PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A U.S. drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban on Friday, intelligence officials in the two countries and Taliban militants said. The death is a major blow to the group a day after the government said it started peace talks with the militants.
Hakimullah Mehsud, who is believed to have been behind a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square as well as brazen attacks inside Pakistan, had a reputation for being particularly ruthless.
He was widely reported to have been killed in 2010, but later resurfaced. The tribal areas where the drone attacks occur are dangerous to visit, making it difficult for journalists to independently confirm information.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said the U.S. received positive confirmation Friday morning that he had been killed. Two Pakistani intelligence officials in North Waziristan also confirmed his death as did two Taliban commanders who said they had seen the remnants of the militant commander’s mangled body.
The strike killed four other suspected militants, according to the two Pakistani intelligence officials.
The Taliban commanders said at least four missiles struck just after a vehicle in which Mehsud was driving entered the compound.
All the officials and the militant commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The CIA and the White House declined to comment on the reported militant commander’s death.
The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center describes Mehsud as “the self-proclaimed emir of the Pakistani Taliban.” Mehsud is on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list, with a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture.
Mehsud has been near the top of the CIA Counterterrorism Center’s most wanted list for his role in the December 2009 suicide bombing that killed seven Americans — CIA officers and their security detail — at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. The suicide bomber, a Jordanian double agent, was ushered into the military base to brief CIA officers on al-Qaida, and detonated his explosive vest once he’d reached the inside of the base.
Mehsud later appeared in a video alongside the Jordanian, who said he carried out the attack in retribution for the death of another former Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in an American drone strike in August 2009.
Hakimullah Mehsud was indicted on charges of “conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens abroad and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction (explosives) against US citizens abroad,” the NCTC site says.
He was believed to be responsible for attacks in Pakistan in which thousands of civilians and security forces were killed.
Friday’s strike in the North Waziristan tribal area comes at a sensitive time. The government has been trying to cut a peace deal with the militants to end years of fighting in the country’s northwest.
During a visit to London on Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said talks with the Pakistani Taliban had started, though he gave no further details about who was involved or what was on the agenda.
The Pakistani government was swift to condemn the Friday drone strike, albeit before news of Mehsud’s death was reported.
“These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is an across the board consensus in Pakistan that these drone strikes must end,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan where many people view them as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty and say innocent civilians are killed in the process.
Dozier reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail, Pakistan, and Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, contributed to this report.