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