Hakimullah Mehsud rarely spent more than six hours in one spot – but that was enough time for a US drone to strike
For years, Hakimullah Mehsud, the long-haired leader of the Pakistan Taliban, took all possible precautions. He seldom spent more than more than six hours in any one spot, shuttling between a string of safe houses through Pakistan’s lawless tribal region.
But as negotiations with the Pakistan government loomed, it seems one of the world’s most wanted men made a fatal mistake – he relaxed, assuming that upcoming peace talks meant he was safe, and lingered at his new house.
It was just long enough for one of the US drones that constantly linger above the tribal region’s mountainous skyline to find its mark -firing two missiles into Mehsud’s 4×4 as it pulled inside the gate of his home on Friday.
“He was at a meeting at a nearby mosque to discuss the negotiations,” a Pakistani security source briefed on the killing told The Sunday Telegraph. “He was killed as he got back to his house, probably just as he was getting out of his car, inside the walls of the compound.”
So came the death of one of the most capable of the Taliban’s commanders, a man who, in Washington’s eyes at least, had earned every cent of the $5 million price tag put on his head. For not only had Mehsud waged terror against his fellow Pakistanis, he had also helped to mastermind the single deadliest strike against the CIA in the last quarter century, when a suicide bomber posing as an al-Qaeda informant blew himself up at a base in Afghanistan in 2009, killing seven CIA agents.
But while it may have proved a moment of quiet triumph for the CIA’s controversial drone programme, reaction this weekend was rather different in Pakistan.
Yesterday evening, the government summoned the US ambassador, Richard Olson, to lodge a formal protest over the attack, which it said it would wreck peace talks initiated by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was elected back in May.
A statement from the Foreign Office said Friday’s strike was “counter-productive to Pakistan’s efforts to bring peace and stability to Pakistan and the region.”
Mr Olson is not the first US envoy to incur the displeasure of his hosts in Islamabad. His predecessor, Cameron Munter, resigned early after having to deal with the diplomatic fallout from other drone strikes, and also the covert raid to kill Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in 2011.
But the official rhetoric did not stop speculation that the Pakistani government may have given the operation its blessing all along, and possibly even fed the US the intelligence as to Mehsud’s whereabouts.
Mehsud died less than a month after giving an interview to the BBC in which he had said he was prepared to enter peace talks with Pakistan if the US stopped its use of drones.
But many analysts saw his overtures as little more than posturing, describing him as an implacable hardliner who was a hindrance rather than a help to any future negotiations. Pakistan and the US may have had good reason for wanting him dead.
Either way, the killing of such an important character in Pakistan’ terrorist milieu will create a new period of uncertainty. Police yesterday tightened security in cities across the country, amid fears of reprisal attacks as the ruling council of the Pakistan Taliban met to appoint Mr Mehsud’s replacement.
Meanwhile, details pieced together from a range of militant sources and locals in Danda Darpa Khel, the village where Mehsud was living, gave an insight into how he had met his end. A cluster of mud-brick homes, the village lies just outside the town of Miranshah, the capital of the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border.
While the Pakistani military has a base and airstrip within light machine gun range of the village, effectively its writ does not run in the area.
Visitors said Mehsud’s house was built in a simple style, the sort of thing befitting an ascetic Islamist leader. It has four rooms and a spacious guest wing, suitable for entertaining visiting commanders or mullahs.
“He moved every night,” said a businessman from the region, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban retribution. “But at the same time, everyone knew which one was his house. It’s not the sort of place where that sort of thing stays secret.”
The village and the surrounding area are controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, who run it as part of their own mini-state, where arms are freely traded, and sharia law is dispatched in brutal fashion. Western hostages are occasionally kept in safe houses here, beyond the reach of the authorities. The Pakistani government does, however, maintain a spy network in the region, and it is thought that one of their agents may have provided the vital tip as to Mehsud’s whereabouts. While it could have come from a CIA asset, the agency’s networks have been badly depleted in recent years as the Pakistani government becomes increasingly uneasy about being seen to co-operate with the US.
Whoever provided the information, it would then most likely have been passed to an operations room thousands of miles away in the western US state of Nevada, from where America carries out its drone strikes by remote control.
In an air conditioned room filled with banks of computer screens, a US operative would have stared at satellite images of Waziristan province relayed by an armed MQ-1 Predator drone flying at up to 25,000 feet.
The Predator possesses an all-seeing sensor ball composed of three cameras with laser targetting and radar sensors. A continuous flow of images is fed through a satellite link to the team running the operation to confirm the target is in sight.
As Mehsud’s convoy pulled away from a mosque where the Taliban leader’s location had been confirmed, the images on the screen would have been so sharp that the operator could had read the cars’ number plates. While the Predator circled at lowest speed – around 80mph – the order “missile off the rail” would have been given, and two Hellfire missiles despatched.
Witnesses said that a total of nine people, including two bodyguards were killed in the attack, which took place just after 6pm on Friday.
Wellwishers visited the walled compound yesterday to pay their respects at was left of Mehsud’s home, amid reports that Hakimullah’s body had been buried at a secret funeral under cover of darkness to avoid attracting more drones.
Locals in nearby Miranshah also marked the death yesterday, blasting their guns in the air as other drones, including a larger than usual one, circled.
“We thought it was a C-130 aircraft but it was a special spy plane, bigger in size,” resident Farhad Khan said. “The militants fired from their anti-aircraft guns to hit it but couldn’t.”
Hakimullah led a campaign to bring down the Pakistani state, which he wanted to replace with an Islamic emirate. He gained a reputation as a merciless leader, dispatching wave after wave of young suicide attackers.
The first sign that his four-year reign as one of Pakistan’s most wanted men was unravelling came last month. The man they call his “secretary” Latif Mehsud was seized by American forces in Afghanistan.
It was his job to shuttle messages and elders to his boss, a sensitive position that gave him knowledge of safe houses, contacts and counter-drone measures.
He had been in close contact with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence agency, according to President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman, for “a long period of time”.
Whether he supplied the crucial evidence or whether it was supplied by local sources may never be known.
Either way, though, Mehsud’s death is vindication for the ruthless cost-benefit analysis of the CIA, which measures success in lives taken versus lives saved. It has now claimed the lives of many of Pakistan’s most wanted terrorists, despite “collateral” loss of many civilians amid whom the militants hide. Only last month, a Pakistani family gave evidence to a US Congressional hearing about how they had lost their grandmother to such a strike
“This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban which may spark internal fractures in the movement,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped develop the drone campaign.
Pakistan has always condemned the strikes, complaining that they are a breach of sovereignty. However, a series of leaks suggest the government and military has long given consent to the missile attacks and have even asked for specific targets to be hit.
The latest strike may well have even been part of an Islamabad-approved strategy to bomb the Pakistani Taliban to the negotiating table, according to Shaukat Qadir, a retired army officer who now works as a military analyst.
“Hakimullah Mehsud was an impediment to peace talks,” said Shaukat Qadir a retired military officer who now works as an analyst. “Whatever the government says now, this will help push the Pakistan Taliban towards negotiations.”
That, though, will depend on who emerges as the new leader, and whether he can hold together the disparate splinters and factions that make up the Pakistani Taliban while making the pragmatic case for peace.
Senior Taliban figures on its shura, or advisory council, met yesterday to pick a new leader. Militant sources told local media they changed location frequently to thwart the chances of another drone strike and broke up before making a final decision.
The frontrunners include Maulana Fazlullah, known as Mullah Radio, chief of the Swat Taliban. It was his men who claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl shot in the head as she travelled home from school last year.
Another possibility is Sheheryar Mehsud, from the same South Waziristan clan as Baitullah Mehsud, Hakimullah’s predecessor.
Or it might be Khan Said – better known as Sajna or “uncle” – an illiterate commander who was responsible for recruiting and training suicide bombers.
Despite those grisly tactics, his position as an ally of commanders who focused attacks on Afghanistan rather than Pakistan, and maintained strong ties with the Pakistani state, suggest he may be more open to finding a pragmatic accommodation with Islamabad.
That, however, depends on whether Islamabad still wants to talk – or whether it thinks it could now push its advantage with a military offensive in North Waziristan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has left no doubt that in the short term, there will be more violence. “Every drop of Hakimullah’s blood will turn into a suicide bomber,” said Azam Tariq, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman. “America and their friends shouldn’t be happy because we will take revenge for our martyr’s blood.”