LONDON — A US drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, on Friday, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and militant commanders in the tribal belt.
If confirmed, his death would be a major achievement for the covert CIA program at a time when drones have come under renewed scrutiny over civilian casualties.
It would also offer relief to many Pakistanis. Under Mehsud’s leadership the Pakistani Taliban — a group that is related to the Afghan Taliban, but which operates independently — has killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan, mostly through suicide bombings. Mehsud, a showy and ruthless leader, was on the United States’ most-wanted terrorist list with a $5 million bounty and is believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan, a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square, and other brazen assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
While prior reports of his death have proved false, there was a proliferation of accounts of his death Friday from multiple sources, including the militants and a US military official, within hours of the missile attack.
“Hakimullah has been martyred,” said a local Taliban commander, speaking by phone from the tribal belt on the condition of anonymity.
In Pakistan, some celebrated the news, but conservative politicians condemned the strike.
The White House and the CIA declined to comment. But a US defense official with knowledge of the strike said the United States was confident of Mehsud’s demise.
The Americans tracking Mehsud were “nearly certain” of his location ahead of the strike, the US official said, and collected intelligence afterward that led them to conclude he was dead.
The television network Al-Jazeera quoted the Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid as confirming Mehsud’s death.
The CIA killed Mehsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan tribal agency in August 2009. Friday’s strike occurred in Danday Darpakhel, a well-known militant stronghold in North Waziristan tribal agency, near the Afghan border.
Pakistani officials said CIA-operated drones fired at least four missiles at a compound that had been built for Mehsud about a year ago, and which he had used intermittently since then.
One Pakistani official, citing intelligence reports, said five militants had been killed including Mehsud, his uncle, and a bodyguard. Another two people were wounded.
The Pakistani official said the drone strike also killed Mehsud’s deputy, Abdullah Behar, who had just taken over from Latif Mahsud, a militant commander who was detained by US forces in Afghanistan last month.
Tribesmen said they planned to bury Mehsud on Saturday, when the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is due to return to Pakistan from London, where he has been holding talks with British officials and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. His death could throw into disarray controversial plans by Sharif’s government to engage in peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
A delegation of three clerics from Punjab province that had been handpicked by Sharif had been due to travel to the tribal belt Saturday to initiate talks with the Pakistani Taliban and two other militant groups. The group had now been stopped from proceeding, a senior security official said.
Mehsud’s death would also represent payback, of sorts, for the CIA: Mehsud orchestrated a major suicide bombing against a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven Americans and two other people.
Shortly after that attack, Mehsud appeared in a triumphant video with the suicide bomber, a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. In the weeks that followed, the CIA launched a flurry of drone attacks, one of which was initially reported to have killed Mehsud.
The reports of Mehsud’s death Friday met an uneasy welcome across Pakistan.
Some celebrated the demise of a ruthless militant responsible for much suffering, and who had evaded long-standing Pakistani efforts to capture or kill him. But Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan described the US action as a calculated blow against the fledgling peace process. And on the heated television chat-shows, where public opinion is shaped, conservative politicians stridently condemned the strike.
Imran Khan, the former cricketer whose party rules Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, said he would seek to block NATO supply lines in retaliation; one of his deputies called for the Pakistani military to attack US drones.
Other Pakistanis feared a violent backlash led by militants carrying out suicide attacks across the country. Those fears were borne out in comments by one commander in the tribal belt.
“Our revenge will be unprecedented,” said Abu Omar, a Taliban commander in Miram Shah, speaking by phone.
Omar said he considered the Pakistani government “fully complicit” in the drone strike. “We know our enemy very well,” he said.