Pakistani Taliban Leader Hakeemullah Mehsud Killed In U.S. Drone Strike
The Taliban’s top leader, Hakeemullah Mehsud—the man behind the failed 2011 bomb attack in Times Square—has been killed in a U.S. drone strike. Why the victory may be tactical at best.
After years of effort, the U.S. has finally killed Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of al-Qaeda linked Movement of the Taliban Pakistan, in the latest drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan. Hakeemullah, who was responsible for the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2011 and for numerous attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was killed just as the Pakistani government was formally opening negotiations with the terrorist group.
While the Taliban have not released an official martyrdom statement for Hakeemullah, an official spokesman known as Shahidullah Shahid told Pakistani reporters that the emir is indeed dead, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. The Muhajideen Shura in North Waziristan also threatened to attack the Pakistani state and military to avenge his death.
Hakeemullah was killed today by the remotely piloted drones as he left a mosque in the town of Darpa Danday Khel, a hotbed of al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Haqqani Network activity in the jihadist-controlled tribal agency. Hakeemullah was not the first jihadist killed in the village; on July 2, U.S. drones killed an al-Qaeda military trainer and a Haqqani Network leader there.
U.S. drones are responsible for both the rise and the demise of the slain Pakistani emir. Hakeemullah was promoted to leader the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan after his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in August 2009.
Before his promotion, Hakeemullah led the Taliban in the nearby tribal agency of Aurakzai. He was made famous after he appeared in a video driving a U.S. Humvee that was hijacked from a shipment of military supplies destined for Afghanistan.
Two months after Hakeemullah rose to lead his Taliban faction, the Pakistani military launched a well-telegraphed offensive to eject Hakeemullah’s forces from the tribal agency of South Waziristan. Pakistan touted the success of the operation, but four years later the tribal agency is contested. Hakeemullah and other top leaders of the group fled South Waziristan and sheltered with non-aligned Taliban factions in North Waziristan; none of the group’s top leaders were killed or captured during the operation.
But the U.S. has succeeded where the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment have failed. Top leaders of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, as well as leaders and operatives from al-Qaeda and other terror groups based in the area, have been killed in the U.S.’s drone program. Just this year, the U.S. killed Waliur Rehman, Hakeemullah’s deputy.
The death of Hakeemullah is certainly a victory for the U.S., but a tactical victory at best. With the death of Hakeemullah and Waliur Rahman, the Taliban is forced to scramble to replace its top two leaders. But the timing of the strike may cause a backlash from Pakistani officials, who have demanded that the U.S. end the program. Just yesterday, the Pakistani government announced it formally opened negotiations with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. The death of Hakeemullah is sure to sabotage the talks.
Additionally, the U.S. drone program, despite killing more than 95 top al-Qaeda, Taliban, and allied jihadist leaders in Pakistan alone since the first strike was launched in 2004, has failed to halt the spread of al-Qaeda. The group has established new affiliates in Syria, Somalia, West Africa, and the Egyptian Sinai over the past several years, while its affiliate in Iraq has regenerated after taking a beating during the U.S. surge in 2007-2008.
Hakeemullah has been involved in a string of attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as a failed attack in the heart of New York City. On May 1, 2010, Hakeemullah claimed credit for an attempted car bombing in Times Square; the bomb failed to detonate due to a problem with the triggering devise. Had the bomb exploded, scores of New Yorkers likely would have been killed and even more wounded or maimed.
The former Taliban emir’s other most spectacular attack outside of Pakistan took place on Dec. 30, 2009 at Combat Outpost Chapman. Hakeemullah sent a Jordanian jihadist whom CIA officials believed would provide information on the location of then-deputy al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. But the Taliban’s triple agent detonated a suicide vest after getting on base, killing seven CIA officials and security personnel, and a Jordanian intelligence officer. Hakeemullah was later seen on tape gloating with the bomber over the plot.
Hakeemullah had been reported killed in drone strikes since 2009, and the Pakistani government even claimed he died in a fictitious battle with Waliur Rahman as they supposedly struggled for control of the Taliban after Baituallah’s death (the clash never happened). Most famously, he was reported dead in the beginning of 2010. Hakeemullah squashed that rumor when his tape that announced the Times Square attack was released.
The U.S. added Hakeemullah, his deputy, and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan to its lists of terrorists and terrorist entities. In the designation statement, the U.S. State Department described the Pakistani Taliban as an al-Qaeda affiliate.
“TTP [ Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] and al-Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship; TTP draws ideological guidance from al-Qaeda, while al-Qaeda relies on TTP for safe haven in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border,” State said.
Despite the death of Hakeemullah, the group is unlikely to sever its ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups anytime soon. Other senior leaders of the group, such as Omar Khalid al Khorasani, the emir of the Mohmand branch, have openly praised al-Qaeda. In March 2012, Omar Khalid said the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan seeks to overthrow the Pakistani government, impose sharia, or Islamic law, seize the country’s nuclear weapons, and wage jihad until “the Caliphate is established across the world.”