ISLAMABAD – Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud is now believed to have survived a U.S. missile strike earlier this year, but has lost clout within the militant network, a senior intelligence official said Thursday.
The revelation contradicts initial confidence among U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials that the brash militant leader had been killed in a mid-January missile attack in the Waziristan stretch of the northwest tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
The Taliban consistently denied Mehsud was killed, but declined to offer evidence he was alive, saying it would compromise his safety.
The latest independent investigations and reports from multiple sources in the field led Pakistani intelligence to conclude Mehsud had indeed survived, though with some slight injuries, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity.
But Mehsud's power has lessened, and other Taliban commanders, such as Waliur Rehman, are now overshadowing him, the official said.
Two other intelligence officials in the northwest told The Associated Press over the past several days that they had determined that Mehsud was alive. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media on the record.
The officials were vague about the evidence they had now that made them doubt earlier conclusions that Mehsud was dead. At the time, officials also did not elaborate on why they believed the militant had been killed.
Getting accurate, verifiable information independently from Pakistan's tribal regions is very difficult. The area is remote, dangerous, and there are legal restrictions on who can visit.
The Pakistani Taliban have been under assault by army ground troops in their main stronghold, the South Waziristan tribal region, since October, and many of the network's leaders are believed to have shifted to North Waziristan.
The U.S. stepped up missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt after Mehsud appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in late December in eastern Afghanistan.
Nearly all the strikes have hit North Waziristan since the start of the year, though it's unclear whether they've been targeting al-Qaida, Afghan Taliban commanders or Pakistani Taliban leaders.
The Pakistani Taliban have carried out numerous suicide and other attacks in the country in recent years.
They have been known to deny militant leaders' deaths even when true. They waited for some three weeks to confirm that Mehsud's predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in an August strike as they squabbled over who would be his heir.
This time, however, the militants never changed their stance that Hakimullah Mehsud had survived, though they would not let any reporters interview him. There was never a martyrdom video or official announcement of his death posted on jihadi websites, either, adding credence to the notion he was still alive.
If he is alive, it won't be the first time the 20-something Hakimullah has defied reports of his death.
After his predecessor died, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik was among those who claimed Hakimullah was killed in a succession struggle. But the militant met with reporters, on camera, in the weeks afterward and went on to lead a surge of bomb attacks across the country that left more than 600 people dead in the last three months of 2009.