Wanted: Accurate intel on ‘dead’ terrorists

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Taliban leader Qari Hussain? Killed in January 2008 … until he appeared at a news conference a few months later in Waziristan.

Al Qaeda official Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri? Annihilated in a drone attack in September … but still able to give an exclusive interview in October.

Taliban honcho Hakimullah Mehsud? Wiped out in a missile attack in January … or was he?

Reports on Thursday that Mehsud was only wounded in that U.S. drone attack have prompted questions about the quality of intelligence emerging from Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran currently with the Brookings Institution, described the latest reports as “a useful reminder that claims of the drones’ successes need to be judged with caution.”

“Intelligence is not a science experiment,” Mr. Riedel said. “It is a difficult task of resolving conflicting data over time.”

According to an Associated Press dispatch, four intelligence officers said Pakistan’s main spy agency now thinks Mehsud is alive, citing electronic surveillance and reports from sources in the field, including from inside the Taliban.

U.S. officials privately have expressed frustration with the level of cooperation from Pakistani officials in the fight against militant groups.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency helped create the Taliban in the 1990s. Despite pressure from the U.S. to sever links with the militants in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. officials and analysts say some elements in the Pakistani establishment remain sympathetic to terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

“Our close relationship with the Pakistanis is based on common interests, particularly our shared commitment to fight terror,” said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. “They have people dying almost every day, after all. But there are some groups that at least some parts of the Pakistani state see differently than we do.”

The official said that when it comes to fighting al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, “there’s really no daylight” between the Washington and Islamabad.

Still, the premature announcement of the death or capture of a terrorist is far from uncommon.

In January, Pakistani authorities announced that they had arrested Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda spokesman wanted in the U.S. on a charge of treason, in Karachi. Days later, they announced they hadn’t arrested him after all.

While Pakistan’s military has acted against al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, both of which have carried out several attacks in Pakistan and are viewed as direct threats to the state, it has been less eager to take on the Afghan Taliban.

“To speak to the Taliban, you have to go through the Pakistani army and the ISI,” Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a meeting this week, confirming links among the Pakistani army, the ISI and the Taliban.

“Pakistan is both playing with the radicals and trying to have a relationship with the Americans,” he said. “It is too late to ask the Pakistani army to reverse its policy of supporting the Taliban.”

On Feb. 10, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik confirmed reports of Mehsud’s death, which the Taliban promptly dismissed as a lie and then insisted Mehsud was alive.

The CIA also never confirmed Mehsud’s death.

However, a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mehsud had not been seen or heard from since the drone strike.

“If Hakimullah really is alive, let him prove it. He never had a problem going before the cameras. But, for the past few months, he’s nowhere to be seen,” the official said. “His group isn’t one that traditionally led from the cave in silence.”

The Taliban said it would not offer any evidence, such as a video recording, because doing so could help security forces hunt down Mehsud, the AP reported.

A Pakistani Embassy spokesman in Washington said he could not confirm reports that Mehsud was alive.

“His absence is the Taliban’s problem, not ours. It’s already been shown that he can be hit,” the U.S. counterterrorism official said. “As Baitullah Mehsud learned to his peril, if you’re a terrorist figure in that part of the world, you have to be smart … and lucky,” the official added, referring to the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was killed in a U.S. strike in August.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said he had seen “no evidence” that Mehsud “is operational today or is executing or exerting authority over the Pakistan Taliban, as he once did.”

“So I don’t know if that reflects him being alive or dead, but he clearly is not running the Pakistani Taliban anymore,” Mr. Morrell told reporters.

The Taliban waited three weeks to confirm Baitullah Mehsud’s death. That incident spawned reports that two likely successors - Hakimullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman - had engaged in a gunfight in which one or both militants had been killed.

That report also proved to be inaccurate, and Hakimullah Mehsud later met with reporters to prove that he was in fact alive.

In January, he appeared in a video with a Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan in December.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said he was not surprised that Mehsud could have survived the drone attack.

“It doesn’t take rocket science to discover that if, as it was indicated in the news, he had died in Multan then somebody ought to have seen his dead body. None of that happened,” Ms. Siddiqa said.

“His death and rebirth are part of the larger psy-ops. At this point, it is tough to determine truth from lies, which makes fighting very difficult,” she said.

About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.

Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.

 

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