Noted Taliban Leader, Linked to Attack on CIA Base, Not Dead Yet

Contrary to initial media reports, Hakimullah Mehsud, known as the current leader of the Pakistani Taliban, is believed to have survived a U.S. missile strike on a suspected militant encampment in North Waziristan on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials who say it is not even clear that Mehsud was injured in the missile attack. Some reports from the region quote a Taliban spokesman saying that Mehsud, who is linked to a recent attack on a secret CIA base in Afghanistan, had fled the site of the missile strike, a religious school that allegedly had been turned into a terrorist training camp, before four drone-borne missiles hit. But other Taliban sources said that Mehsud had been injured in the attack.

A U.S. official said: "While I can't confirm that Mehsud was at any of the places hit, other bad actors plainly were. When it comes to violent extremists, their leaders aren't the only danger—you can't forget the fighters, trainers, and facilitators, either. They're all key to the terrorist apparatus centered in that part of the world."

If Mehsud was indeed targeted in an attack, but escaped, this is likely to be a serious disappointment for U.S. intelligence officials in general and the CIA in particular. Hakimullah Mehsud, who took over leadership of the Pakistani Taliban after a fellow tribesman, Baitullah Mehsud (not an immediate relative), was killed in a suspected U.S. drone attack last year, recently appeared in a widely circulated martyrdom video at the side of Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed seven CIA personnel and his Jordanian-intelligence case officer when he blew himself up with a suicide vest shortly after being driven onto a secret CIA base near the Afghan town of Khost. When reports first circulated that Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed in Thursday's missile strike, the rumor mill was flooded with suggestions that this was CIA payback for the deadly attack on its outpost.

Even though Mehsud appears to have escaped the latest missile attack, the brisk rate of strikes on suspected terrorist targets by drone-based U.S. missiles in the first weeks of 2010 has kept pace with, or even surpassed, last year's attack rate. According to a report from the French news agency AFP, two separate missile attacks were launched in North Waziristan on Friday; the strike that reportedly missed Mehsud took place a day earlier. Officials said they could not confirm an AP report that alleges that a drone-borne missile strike last week killed a Palestinian militant, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, who was on an FBI most-wanted list and was an alleged member of the once fearsome (and now defunct) Abu Nidal group.

As Declassified reported in October, while U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, refuse to engage in any public discussion or confirmation of reported drone-borne missile attacks in Pakistan, some reputable studies have reported that President Obama significantly increased the rate of such strikes during his first nine months in office. We reported last month, however, that Obama had declined to go along with recommendations by some hawkish counterterrorism officials that such missile attacks be expanded beyond the Pakistani border region to more populous Pakistani areas, including the Baluchistan region and its main city, Quetta, where some top Taliban leaders are believed to have taken refuge.