Mehsud has al-Qaeda connections and has been suspected in the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan viewed him as its top internal threat and has been preparing an offensive against him.
For years, though, the US considered Mehsud a lesser threat to its interests than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al-Qaeda, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.
That view appeared to change in recent months as Mehsud’s power grew and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilise the country and threaten the entire region.
But while Mehsud’s death would be a big blow to the Taliban in Pakistan, he has deputies who could take his place. Whether a new leader could wreak as much havoc as Mehsud depends largely on how much pressure the Pakistani military continues to put on the network, especially in the tribal area of South Waziristan.
The Pakistani intelligence officials said Mehsud was killed in Wednesday’s missile strike on his father-in-law’s home and that his body was buried in the village of Nardusai in South Waziristan, near the site of the strike.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.
One official said he had seen a classified intelligence report stating Mehsud was dead and buried, but that agents had not seen the body since the area is under Taliban control.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik had earlier told reporters outside Parliament he could confirm the death of Mehsud’s wife but not of the Taliban leader himself, although information pointed in that direction.
‘Yes, (a) lot of information is pouring in from that area that he’s dead, but I’m unable to confirm unless I have solid evidence,’ Malik had said.
A security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said ‘about 70 per cent’ of the information pointed to Mehsud’s being dead.
Another senior Pakistani intelligence official said phone and other communications intercepts — he would not be more specific — had led authorities to suspect Mehsud was dead, but he also stressed there was no definitive evidence yet.
An American counterterrorism official said the US government was also looking into the reports. The official indicated the United States did not yet have physical evidence — remains — that would prove who died. But he said there are other ways of determining who was killed in the strike. He declined to describe them.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on the matter publicly.
A local tribesman, who also spoke on condition his name not be used, said Mehsud had been at his father-in-law’s house being treated for kidney pain, and had been put on a drip by a doctor, when the missile struck. The tribesman claimed he attended the Taliban chief’s funeral.
Last year, a doctor for Mehsud announced the militant leader had died of kidney failure, but the reports turned out to be false.
In Afghanistan, Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Mehsud’s fighters would cross the border into eastern Afghanistan occasionally to help out one of most ruthless Afghan insurgent leaders Siraj Haqqani.
‘He was an international terrorist that affected India, Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ Azimi said without confirming Mehsud was dead.
In March, the State Department authorised a reward of up to $5 million for the militant chief. Increasingly, American missiles fired by unmanned drones have focused on Mehsud-related targets.
Pakistan publicly opposes the strikes, saying they anger local tribes and make it harder for the army to operate. Still, many analysts suspect the two countries have a secret deal allowing them.
Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military was determined to finish off Pakistan’s Taliban.
‘It is a targeted law enforcement action against Baitullah Mehsud’s group and it will continue till Baitullah Mehsud’s group is eliminated forever,’ he said.
Pakistan’s record on putting pressure on the Taliban network is spotty. It has used both military action and truces to try to contain Mehsud over the years, but neither tactic seemed to work, despite billions in US aid aimed at helping the Pakistanis tame the tribal areas.
Mehsud was not that prominent a militant when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, according to Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions. In fact, Mehsud has struggled against such rivals as Abdullah Mehsud, an Afghan war veteran who had spent time in Guantanamo Bay.
But a February 2005 peace deal with Mehsud appeared to give him room to consolidate and boost his troop strength. Within months of that accord, dozens of pro-government tribal elders in the region were gunned down on his command.
In December 2007, Mehsud became the head of a new coalition called the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan’s Taliban movement. Under his guidance, the group killed hundreds of Pakistanis in suicide and other attacks.
Analysts say the reason for Mehsud’s rise in the militant ranks is his alliances with al-Qaeda and other violent groups. US intelligence has said al-Qaeda has set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud’s South Waziristan stronghold and neighbouring North Waziristan.
Mehsud has no record of attacking targets in the west, although he has threatened to attack Washington.
However, he is suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. Pakistan’s former government and the CIA have named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of Benazir Bhutto. He has denied a role.