The Pakistani Taliban is meeting to choose a new leader today after their chief appears to have died of wounds caused by a CIA drone strike, according to a Pakistani and an American official.
Hakimullah Mehsud was seriously injured in a mid-January drone attack, and the Pakistani officials have received "word of mouth" confirmation that he died in late January, as was first reported by ABC News last week.
The attack that injured Hakimullah Mehsud was part of a flurry of CIA airstrikes launched after a suicide bomber infiltrated a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in late December and killed five CIA officers and two private security contractors, the deadliest attack on the CIA in more than 20 years.
After the devastating suicide bomber attacker, a CIA spokesman "vowed revenge."
"There are some very bad people who eventually are going to have a very bad day," one CIA official promised shortly after the Khost attack.
At least three names have been mentioned as Mehsud's successor. The new leader will become the group's third in just seven months. Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, was also killed by a CIA drone strike last August.
Mehsud's apparent death would mark another successful strike on senior al Qaeda and Taliban leadership by the covert drone program, which U.S. officials acknowledge is their most effective means to target commanders who carve safe havens out of the largely ungoverned Pakistani tribal areas. They say the program has killed at least 12 of a constantly updating list of 20 senior Taliban and al Qaeda commanders.
It would also signify that the CIA continues to work closely with the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, a collaboration that is kept secret but increased in the months before Baitullah Mehsud was killed. U.S. officials acknowledge that that strike would not have been possible without ISI help, and the collaboration has continued on Pakistani Taliban targets.
CIA Revenge on Taliban Leader?
But U.S. and Pakistani officials warned Mehsud's death would not mortally wound the Pakistani Taliban organization. After Baitullah Mehsud was killed, Pakistani intelligence officials say the group went through a violent power struggle, but Hakimullah Mehsud unleashed a ferocious wave of attacks to mark his assumption of the leadership.
Most of those attacks were against Pakistani civilians, about 600 of whom died since September. U.S. officials expect the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban to try to launch a similar wave of attacks.
According to a Pakistani official, Mehsud was injured in a strike that destroyed a former school along the border of North and South Waziristan during a meeting of senior Taliban officials. Mehsud was then transported into the neighboring Orakzai tribal territory to his father-in-law's village, Mamozai, where he was treated by a doctor from a private hospital in Hangu, according to the official. The official believes Mehsud was then buried in Mamozai.
Among his possible successors are Wali-ur-Rehman, the young deputy leader who functions as the group's operational commander; Qari Hussein, who oversees the suicide bomb program; and Saeed Khan Mamozai, a local commander from Orakzai tribal agency.
No official will publicly confirm Mehsuds death, in part because of the stigma associated with the covert drone program, and also because some have incorrectly labeled commanders as dead in the past only to see them later give public interviews.
This weekend the speculation about Mehsud's fate peaked when Pakistan's state-owned broadcaster PTV announced his death without citing any sources. The Taliban have issued repeated denials that Mehsud had died of his wounds, including one on Saturday.
He and his senior leadership survived last year's invasion by 30,000 Pakistani soldiers into their former South Waziristan stronghold. Pakistani military officers acknowledged that Mehsud had fled into North Waziristan.
Taliban Expanding Links to al Qaeda
While the army pushed the Pakistani Taliban out of South Waziristan, U.S. officials say they have rebuffed American requests to expand the operation to target the Afghan Taliban, who live in Pakistan but largely target U.S. troops and Afghan institutions in Afghanistan.
Mehsud, like his predecessor, expanded the links between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as with al Qaeda and jihadi militant groups that usually attack India. But Mehsud's predecessor was not as successful at finding a way to directly attack the United States in Afghanistan.