Like the Energizer bunny, Hakimullah Mehsud keeps going, and going, and going. It is an interesting parlor game: Is XYZ militant/terrorist/leader dead or alive? Rumors about the demises of Osama bin Laden, Hakimullah Mehsud, Rashid Rauf, and others have circulated for so long that it’ has been hard to keep track of how many times they have each been killed and brought back to life.
Described as charismatic, fiery, and a Young Turk, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud has apparently managed to survive — as he now points out in a video and an audiotape — everything from a drone strike to infighting in the Taliban due to a power struggle.
In one of the videos found in recent days, Hakimullah pointed out the inconsistencies in the reports of his death, revealing that he pays close attention to press about himself: "Sometimes they say [I was killed] in a drone attack, mostly giving references of Shaktai or Arukzai, and sometimes they say we martyred him on his way to Multan."
He has now been declared dead twice, only to turn up alive later. Last October, rumors about Hakimullah’s death reached an all-time high. At that time The News‘s Rahimullah Yusufzai wrote:
Fond of publicity and known to enjoy media attention, Hakimullah wasn’t expected to avoid reporters for long and shy away from making a videotape to declare that he was alive. But he hasn’t done that even after weeks and further delay in providing evidence of his life would mean that he is dead or following a smart plan for keeping everybody guessing.
Hakimullah didn’t keep people guessing for much longer, calling a news conference to reiterate he was alive and that the TTP was united. He isn’t one to shy away from publicity.
But a lot of water has gone under the murky Taliban bridge since then.
While it was widely thought that Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed in a drone strike in January — even Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he had "credible information" — a senior ISI official told the Guardian last week that Mehsud was still alive.
The revival of Hakimullah via the videos came hours after the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Qari Hussain claimed responsibility for the car bomb found in New York’s Times Square on May 1. In an audio tape released shortly after the bomb was discovered, Mehsud said, "We, Tehreek-e-Taliban, with all the Pride and Bravery, TAKE full responsibility for the RECENT ATTACK IN THE USA" and warned NATO countries to stop supporting the United States.
Hakimullah does not mention the car bomb in New York specifically in his releases, supposedly dated April 4 and April 19, but says:
The time is very near when our fedayeen will attack the American states in the major cities…. Insha Allah [God willing] very soon in some days or a month’s time, the Muslim ummah [world] will see the fruits of most successful attacks of our fedayeen in USA"
Even though the New York City police commissioner has ruled out that any known terrorist organization was involved in planting the car bomb, a lack of actual involvement has not stopped the TTP from using unrelated incidents as fear tactics in the past. In April 2009, Baitullah Mehsud — the TTP founder who was actually killed by a drone last summer — claimed responsibility for organizing a mass shooting in Washington, which was proved wrong.
Baitullah also claimed the TTP sought to attack Washington, another sign of the militant group’s global aspirations. However, unlike al Qaeda, TTP does not have the same history of a global agenda and has concentrated on Pakistan and Afghanistan. If rumors are to be believed, Hakimullah is not even leading the TTP anymore. With these three videos, the TTP is undoubtedly trying to boast of its global connections, claiming that the group can make a mark outside the region. Being able to attack Pakistani cities with an army of trained suicide bombers is one thing, but bombing New York is another. But its basic goal has probably been met with its false claims of responsibility for the attempted Times Square attack — to induce fear and give its ‘brand name’ more recall.
Hakimullah’s resurrection is yet another worry to add to Pakistan’s growing list of headaches. It could mean an increase in drone strikes targeting Hakimullah in Pakistan’s tribal areas — after Hakimullah announced his involvement in the al Qaeda-linked bombing against a U.S. base in Khost in late December, the pace of the drone attacks ratcheted up.
It could presage a full-fledged operation in North Waziristan, thought to be Hakimullah’s base and described as ‘an alphabet soup of dangerous militant groups.’ However, Pakistan Army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told Dawn in late April, "We already have our plate full. To open another front of the scale of Swat and South Waziristan requires considerable resources. It will take time and will have to wait."
Hakimullah’s undeath could also preface a renewed series of terrorist attacks within Pakistan, which would most hurt innocent Pakistanis who are caught in the midst of the TTP’s battle against the world.
Saba Imtiaz works for the Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.