the reports of Gadahn’s death. Speculation grew after Gadahn failed to appear on al Qaeda propaganda tapes, As Sahab stopped producing English translations for the tapes, and some problems were reported with the release of videos and audio. Gadahn later appeared on a tape on Oct. 4, along with Yazid. Gadahn is the American al Qaeda spokesman who is wanted by the US for treason.

Rashid Rauf: US intelligence, based on reports from Pakistani intelligence, claimed that Rashid Rauf, an al Qaeda leader who is in charge of al Qaeda’s external operations branch responsible for attacks in Europe, was killed during the November 2008 Predator strike in North Waziristan that was also thought to have killed Abu Zubair al Masri and two other al Qaeda operatives. He was later reported to have trained European al Qaeda operatives to conduct attacks in Belgium, France, Holland, and England.

The Long War Journal was skeptical of the claims that Rauf had been killed. US military and intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal that Rauf’s death was never confirmed and that reports that he was killed in the November strike in South Waziristan were premature. Shortly after the November strike, Rauf’s family and his lawyer claimed he was still alive. Taliban fighters close to Rauf also said he was alive.

Taliban leaders reported killed who later resurfaced:

Baitullah Mehsud: On Sept. 30, 2008, several major news sources reported that Pakistani Taliban leader and South Waziristan warlord Baitullah Mehsud died of natural causes related to kidney problems. The Long War Journal was very skeptical that Baitullah was dead, and intelligence sources said he was alive. On Oct. 1, the Taliban denied the report. Baitullah was seen visiting villages in South Waziristan to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr on Oct. 4. Baitullah was also thought to have been killed in an airstrike earlier in 2009.

Mullah Sangeen Zadran: Pakistani intelligence sources claimed that Sangeen, the right-hand man of Haqqani Network military commander Siraj, was killed along with Baitullah and Qari Hussain during an airstrike at the funeral of one of Baitullah’s commanders. The Taliban quickly debunked these claims.

Faqir Mohammed: The Pakistani military claimed Faqir Mohammed, the deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban and the group’s leader in the Bajaur tribal agency, was killed in a battle in Bajaur in August 2008. A Taliban spokesman immediately denied the report, and Faqir appeared in front of the media a day later to dispute the claim of his death. The Pakistani military also claimed that Faqir’s son, Abdullah Mohammed, was killed, although no proof of his death has been offered.

Mullah Fazlullah: Several times during the spring 2009 offensive in Swat, the Pakistani military and the interior ministry claimed Mullah Fazlullah was killed. Fazlullah’s aides denied the reports, and in July 2009, Fazlullah was later heard giving a speech on the radio.

Omar Khalid: The military said Omar Khalid, the commander of Taliban forces in the Mohmand tribal agency, was killed during operations in the region in January 2009. Taliban commanders denied the claims, and Khalid later spoke to the media.

Ibn Amin: The Pakistani military and the interior ministry claimed Ibn Amin, the leader of al Qaeda’s paramilitary brigade in Swat, was killed in May 2009 during the Swat offensive. Amin later resurfaced and took control of the Taliban forces in Swat after Shah Doran, Fazlullah’s deputy and Swat’s military commander, was killed. Doran is the only senior Swat Taliban leader killed during the three-month battle.

Qari Hussain: The Pakistani military claimed Qari Hussain, a senior lieutenant to Baitullah Mehsud who ran a suicide bomber nursery in South Waziristan, was killed during operations in January 2008. Hussain held a press conference in South Waziristan on May 23, 2008, and mocked the Pakistani military. “I am alive, don’t you see me?” Hussain said.

Maulvi Omar: The Pakistani military claimed Omar, who is the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, was killed during an October 2008 airstrike in the Badano region in Taliban-controlled Bajaur. Omar later appeared on television. The Long War Journal was skeptical of the reports of Omar’s death.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • Cordell says:

    “Given these facts, the likelihood is that Baitullah Mehsud survived the strike, as reported first here at The Long War Journal, on Aug. 6.”
    As they say, the exception proves the rule. While I would put the veracity of the LWJ above that of the NY Times in all matters of the war against radical Islam and put little stock in the claims of the Pakistani government, I think this time you may well be wrong.
    First, we know of substantive, firsthand reports that Baitullah’s wife and several of his bodyguards were killed in the most recent U.S. attempt on his life. This combination of deaths indicates that he was in the immediate proximity when the strike occurred. With such a high value target, the U.S. likely used its heaviest bomb which has a kill radius of 200 feet. Close does count in horseshoes and heavy ordnance.
    Second, if he survived this attack, why would a Taliban aide of his first support the claim that he was dead even if he later recanted?
    Third, why would the Taliban hold a major shura immediately after reports of Baitullah’s death and thereby lend credence to these reports? It definitely appears that the meeting was called to name his successor.
    Fourth, why would a second-in-command call the press to refute the claim of Baitullah’s death when Baitullah himself could have made the call and remove all doubt? Voice print analysis using a recording of the live conversation would provide nearly irrefutable evidence that he was still alive.
    Finally, the Taliban have good reason to lie this time in order to gain time to decide upon and announce his successor. While reports of shootings between rival commanders at the Taliban shura are dubious at best and probably disinformation, Baitullah’s authority and personal charisma held contentious factions together. Their leadership undoubtedly realizes that their organization is vulnerable to infighting with his death until a chosen replacement can exert his own authority. When that happens, the Taliban will announce that Baitullah was critically wounded by the U.S. strike and later died of his wounds to preserve their credibility.
    Given all of the above points, I would put the likelihood of Baitullah’s death at better than 90%. I will make a one-way bet of $20 to the LWJ that he is indeed dead. I need to renew my LWJ “subscription” anyway. I truly appreciate the fine reporting and analysis by you and your associates.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    The fact that his wife and his driver were killed is hard to ignore. Remember we’ve killed Zarqari and Abu Ayyub al Masri’s drivers and personal aides in Iraq long before we killed them (well al Masri is still free, probably in Pak).
    Keep this in mind: Who said the shura meeting took place? Also, have we heard from that Baitullah deputy since then? You have four major Taliban leaders saying this, not just one.
    Baitullah never speaks to the press. I can only recall one press conference in the last year. He rarely calls in. And don’t you think we want him to call in to break cover?
    The TTP isn’t as contentious as is made out to be. The clash was Zainuddin doesn’t count because Zainuddin and his ally Bhitanni aren’t TTP. And the Nazir/Uzbek issue doesn’t count, Nazir isn’t TTP either. I have yet to detect this contention as is constantly reported. Of course there are rivalries but that is not surprising.
    We should know one way or another in a few days.
    And here’s hoping I am wrong.

  • Neo says:

    Giving Baitullah a “living ghost”

  • Rhyno327 says:

    No, i don’t believe the PAK gov at all. If he is gone, it may well spur a power struggle. All these reports are unconfirmed. Wat don’t come out in the wash, comes out in the rinse-we will know soon enough.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Well it seems the shootout is bunk. Waliur spoke to the media and he also said Hakeemullah would too. My advice is the be skeptical about all reports from the Pak government from here on out, their claims are on very shaky ground.
    Wali-ur-Rehman, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location to a Reuters reporter who had spoken with him several times before, also denied that any tribal council meeting, or shura, had taken place to decide on a successor to Baitullah Mehsud.
    “There are no differences. There was no fighting. We both are alive, and there was no special shura meeting,” he said.
    Hakimullah would call journalists soon to prove he too was alive, Rehman said.
    “He definitely will call you and tell you everything,” he said.

  • Neo says:

    Perhaps I overstated that the Pakistani government isn’t hurt by this. In the long term picture, Pakistan’s institutions have been greatly undermined by the fact that they will say anything to please, often with no intention of delivering. (often done with with contempt) I will say though that this specific incident won’t diminish the Pakistani government’s already suspect credibility. It’s just another straw on the camel’s back.
    In the long term the Pakistani government could greatly help themselves by developing a policy about handling the public release of information. More thought needs to go into their press releases. That should be applied to both official and semi-official information releases. Being candid and circumspect about information is definitely not an institutional habit. In politics better to be careful about both telling the truth and lying.

  • zotz says:

    If Rehman can talk to the media why can’t Baitullah? Getting a video of him should be easy and it would again make fools out of all those that said he was killed. And Baitullah is such an exhibitionist that refusing to show himself would be very much out of character. Also why hasn’t bin Laden made a video since 2004? There is no security risk. Either he is dead of seriously ill.

  • Render says:

    I’m pretty sure the “heaviest bomb” carried by the Predator/Reaper series UAV’s is the 500lb Paveway II or JDAM in pairs. The standard Hellfire warhead is around 20lbs.
    Nothing bigger unless this strike used manned aircraft operating out of Afghanistan – or multiple weapons.
    If it was a single Hellfire, why the heck were all seven bodyguards in his wifes bedroom at the same time?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Actually, Baitullah is anything but an exhibitionist. The last (and only as far as I can tell) press conference he gave was May 2008. He rarely speaks directly to he media.
    Baitullah breaking cover is exactly what we and the Pak government would desire in this situation. Smoke him out and fire away.
    Also, why stop giving the Pak govt the rope they are hanging themselves with? If I were the Taliban and Baitullah is alive, I’d string this out a few more days, put together a tape with all of the proclamations, then prove Baitullah is alive.
    As far as bin Laden goes, he has released numerous audio recordings, they have been confirmed. Why he won’t allow video to be taken, I can’t answer the question but can guess.

  • Anti-Tal Bil says:

    Just as the government of Pakistan can not be believed, the Taliban can not be believed as well.
    How many times have we heard a Taliban account of a battle the included downing numerous US Helicopters and causality accounts increased 10 times.
    The Taliban lie just as much as the government of Pakistan.
    The few truths they have told involved a few commanders that ended up being alive …
    I don’t believe either group of liars … Until proofed otherwise, I’m going with what US intelligence is leaning towards …

  • Cordell says:

    Just to correct my previous post, the heaviest bomb for the Reaper has a 200 foot “casualty” radius, not “kill” radius. The “casualty radius” is defined as the radius inside which 50% of those exposed will die. If Baitullah made it a habit of sleeping prone on the ground surrounded head-to-toe by large rocks, he might have significantly reduced the likelihood that a 500lb. bomb from a Reaper would have killed him. The military needs to improve its odds here by having bombs detonate 7 ft. off the ground.
    Here is a report on the Reaper’s ordnance from the web site:
    “However, the Predator has now been joined by the much larger MQ-9 Reaper, which can carry a heavier payload, around three thousand pounds, including a large number of Hellfires and GBU-12 Paveway II and GBD-38 JDAM bombs. These are different types of 500-pound bomb, one with laser guidance and the other satellite guided. Both are based on the 1950’s-vintage Mk 82 bomb ; less than half the weight of the bomb bomb is explosive, and the rest is the steel casing. The reason for having such a thick casing is shrapnel: when the bomb detonates, the casing blows up like a balloon before bursting and spraying high-velocity steel fragments in all directions. It is these fragments, rather than blast, that do most of the damage.
    Marc Herold, in looking at casualties in Afghanistan, quotes an ‘effective casualty radius’ for the Mk82 of 200 feet: this is radius inside which 50% of those exposed will die. Quite often the target is taking cover or lying down and the effect is reduced, but if you can catch people standing up or running then the full effective casualty radius will apply.”

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Anti-Tal Bil,
    This isn’t a defense of the Taliban. But the reality is that when it comes to the Pakistani Taliban, their accounts of clashes with the military, reports on their own casualties, etc. have been very reliable. We don’t have to like it, but we have to accept the reality of what is in front of us.
    US intel is by and large getting their information from Pakistani intel sources. Fruit from the poisoned tree if you will.
    No one dislikes the fact that the Pakistanis have been less than honest more than me. You cannot imagine how difficult it makes my work in trying to figure out what is happening. Sorting through the RUMINT and in many cases what I believe to be intentionally placed disinformation from the Pakistanis adds layers of difficulty to my job that makes me want to pull the very little remaining hair out that I possess. Instead of dealing with the facts on the ground, I am continually distracted by inquiries on poorly sourced news accounts that uncritically accept what people like Rehman Malik say, despite his horrendous track record.
    It repulses me to say that the Pakistani Taliban have been infinitely more reliable on information released than the Pakistani government. But here we are.

  • Render says:

    Cordell: Very good follow up and correction.
    My understanding is that the MQ-9 can carry two 500lb weapons and four Hellfires, or sixteen Hellfires.
    I would think that the military was looking for penetration (of the buildings roof) prior to explosion. But without knowing details like what weapon was used and what its pre-set detonation height was its impossible to say from this far away. I also think you’re most probably correct that it was a 500lber, of either type. but we’ll have to wait for the history books to be written before we’ll know those details.
    We should all live that long.
    All governments lie, to some extent or another, some worse then others. In Pakistan’s case, (like many others in that part of the world), they lie almost all of the time and they will lie right to your face, even when they know that you know that they’re lying. Even when they do not need to lie.
    I’ve seen Bill’s head. We’re talking major operation and extremely close inspection to get at those last few hairs. And I’ve been the source of at least some of those distractions…

  • KW64 says:

    Given the limitations of electronic communications on the Taliban, I wonder if they rely on announcements to the western media to spread the word on things to their own organization. That could explain why they would be truthful about their fallen or not fallen leaders’ status. On the other hand, mere casualty reports are not essential to have accurately reported to their disconnected brothers which means that they could lie about that sort of thing all they want.

  • Cordell says:

    The CIA may be behind this latest case of disinformation from the Pakistanis. If they can get the Taliban’s top leaders all to call in to prove that they are alive, they can pinpoint their last known location to within about a one mile radius using only the Reuters reporter’s phone number and cell tower data. A UAV could then pick up their trail from there. At least one Taliban leader so far has taken the bait. Let’s hope that they all are as stupid to make the call to the reporter personally. If they were smart, they would have an underling from another, distant location play a recording of their voice refuting the specifics of Pakistani claims, citing date and time.

  • Bangash says:

    Well Mr Roggio you believe the Taliban while I will believe the Pakistani government. Propaganda is part of battle and the US/UK have been wrong many times on the claims they have made about war on terror.

  • Jackson says:

    Would it satisfy you if Pakistan allowed US forces to occupy the Tribal Areas?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Please explain why you should believe the Pakistani government in this case. This has nothing to do with whether the US/UK have been wrong in the past. Drag in other countries’ purported issues is irrelevant to the case at hand. I’ve explained why I think the Taliban are credible in this situation.
    The two Taliban commanders Rehman Malik said were killed spoke to the media and denied reports of a clash. Doesn’t that evoke the least bit of curiosity and skepticism?
    What does a purported US occupation of the tribal areas have to do with the issue at hand? Regardless I’ve gone on the record numerous times saying that the US doesn’t have the resources, the US would have difficulty logistically sustaining such an effort, occupation would not be tolerated and would sparkly a civil war, and that this is a problem that should be fixed internally by Pakistan. Don’t confuse my criticism of Pakistan with a desire for the US to solve Pakistan’s problems.

  • Dingc says:

    According to the BBC, “The Pakistani Taliban’s leader Baitullah Mehsud is gravely ill, his top aide has told the BBC” and “In Washington, US National Security Adviser Jim Jones put he level of US certainty that Baitullah Mehsud had been killed “in the 90% category”.”

  • Rhyno327 says:

    Its mt understanding there were 4 “Hellfire” missles fired. The Predator can carry that load, a for the “Reaper” as stated above it can carry a lot more ordnance. Yes, 2 500lb PGMs, and Hellfires. Wat one? Don’t know, don’t care, I just want him GONE. The PAK gov? Broke, busted, can’t be trusted. You are spot on Bill.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/10/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    When it comes to reporting anything regarding HVTs in the Tribal agencies it is prudent, as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, to “trust but verify”. I understand your dilemma Bill.

  • Chris says:

    The Reaper brought the scythe. This guy is wasted and now both parties are biding time to find a replacement. Like bro said above, we can only hope more Pakistani Taliban raise eachother up on the comms regarding confirmation and denial and let our SIGINT boys do some dirty on them..

  • Bangash says:

    @Bill Roggio
    The US/UK claims in the past are very relevant as you continue to accept them, regardless of right or wrong they have been in the past, while you doubt anything the Pakistani govt says.
    That shows a bias that results in poor judgement and analysis. Baitullah is dead, if he was alive he would have released audio or video by now. As regarding the shura shootout, well propaganda is part of war.


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