- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Four missiles fired from a drone came crashing down on a car in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan recently, reportedly killing Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud was a feared and brutal leader: Under his watch, the Pakistani Taliban orchestrated suicide bombings against Pakistani military targets, claimed responsibility for the attempted killing of Malala Yousafzai, and organizing a suicide bombing against a CIA outpost in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of seven American CIA officers and contractors.
Both Pakistani government officials and a high-ranking member of the Taliban confirmed Mehsud’s death. Taliban officials have never before corroborated rumors of their leader’s death, lending credence to the story. But you’ll be forgiven if this feels like déjà vu: Mehsud has made a career of disproving reports of his demise.
Here are the times that the world’s counter-terrorism officials thought they had gotten the notorious jihadist, only to be proven wrong.
August 2009: Pakistani officials told the New York Times that Mehsud had been killed by a rival Taliban commander in a power struggle over who would lead the Pakistani Taliban after the movement’s leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike.
The Pakistani Taliban soon announced that Hakimullah Mehsud would head the movement – even as Pakistani intelligence officials continued to insist that he was dead. The Pakistani interior minister said Mehsud was gravely injured and the Taliban was looking to use his younger brother as a stand-in.
October 2009: Just a few months later, U.S. counterterrorism officials fueled new rumors of Mehsud’s demise. "There’s reason to believe that Hakimullah may have died recently," the official said, citing infighting within the Taliban as a cause.
Two days later, a healthy-looking Mehsud appeared in a video to promise new attacks against the United States and Pakistan. "I am alive and sitting in front of you. All the stories about my death were baseless. You can see me that I am alive," he said.
January 2010: Western military officials said that Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in mid-January, while Pakistani state television reported that the Taliban leader had been buried.
Pakistani intelligence officials told the Washington Post that Mehsud was "100 percent" dead. However, Pakistani and U.S. officials were a bit more circumspect to the New York Times, saying only that they were "increasingly convinced" Mehsud had succumbed to wounds from a drone attack.
The Pakistani Taliban responded by saying that the allegation was a "total lie." By April 2010, officials reversed their earlier claims of Mehsud’s death.
January 2012: Pakistani intelligence officials claimed to have intercepted Taliban radio communications that suggested Mehsud had been killed in a U.S. drone strike. Apparently, the militants were as confused as the media about their leader’s health – they were debating whether he was still alive, with some militants saying he was dead.