KABUL, Afghanistan — The Pakistani Taliban leader tied to the Dec. 30 bombing of a CIA encampment in Afghanistan has died from injuries sustained in a U.S. missile strike in mid-January, Western military officials said Sunday.
Hakimullah Mehsud, whose Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan movement was responsible for hundreds of deaths, was Pakistan's most wanted man and a top target for the U.S — especially after he appeared in a video with the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees at an Afghan outpost known as FOB Chapman.
The Pakistani Taliban on Sunday denied that Mehsud was dead, calling it "a total lie."
Pakistani military officials said they were investigating reports of Mehsud's death after the country’s state television reported that he had died and been buried.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
In Washington, officials said they could not confirm the reports. "Here's to hoping they're true," said one senior official who asked not to be identified.
Mehsud has been reported killed several times before. Western military officials, however, said they were confident of his death this time, believing he succumbed to injuries suffered by a U.S. drone missile attack in mid January.
A drone strike on Aug. 5 killed the founder of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud's brother. The Taliban didn't acknowledge Baitullah's death for nearly three weeks.
The U.S. has long used missile-armed, pilotless drones to conduct a covert assassination program in Pakistan's tribal area, which runs along the border with Afghanistan and serves as a sanctuary for al Qaida and Taliban militants.
"If Hakimullah has been killed, the movement in general will be able to continue as a threat, but losing the founder and top operational commander in quick succession is likely to have a significant effect on the group's war-making capabilities," said Kamran Bokhari, director for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor, a private U.S. intelligence firm.
The leadership vacuum could create divisions in the Taliban ranks. The TTP was already under intense pressure from an offensive the Pakistan military launched against the group's base in South Waziristan in October. Hakimullah and his commanders escaped that operation, moving to North Waziristan and other parts of the tribal area. They showed they retained their terrorist capabilities by unleashing bombings across Pakistan.
Hakimullah Mehsud, who was believed to be around 30, made his reputation by ransacking NATO supply convoys traveling through the tribal area en route to Afghanistan. He showed off the looted American Humvees to journalists, savoring the media attention.
His profile for the United States grew, however, after he was linked to the Dec. 30 CIA bombing, the deadliest single attack on the U.S. intelligence agency since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983. Eight CIA employees were among the 63 people killed in that attack.
On Jan. 9, the Taliban released a farewell video from the suicide bomber, a Jordanian physician named Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, in which Balawi explained how he had spent months tricking the CIA into believing he was working for it before launching his attack. Sitting alongside the bomber was Hakimullah Mehsud.
On Jan. 14, the U.S. struck back, targeting Mehsud in a drone strike in North Waziristan. Initial reports said Mehsud had been killed, but on Jan. 16, the Taliban released an audio recording in which Mehsud said he was still alive.
The U.S. launched another drone attack the next day.
It was unclear which of the two strikes injured him.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to extend its military operations into North Waziristan, which is a key refuge for Afghan Taliban. So far, however, Pakistan has resisted, and it was not clear Sunday that Mehsud's death would change that resistance.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow developments in Afghanistan at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul.