DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Pakistan's Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who unleashed a fearsome campaign of suicide attacks and assassinations that made him the country's most-wanted man, was killed in a U.S. missile strike, an aide said Friday.
The U.S. put a $5 million bounty on his head in March. Increasingly, American missiles fired by unmanned drones have focused on Mehsud-related targets.
While his demise would be a major boost to Pakistani and U.S. efforts to eradicate the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it won't necessarily deal a definitive blow because he has deputies who could take his place.
Already, Taliban commanders were meeting Friday in a shura, or council, in the lawless tribal area of South Waziristan to choose his successor, according to intelligence and militant officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. It was unclear when they would reach a decision.
Considered by Pakistan to be its top internal threat, Mehsud had Al Qaeda connections and was suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials said the CIA was behind the strike Wednesday that killed Mehsud. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Pakistan publicly opposes the missile strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it harder for the army to operate. Still, many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.
In June, Pakistan said it was launching an operation against Mehsud in South Waziristan. But although airstrikes began, the offensive never went full-scale. In the meantime, the U.S. missile strikes continued, increasingly targeting Mehsud and raising speculation that the Pakistanis were hoping — or even coordinating with — the Americans to kill Mehsud first.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said intelligence showed Mehsud had been killed in his father-in-law's house in Pakistan's lawless tribal area, and authorities would travel to the site to verify his death.
"I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan," Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah told The Associated Press by telephone. He would not elaborate.
For years, the U.S. considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and Al Qaeda, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
That view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud's power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilize the U.S. ally and threaten the entire region.
Last year, Mehsud held a rare news conference in the town of Kot Kai in South Waziristan to discuss his fight against the U.S.
"It is the top desire of my life to obtain martyrdom, I have strong feelings for the martyrdom in my heart," he said. "To be a martyr, to be wounded or arrested we consider it as a sacrifice."
He said the Taliban supported suicide bombings as a response to American bombs.
"America is bombing us and we are facing cruelty, so we will support these suicide attacks." he said. "They (suicide bombers) are our atom bombs. Although the infidels have the atom bombs, our atom bombs are the finest in the world.
"They use the atom (bomb) and it destroyed everything while our one bomb just targets one target to be destroyed."
Analysts say the reason for Mehsud's rise in the militant ranks is his alliances with Al Qaeda and other violent groups. U.S. intelligence has said Al Qaeda has set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud's South Waziristan stronghold and neighboring North Waziristan.
Three Pakistani intelligence officials said the likeliest successor was Mehsud's deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud, a commander known for recruiting and training suicide bombers. Two other prominent possibilities, the officials said, were Azmat Ullah and Waliur Rehman, also close associates of Mehsud.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition his name not be used, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law's house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief's funeral.
The Pakistani intelligence officials said Mehsud was buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan, near the site of the missile strike.
Last year, a doctor for Mehsud said the militant leader had died of kidney failure, but the report turned out to be false.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration could not confirm the death of Mehsud. "There seems to be a growing consensus among credible observers that he is indeed dead," he said, adding that if he is dead, "without a doubt, the people of Pakistan will be safer as a result."
Another senior Pakistani intelligence official said phone and other communications intercepts — he would not be more specific — had led authorities to suspect Mehsud was dead, but stressed there was no definitive evidence yet.
An American counterterrorism official said the U.S. government was also looking into the reports. The official indicated the United States did not yet have physical evidence — remains — that would prove who died but said there were other ways of determining who was killed. He declined to describe them.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
Whether a new leader could wreak as much havoc as Mehsud depends largely on how much pressure the Pakistani military continues to put on the network, especially in South Waziristan in Pakistan's tribal belt. The mountainous region has a leaky border with Afghanistan and fiercely independent, heavily armed tribes hostile to interference by outsiders. The Pashtun tribes from which the Taliban draws most of its fighters straddle both sides of the border.
Although Mehsud's stronghold in South Waziristan does not directly border Afghanistan, he was known to have ties to other commanders acting on the frontier and was believed to give refuge to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan who move freely back and forth across the border.
In Afghanistan, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Mehsud's fighters would cross the border into eastern Afghanistan occasionally to help out one of most ruthless Afghan insurgent leaders, Siraj Haqqani.
"He was an international terrorist that affected India, Pakistan and Afghanistan," Azimi said, without confirming Mehsud was dead.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Pakistan's military was determined to finish off Pakistan's Taliban.
"It is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mehsud's group and it will continue till Baitullah Mehsud's group is eliminated forever," he said.
Pakistan's record on putting pressure on the Taliban network is spotty. It has used both military action and truces to try to contain Mehsud over the years, but neither tactic seemed to work, despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid aimed at helping the Pakistanis tame the tribal areas.
Mehsud was not that prominent a militant when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions. In fact, he has struggled against such rivals as Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who spent time in Guantanamo Bay.
But a February 2005 peace deal with Mehsud appeared to give him room to consolidate and boost his troop strength. Within months of that accord, dozens of pro-government tribal elders in the region were gunned down on his command.
In December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan's Taliban movement. Under his guidance, the group killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks.
Mehsud has no record of attacking targets in the West, although he has threatened to attack Washington.
He was suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. Pakistan's former government and the CIA named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister. He denied any role.