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.
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.
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