Drone Strikes Resume, Rumored To Kill Top Pakistani Militant

January 19, 2012

It’s an arresting sight: A Pakistani Taliban commander confidently rolls into a village in an American Humvee his forces have just captured. He turns to the journalists he has come to address and delivers a stark warning in Urdu: “If America continues bombing the tribal areas and martyrs innocent people, we are compelled to attack them.”

This November 2008 footage from our FRONTLINE/World report Children of the Taliban, embedded above, was the first time anyone had filmed Hakimullah Mehsud, then the new deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban. In the film, reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy traveled across her fractured homeland to investigate the Pakistani Taliban’s rising popularity. At the time, the bold and charismatic Mehsud was rising fast within the militant group.

In late August 2009, Mehsud became chief of the Pakistani Taliban, after its previous leader was killed in a drone strike. A few months later, he became a top U.S. target after claiming responsibility for the elaborately planned December 2009 attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan that killed seven Americans, including four senior CIA officials.

Earlier this week Pakistani officials reported intercepting radio communications among militants indicating that Mehsud may have been killed in a Jan. 12 drone strike. According to the Associated Press:

In about a half a dozen intercepts, the militants discussed whether their chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed Jan. 12 in the North Waziristan tribal area. Some militants confirmed Mr. Mehsud was dead, and one criticized others for talking about the issue over the radio.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban denied the reports, saying Mehsud was not in the location of the North Waziristan strike. Such denials are common after strikes that kill Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but so are erroneous claims about their deaths.

Following a surge in drone strikes in early 2010 aimed at the perpetrators of the Khost attack, both American and Pakistani officials said they were increasingly convinced Mehsud had died from injuries sustained in a strike in South Waziristan. But shortly after the failed May 2010 Times Square bombing, a video of him warning of suicide attacks on American cities surfaced on the internet, proving he was still alive and well.

American officials have not confirmed nor denied the most recent reports of Mehsud’s death.

But if he was targeted in the strike, the timing suggests information about his whereabouts could have been a factor in the CIA’s decision to resume the strikes after a nearly two-month-long pause stemming from the fallout of two NATO airstrikes in November that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers. In December, a U.S. official told The Long War Journal there was “hesitation to pull the trigger” unless an “extremely high value target pops up.”

“In a rare display of deference,” the CIA sought Pakistani permission earlier this month to carry out a drone strike against a terrorist target in North Waziristan, The Washington Post reported on Monday. U.S. officials told the paper the strike was cancelled after Islamabad refused.

But the strikes resumed “barely a week later,” on Jan. 10,  just two days before Mehsud’s rumored death. According to the Post, “although officials said Pakistan was notified in advance, permission was not sought.”

Dig Deeper:

“How the Drone War Plays Out in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas” — Almost every single known U.S. drone strike in Pakistan has taken place in the country’s isolated, underdeveloped tribal areas. Off limits to most, evidence of America’s operations here is scant, but in December, WIRED published 13 rare photos of what appears to be the aftermath of several strikes.

“What Kind of an Ally Is Pakistan?” — As the U.S.-Pakistan relationship continued to descend to new, new lows over the past year, the U.S. has become increasingly vocal in expressing frustrations with its supposed ally in the fight against terror — and vice versa. Here are a few recent reports that explore the latest tensions in this troubled relationship.

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