Western news agencies have had a tough time confirming whether Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud survived a missile attack aimed at decapitating Tashkar-i-Taliban, one of the worst of the radical Islamist groups in the Af-Pak theater. At first, the intel coming from the area indicated that Mehsud had reached room temperature. American intelligence then threw some cold water on the reports, indicating that the drone-launched missile may have hit Mehsud’s second wife and her father, just missing Mehsud. Now, the BBC says its sources indicate that the TiT may have begun casting lots to choose Mehsud’s successor:
There are growing indications that Pakistan’s most wanted man, Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, has been killed by a US missile.
A Mehsud aide reportedly confirmed that he had died when a drone attacked the house where he was staying. …
Taliban leaders have gathered in South Waziristan to choose a successor, local sources have told the BBC.
People living close to the scene of the missile attack in South Waziristan told the BBC Baitullah Mehsud had been killed along with his wife early on Wednesday.
The remoteness of the location is contributing to the delay in establishing the facts, the BBC’s Orla Guerin reports from Islamabad.
Even the US has reconsidered its skepticism, according to the BBC. One source they descibe as a “senior US official” now says the indications show that we got Mehsud in the attack. That source was undeniably delighted by the news, noting the NATO blood on Meshud’s hands as well as his connections to al-Qaeda.
Who gets to take Mehsud’s place as the bulls-eye for NATO forces now? The BBC lists three potential candidates, including one of Mehsud’s family and Maulana Azmatullah. None of them are well-known by Westerners, but all are high-ranking leaders in the Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud’s death would strike a blow at TiT, but not one that would be fatal to the network. It would, however, disrupt their communications with al-Qaeda and introduce the risk of infighting as various factions jockey for power.
If the BBC is correct at Mehsud has reached room temperature, then it’s a victory for NATO. It’s not the end of the war, but it’s a step closer to victory.
Update (AP): Two Taliban aides tell the NYT that Mehsud has indeed gone to meet Allah, blown to pieces by a drone missile while receiving treatment for diabetes at his father-in-law’s house. I e-mailed Roggio to see if he was sticking by his sources yesterday who claimed Mehsud survived the attack and he said nope — not after top lieutenant Faqir Muhammad went on record to say he’s dead.
Pakistan’s Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud – who had a £3m bounty on his head – is dead, his second-in-command has told Sky News.
Molvi Faqir Muhammad confirmed the death after widespread speculation over the militant group chief’s demise in a US missile strike on Wednesday…
An intelligence officer in South Waziristan said earlier that a funeral for Mehsud had already taken place.
“Baitullah is no more with us,” another Taliban jihadi tells WaPo; see Roggio’s new post for background on the likely successors, all of whom are just as nasty — but perhaps not as smart — as Mehsud. This is easily the biggest score since Bush knocked out AQ number three Abu Laith al-Libi last year, and maybe even bigger than that. Your must-read of the day is this excellent Newsweek piece explaining what a terrible blow losing Mehsud is to Al Qaeda.
But the biggest loser of all may be Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. For nearly eight years, it had depended on Mehsud, his close allies, and other sympathetic tribals to sustain and protect it in South Waziristan after its previous host and defender, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was chased from Afghanistan by American bombs in late 2001. With Mehsud gone, Al Qaeda could be in trouble. As one Afghan Taliban intelligence officer who had met Mehsud many times told Newsweek, “Mehsud’s death means the tent sheltering Al Qaeda has collapsed.” “Without a doubt he was Al Qaeda’s number one guy in Pakistan,” adds Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier who is a former chief of the Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA, Mehsud’s base…
While both Mehsud and bin Laden have fed off of each other, Al Qaeda has been much more dependent on Mehsud for its own strength and survival. As a result, Al Qaeda must be feeling its greatest angst ever since they fled Afghanistan. Al Qaeda had come to trust Mehsud completely. Having cut his teeth fighting for Mullah Omar’s forces in the late 1990s, when the Taliban battled the Northern Alliance, he befriended Al Qaeda operatives. After the U.S. bombing campaign began, Mehsud, who was not then an important tribal leader, took Al Qaeda under his wing, offering them protection. Al Qaeda reciprocated by helping to build Mehsud up as a military force…
In an attempt to put Mehsud behind them and continue the jihad, his top commanders will meet in South Waziristan’s Spin Raghzi area this week to choose a new tribal leader, according to one of the participants. Whoever they pick, Al Qaeda is in trouble: none of the other tribal leaders commands the clout, coupled with a commitment to the group, to offer it the blanket protection and support that Mehsud did…
What’s more, any disunity affords Islamabad the chance to launch a much-advertized military offensive into South Waziristan. Until now, the army had held off, being preoccupied by Mehsud-allied forces in the Swat valley. But if cracks appear, the army could capitalize on the region’s new vulnerability. Nasir and Bahadur, for example, could decide that with Baitullah dead, they’d rather revive moribund peace treaties with the government. If so, Al Qaeda fighters would have no defense against Pakistani forces.
It’s hard to drum up warm and fuzzy feelings for The One this week of all weeks, but he deserves major credit for pressing on with the drone strikes while people as esteemed as Petraeus deputy David Kilcullen have been arguing against them. He made the right call, and given leftist orthodoxy that killing terrorists “only breeds more terrorists,” it can’t have been easy. Well done.