According to a senior unnamed official from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence yesterday, Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud is actually alive. According to the Guardian, “Mehsud was reported to have died in a CIA drone strike in South Waziristan in January but, although Pakistan’s interior minister claimed he had been killed, the death was never confirmed by either U.S. or Pakistani intelligence.” Yesterday, the anonymous official told reporters he had seen video footage of the missile attack on Mehsud “but other intelligence had since confirmed the insurgent leader survived.” He noted, “He is alive. He had some wounds but he is basically OK.” Dawn quoted him stating further, “It was just a miracle that only one person escaped that attack, and he was Hakimullah Mehsud. Miracles do happen.”
Reuters also quoted the ISI official, who emphasized, “Initially, our intelligence in the field suggested that he was killed from the wounds he sustained in the strike but we have made checks and our intelligence has now concluded that he was wounded, not dead. It’s all based on intelligence.”
Seriously, am I taking crazy pills here? Back in January, reports of Hakimullah’s death, though not officially confirmed, were legitimized by numerous sources. For example, a local government official, citing paramilitary sources, told CNN that Mehsud was seriously injured and subsequently moved to the Orakzai region, where he died and was buried more than a week ago, a story that was then confirmed by Pakistan’s state-run television, PTV. And, although the Taliban never confirmed Hakimullah’s death (they did, in comparison, eventually confirm Baitullah‘s death), news agencies did report that at least three other Taliban sources and a government official confirmed the report, though these sources differed when he died.
What’s interesting is that even though there was a degree of certainty in past media reports about Hakimullah’s death, news agencies are now all pointing to why this could never have been true. According to numerous outlets, including Dawn and BBC News, the reasons were: (1) There was no leadership challenge to replace Hakimullah, and (2) there was no martyrdom video or official announcement of his death posted on jihadi websites or released to media outlets (a cell phone video of Baitullah’s body, in comparison, was aired on Pakistani television).
Unnamed ISI officials now indicate Hakimullah has become less effective in the hierarchy of the Pakistani Taliban, and that Waliur Rehman (who was reportedly Hakimullah’s rival in the leadership dispute following Baitullah’s death) and Qari Hussain (the suicide bomber recruiter) are now the most powerful commanders.
The story is so convoluted that it lends itself to a number of questions: First, if previous intelligence pointed to Hakimullah’s death, how can we have any faith that today’s intelligence indicating he’s alive is any better? Anonymous officials throwing around statements like, “Miracles do happen” and “It’s all based on intelligence,” do nothing but undermine the state apparatus providing this so-called intelligence. Given that getting information independently from FATA is virtually impossible and almost always devolves into a he said-(s)he said debate, media agencies can only speculate on the credibility of the stories they receive. Finally, if Hakimullah’s role is now irrelevant within the TTP command, what good does it do to confirm that he is alive three months later? Why now?
Developments like these only further expose how little we know about this entire situation, and that deaths of top leaders don’t necessarily impact the overarching TTP command. At the end of the day, though, we should treat every revelation with cautious skepticism, remembering that we still have the ability to reason, rationalize, and question. Even if it’s only speculation, we don’t have to swallow everything with doe-eyed naivete.