Is Pakistan's Taliban Chief Dead?

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Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud speaks to reporters in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region on May 24, 2008

American and Pakistani officials say it looks more and more likely that Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief who had a $5 million bounty on his head, is dead. Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told reporters in Islamabad on Friday Aug. 7 that, "According to my intelligence information, the news is correct. We are trying to get on-the-ground verification to be 100% sure. But according to my information, he has been taken out." Local Pakistani media, citing "tribal sources" in South Waziristan, are reporting that Mehsud's funeral prayers had been held and that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's shura, or council, was meeting today to choose Mehsud's successor.

It may be days, or weeks, before confirmation is obtained. Hellfire strikes often obliterate targets, leaving little for investigators to work with. Pakistani officials are reportedly trying to collect material evidence, but U.S. intelligence officials will also be paying close attention to chatter on the Taliban's communication channels. "Taking Mehsud off the battlefield would be a major victory," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "He has American blood on his hands with attacks on our forces in Afghanistan. This would also affirm the effectiveness of our government's counterterrorism policies."

If confirmed, Mehsud's death would bring to a dramatic end a short but terrifying career. Over the past two years, Mehsud, who is believed to be about 35, emerged from near obscurity to claim a place in a hall of infamy along with the Saudi Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda (who are still at large) and the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed while leading the radical insurgency in Iraq. Cagey, dogged and charismatic, Mehsud had a knack for uniting disparate factions around a common cause; he transformed the badlands of South Waziristan into the most important redoubt for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. He denied involvement in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but he was not unhappy about it: the Pakistani government produced an alleged message from him congratulating the perpetrators: "Fantastic job. Very brave boys, the ones who killed her."

With a reported 20,000 militants at his command, Mehsud was believed to have been the architect of the 2008 bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, the mastermind behind a terrorist cell uncovered in Barcelona that same year and the dispatcher of numerous suicide bombers in South Asia. Earlier this year, he threatened a massive terrorist attack on Washington that would "amaze everyone in the world."

An uneducated Pashtun tribesman from a modest clan, Mehsud reportedly came from a family that made their living driving trucks. Though given to boasting about his grand plans for inflicting mass murder, Mehsud was also cautious. He shunned photographers — there are no definitive portraits — traveled in convoys protected by armed guards and hopped between safe houses. Despite his bellicose rhetoric, Mehsud was also described as baby-faced and jocular in person.

As a teen, Mehsud served as a Taliban fighter against the Soviets in the battle for Afghanistan, but first rose to prominence as a supporter of Abdullah Mehsud (no relation), a one-legged militant imprisoned at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. Baitullah Mehsud quickly leapfrogged his boss, and his ascension up the jihadi ladder was made apparent in 2005, when — swathed in a black cloth to shield his face — he negotiated the public signing of a cease-fire agreement with the Pakistani government.

Indeed, under the cover afforded by the agreement, Mehsud was once touted by a Pakistani army official as a "good Taliban." He used that goodwill to tighten his grip on Waziristan quickly, converting the rugged region into a haven where militant groups could freely operate camps and training facilities. The assassination of Bhutto and subsequent attacks attributed to Mehsud turned him into a prime target of the Pakistani government. In June 2009, key roads were choked as Pakistani military aircraft began strafing targets from the air. CIA-operated drones also went to work, attacking sites associated with Mehsud. On Wednesday, one of their missiles may have found its mark.