ISLAMABAD -- CIA drones on Friday killed the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, when they fired on a compound in the northwestern tribal agency of North Waziristan, according to Pakistani security officials and two commanders of the extremist group. At least two other people were killed.
The loss of Mehsud dealt a serious blow to the Terik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis in a campaign of attacks and suicide bombings aimed at replacing the secular government with Islamist rule. The group also provided support to a Pakistani American convicted of a failed May 2010 car bombing in New York’s Times Square.
Senior Pakistani officials condemned the operation because it occurred a day before the government was to formally invite the insurgents to hold peace talks. Several experts, however, said that the strikes wouldn’t have taken place without the approval, if not the participation, of the country’s powerful military.
“This wouldn’t have happened . . . without acquiescence or direct support” from the military and the army-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, said Thomas Lynch, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington.
Despite the setback caused by Mehsud’s death, the Taliban quickly named a replacement, and the government issued a nationwide security alert in anticipation of the kind of retaliatory attacks that followed previous drone killings of top militants.
In Washington, a CIA spokesman declined – as is the agency’s standard practice – to comment on the strike.
The Obama administration has admitted that the United States uses drones to conduct targeted killing operations against al Qaida militants and other terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal area and in Yemen. But the administration has refused to make public the explicit legal justification for the strikes, and civil and human rights groups charge that the operations outside active battlefields violate international law.
Mehsud died about 4:30 p.m. local time when two CIA drones loosed Hellfire missiles into a car from which he was alighting after it entered a large residential compound in Dande Derpa Khel, a village about three miles north of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, close to the border with Afghanistan, security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly.
The compound, which was built earlier this year, was sometimes used by Mehsud as an office and residence, they said.
The Taliban’s official spokesman, who uses the pseudonym Shahidullah Shahid, denied Mehsud was dead. But two Taliban commanders reached by telephone in Miranshah said he’d died before he could be brought to a militant-run hospital in the town. His funeral was scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, they said.
Local residents told Pakistan cable television news channels that Mehsud either had returned from a conference of Taliban faction leaders at a nearby mosque, or arrived to chair such a meeting at the compound, when the drone strikes took place.
North Waziristan is a base and sanctuary of many Islamic extremist groups, including al Qaida and Pakistani and Afghan guerrilla factions. The families of leaders of the Haqqani Network, an Afghan-led faction responsible for many high-profile suicide attacks in Afghanistan against government and U.S. targets, live in Dande Derpa Khel, which frequently has been targeted by CIA drones in recent years.
Local journalists said that Friday’s strike also killed Mehsud’s driver, identified as Abdullah Behar Mehsud, and a bodyguard named Tariq Mehsud. The area was sealed off by militants shortly after the attack, preventing further identification.
Mehsud is the third Pakistani Taliban chief to have been killed by the CIA as part of what a McClatchy report – based on classified U.S. intelligence documents – in April said were years of secret coordination of drone operations between the U.S. spy agency and the ISI that have killed hundreds of suspected militants.
The first ever drone strike on Pakistani territory took place in 2004 and killed the founding father of Pakistan’s Islamic insurgency, Nek Mohammed. His successor, Baitullah Mehsud, died in a 2009 attack, leading to Hakimullah Mehsud’s ascension to the TTP leadership.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan condemned Friday’s drone attack as a "conspiracy to sabotage" an effort to open peace talks with the TTP. Three government emissaries were to have delivered the formal invitation to hold negotiations to the militants on Saturday.
The delegation’s trip was canceled, Khan said, and the government issued a nationwide alert as security forces braced for retaliatory attacks by the TTP and allied militant groups.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won election in June partly on a campaign pledge to end the drone strikes, which he denounced as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. He sounded that theme during a visit to Washington last week.
Speculation has grown, however, that he secretly backs the strikes as long as they are against high-level targets. Friday’s strike was the second launched since Sharif met with President Barack Obama and came two days after the Pakistani Defense Ministry – which Sharif also heads – reversed its long-held claim about the death toll from drone strikes, saying that just 67 civilians had died since 2008. As recently as March, the government was claiming that drones had killed as many as 600 civilians.
Lynch of the Institute for National Strategic Studies said that given the close relationship between the ISI and the Haqqani Network – links that Islamabad denies – the Pakistani military at the very least would have had to have approved a CIA strike in Danda Darpakhel.
“Pakistan has been specifically unwilling to tolerate U.S. drone strikes over the past four years” around the village, he said.
“The TTP will now look to leverage its relationship” with other Pakistani militant groups “to retaliate for this in other parts of Pakistan,” he warned.
Some Pakistan security analysts questioned the ability of the militants to strike back, however. The TTP and its allies, they said, likely will suffer a leadership crisis following Hakimullah Mehsud’s death. Moreover, they said, drone strikes earlier this year killed two other senior militant commanders.
Additionally, a 2009 army offensive that pushed the group out of South Waziristan resulted in the fracturing of the TTP into as many as 100 factions, with 34 considered to be serious actors by Pakistan’s military.
Pakistan has deployed 150,000 troops, about a quarter of its military, in the tribal area and now controls all but North Waziristan.
Residents in Miranshah said by telephone that after Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, militants loyal to the area’s dominant militant commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, distributed pamphlets advising residents to gather their valuables and evacuate within a week because of a "forthcoming deterioration in the security situation.”
Bahadur is affiliated with the Haqqani Network, raising the threat of the end to a seven-year truce between the network and Pakistani forces, and a very violent backlash in North Waziristan and neighboring South Waziristan.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jonathanlanday