The US continues the hunt for Pakistani Taliban chieftain Hakeemullah Mehsud in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan. Unmanned US strike aircraft killed more than 20 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the latest strike in the region.
At least three unmanned aircraft, the Predators or Reapers flying from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, targeted Hakeemullah Mehsud in a compound in the Shaktoi region in North Waziristan, an area that borders South Waziristan.
“The target was a militant compound,” a Pakistani intelligence official told AFP. “The toll has gone up and 20 militant deaths have been confirmed.”
The compound was reportedly run by Usman Jan, the new leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Five Uzbeks are thought to be among those killed. Usman Jan replaced Tahir Yuldashev, who is thought to have been killed in a US airstrike in South Waziristan on Aug. 27, 2009.
Taliban fighters and commanders are known to have sought shelter in the Shaktoi region to avoid the ongoing Pakistani Army offensive in the Mehsud areas in South Waziristan. Hakeemullah is known to visit the region.
Hakeemullah, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, was the target of an airstrike in Shaktoi on Jan. 14. Pakistani officials claimed he was killed, but Hakeemullah released a recording to prove he survived.
“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 said in a recorded statement that was played for reporters.
Hakeemullah also said he holds the Pakistani government responsible for the US attacks. Pakistan officially denies supporting the strikes but privately provides intelligence and logistical support for the attacks.
“If the drone attacks continue, the TTP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] will not be responsible for any dangerous steps in future — the government of Pakistan will be responsible,” Hakeemullah threatened.
Hakeemullah has been responsible for the wave of suicide attacks and conventional assaults against civilian and military targets throughout Pakistan and in Pakistan-held Kashmir that began on Oct. 5, 2009. He took control of the Pakistani Taliban after Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US strike in South Waziristan in August 2009.
The US has ramped up the attacks in Pakistan since the beginning of December after a lull in strikes in October and November of 2009, when only four airstrikes were launched. Today’s strike is the ninth this year and the 10th in 18 days.
The pace of the strikes is unprecedented. The US carried out the most strikes in Pakistan in Oct. 2008; 10 attacks were carried out that month. The US is set to match that record with the next strike, and this month is only half over.
Background on the recent strikes in Pakistan
The US air campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been stepped up since Hakeemullah aided the Dec. 30, 2009, suicide attack by a Jordanian al Qaeda operative at Combat Outpost Chapman in Afghanistan’s Khost province. The bomber killed seven CIA officials, including the station chief, and a Jordanian intelligence officer. Hakeemullah appeared on a martyrdom tape with the suicide bomber that was released shortly after the attack.
The US is actively hunting Hakeemullah, intelligence officials told The Long War Journal.
The air campaign 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, and a wanted Palestinian terrorist who was allied with al Qaeda.
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. Also, 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.
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].
• For up-to-date charts on the US campaign in Pakistan, see: Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010
US strikes in Pakistan in 2010:
Jan. 17, 2010
Jan. 15, 2010
Jan. 14, 2010
Jan. 9, 2010
Jan. 8, 2010
Jan. 6, 2010
Jan. 3, 2010
Jan. 1, 2010