Taliban chief made fatal error – then US drone hit
FOR years, Hakimullah Mehsud – the long-haired leader of the Pakistani Taliban – took all possible precautions.
To the frustration of those who hunted him, he seldom spent more than six hours in any one spot – shuttling between safe houses across Pakistan's lawless tribal region.
But as negotiations with the Pakistani government loomed, it seems that one of the world's most wanted men made a fatal mistake: he relaxed, assuming that the upcoming peace talks meant he was safe, and lingered at his new house.
It was just long enough for one of the American drones that fly constantly above the region's mountainous skyline to find its mark, firing two missiles into Mehsud's 4x4 vehicle as it pulled inside the gate of his home last Friday.
"He was at a meeting at a nearby mosque to discuss the negotiations," a Pakistani security source said.
"He was killed as he got back to his house, probably just as he was getting out of his car, inside the walls of the compound."
So came the demise of one of the most capable of the Taliban's commanders, a man who, in Washington's eyes at least, had earned every cent of the $5m (€3.7m) price on his head. For not only had Mehsud waged a reign of terror against his fellow Pakistanis, he had also helped to mastermind the single deadliest strike against the CIA in the last 25 years when a suicide bomber posing as an al-Qa'ida informant blew himself up at a base in Afghanistan in 2009, killing seven agents.
But while Mehsud's death may have proved a moment of quiet triumph for the CIA's controversial drone programme, reaction was rather different in Pakistan.
The government summoned the US ambassador Richard Olson to lodge a formal protest over the attack, which it said it would wreck Taliban peace talks.
A statement from the Pakistani Foreign Office said the strike was "counter-productive to Pakistan's efforts to bring peace and stability to Pakistan and the region".
But the official rhetoric did not stop speculation that the Pakistani government may have given the Mehsud operation its blessing all along, and possibly even fed the US the intelligence as to his whereabouts.
Mehsud died less than a month after giving an interview to the BBC in which he said he was prepared to enter peace talks with Pakistan if the US stopped its use of drones.
But many analysts saw his overtures as little more than posturing, describing him as an implacable hardliner who was a hindrance rather than a help to any future negotiations.
Either way, the killing of such an important character in Pakistan's terrorist milieu will create a new period of uncertainty.
Police yesterday tightened security in cities across the country, amid fears of reprisal attacks as the ruling council of the Pakistani Taliban met to appoint Mehsud's replacement.
Meanwhile, details pieced together from a range of militant sources and locals in Danda Darpa Khel, the village where Mehsud was living, gave an insight into how he met his end. While the Pakistani military has a base and airstrip within light machine-gun range of the village, effectively it has no power over the area.
Visitors said Mehsud's house was built in a simple style, the sort of abode befitting an ascetic Islamist leader. It has four rooms and a spacious guest wing, suitable for entertaining visiting commanders or mullahs.
"He moved every night," said a businessman from the region, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban retribution.
"But at the same time, everyone knew which one was his house. It's not the sort of place where that sort of thing stays secret."
The village and the surrounding area are controlled by the Taliban, which runs it as part of its own mini-state, where arms are traded freely and Islamic law is dispatched in brutal fashion. Western hostages are occasionally kept in safe houses here, beyond the reach of the authorities.
The Pakistani government does, however, maintain a spy network in the region, and it is thought that one of their agents may have provided the vital tip as to Mehsud's whereabouts.
Whoever provided the information, it would then most likely have been passed to an operations room thousands of miles away in the western US state of Nevada, from where America carries out its drone strikes by remote control.
In an air-conditioned room filled with banks of computer screens, an operative would have stared at satellite images of Waziristan province relayed by an armed MQ-1 Predator drone flying at up to 25,000ft.
The Predator possesses an all-seeing sensor ball composed of three cameras with laser targeting and radar sensors.
A continuous flow of images is fed through a satellite link to the team running the operation to confirm the target is in sight.
As Mehsud's convoy pulled away from the mosque where the Taliban leader's location had been confirmed, the images on the screen would have been so sharp that the operator could read the cars' number plates.
While the Predator circled at its lowest speed – about 130kmh – the order "missile off the rail" would have been given and two Hellfire missiles dispatched.
Witnesses said that a total of nine people, including two bodyguards, were killed in the attack, which took place just after 6pm local time.
Mourners visited the walled compound and what was left of Mehsud's home yesterday to pay their respects, amid reports that the Taliban leader's body had been buried in a secret funeral under the cover of darkness to avoid attracting more drones.
"This is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban which may spark internal fractures in the movement," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who helped to develop the drone campaign.
Pakistan has always condemned the drone strikes, complaining that they were a breach of sovereignty. However, a series of leaks suggested that the government and military have long given consent to the missile attacks and have even asked for specific targets to be hit.
The latest strike may well even have been part of an Islamabad-approved strategy to bomb the Pakistani Taliban to the negotiating table, according to Shaukat Qadir, a retired army officer who works as a military analyst.
"Hakimullah Mehsud was an impediment to peace talks," said Mr Qadir.
"Whatever the government says now, this will help push the Pakistan Taliban towards negotiations."
That, though, will depend on who emerges as the new leader, and whether he can hold together the disparate splinters and factions that make up the Pakistani Taliban while making the pragmatic case for peace.
The Taliban named an interim leader yesterday as deliberations on who will be their new permanent chief.
Shahidullah Shahid, the main spokesman for the movement in Pakistan, said that an interim leader, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, had been appointed while the shura continued its discussions, which could run for months.
The Taliban has left no doubt that in the short term, there will be more violence. "Every drop of Hakimullah's blood will turn into a suicide bomber," said Azam Tariq, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman.
"America and their friends shouldn't be happy, because we will take revenge for our martyr's blood." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
* The predator drone is an unmanned long-range aircraft that operates much like any small plane.
* It can fly for 40 hours at a distance of 400 miles from its operating base and can fly at a maximum height of 25,000ft.
* Each Predator has cameras that transmit highly detailed live images back to pilots who fly the craft remotely in the US.
* Predators carry two Hellfire missiles with a range of five miles and which carry 20lb of explosive. Each missile is capable of demolishing a house and killing all the inhabitants.
* Predator strikes are believed to have killed at least 600 militants in Pakistan. Critics say they have killed at least as many civilians.