Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud hasn’t issued a public statement in two weeks, leading to growing rumors that he may have died of injuries he may have sustained in a mid-January US drone strike that may or may not have hit him.
According to one US official, “there’s a good likelihood that he’s dead.” At the same time, the official conceded that there was no body, no photographic evidence, and not even any reliable witnesses to verify the claims.
Pakistan’s government seems pretty sure about Hakimullah’s death, but they have been pretty sure no less than six times in the last six months that Hakimullah has died. Other “confirmed” deaths from the Pakistani government, including at least two deaths of TTP second in command Wali Rehman, have likewise turned out to be false.
To be sure some of this is a function of optimism: officials are already set to declare victory over the TTP if Hakimullah is slain, even though the killing of his high profile predecessor Baitullah in August had virtually no effect on day-to-day operations. But some of it is also the result of the paucity of reliable data on the region.
US attempts to track down al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been a disaster. Let’s not forget that officials said Jordanian al-Balawi was the best informant they had in years, and he turned out to be a TTP triple agent, biding his time for an attack.
Hakimullah’s sudden disappearance might also be deliberate, as following the rumors of his injury the US launched a flurry of strikes against possible hideouts. Given that it is hardly surprising the militant leader might have decided to lay low, whether or not he was slain.