Feb. 2, 2010— -- The Pakistan Taliban declined today to provide proof that their leader was alive, saying they didn't want to make him vulnerable to spies.
The Taliban's statement came a day after ABC News reported that the leaders of the militant Islamic group were meeting to choose a new leader after Hakimullah Mehsud apparently died from injuries suffered in a missile strike fired by a CIA drone.
The reported death came just weeks after Mehsud appeared in a video taking responsibility for a suicide bomber attack that killed killed five CIA officers and two private security contractors, the deadliest attack on the CIA in more than 20 years.
In the video Mehsud and the suicide bomber, a Jordanian double agent, claimed they wanted to take revenge for previous CIA drone attacks.
Today the CIA launched another major attack along the Afghan-Pakistan border when a handful of drones launched a barrage of more than a dozen missiles in North Waziristan, according to a local resident. It was one of the largest drone attacks ever launched since the program began in terms of number of drones used and number of missiles fired. More than 12 people died when multiple compounds were destroyed.
The Pakistani Taliban spokesman, Azam Tariq, said Mehsud was alive and "staying at a safe location," and that an appearance before the media could endanger him. "We don't feel any need presently to release a video [of Mehsud], but whenever we feel a need, we will do so," he told the Associated Press by telephone.
"We are not going to fall prey to this trap and make our leader vulnerable to the spy network, and secondly, the leadership council has restricted the leader from speaking to the media for certain reasons," he said.
Mehsud was seriously injured in a mid-January drone attack, and Pakistani officials told ABC News they received "word of mouth" confirmation that he died in late January, as was first reported by ABC News last week.
After the devastating suicide bomber attacker on the CIA, an agency 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.
Among the 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.
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.
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.