Taliban leader in Pakistan may be alive

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Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud is alive, Pakistani security sources said Thursday, reversing assertions early this year that he had been killed in a U.S. drone missile strike.

The report that Mahsud, 28, survived a January strike near the border of North and South Waziristan, if verified, represents a major blow to U.S. and Pakistani efforts to uproot Islamic militants from their stronghold in the largely ungoverned tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

“He’s alive. He’s got some minor injuries,” said a Pakistani security source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such issues. The source said Mahsud was believed to be hiding somewhere in the tribal areas but would not specify which district authorities suspected.

In Washington, U.S. officials said that they did not know for sure whether Mahsud was alive or dead.

“It would not surprise me” if Mahsud had survived the strike, a senior U.S. official said, noting that intelligence suggesting he had been killed in January was not considered very reliable.

But other U.S. officials noted that Mahsud has not been heard from since the initial reports of his death. If he is alive, these officials argue, Mahsud would want to advertise that fact to rally followers and bolster his prestige.

“If Hakimullah really is alive, let him prove it,” said a counter-terrorism official. “He never had a problem going before the cameras. But, for the past few months, he’s nowhere to be seen.”

If he was injured in the attack, Mahsud may be lying low until he recovers, another official said.

The January drone strike targeting Mahsud came amid a series of similar U.S. attacks after the Dec. 30 suicide bombing that killed seven CIA workers at a secret base in Afghanistan. A video released after the base attack showed Mahsud sitting next to the Jordanian who carried out the bombing.

The drone strike killed 16 people and Pakistani news reports suggested, that Mahsud was among them. In February, Pakistani intelligence and security sources said they believed the Taliban leader was dead, though they offered no evidence. Sources within the Pakistani Taliban also said he had been killed.

If Mahsud has survived, it means that the Taliban has retained its top leader, the architect of a relentless series of suicide bombings and raids on markets, mosques and security installations across Pakistan in the latter half of 2009.

After a short lull this year, those attacks have resumed, particularly in northwestern Pakistan, where the country’s military has carried out offensives against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and the tribal districts of South Waziristan, Bajaur and Orakzai.

One of the most recent targets was the U.S. Consulate in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Militants killed at least five people April 5 in an attack that involved suicide bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire.

Pakistani and U.S. officials had hoped that with Mahsud out of the picture the Taliban would struggle to regroup and find a replacement with Mahsud’s reputation for tenacity.

They also believed they had forced the insurgency to find a new leader for the second time in less than six months. A U.S. drone missile strike killed Mahsud’s predecessor, Baitullah Mahsud, in August.