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    South Asia
     Jan 27, 2012

Hakimullah Mehsud evades US drones, again
By Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD - The al-Qaeda-linked Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's (TTP's) most wanted fugitive, Hakimullah Mehsud, has apparently survived an American drone attack in the North Waziristan tribal agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
On January 15, international media and several Pakistani newspapers and news channels reported that Hakimullah had been killed in a January 12 attack, citing intercepted radio communications between Pakistani Taliban militants.

The TTP strongly refuted these reports, saying Hakimullah was not in the area. Pakistani intelligence circles were also unsure of Hakimullah's death, pointing to the absence of evidence and the fact that he's been pronounced dead three times since he took charge in August, 2009. Hakimullah's tenure started weeks after


the death of his predecessor and the founder of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, in a US drone strike.

"There is no truth in the reports about Hakimullah's death, although he is a human being and can die any time. He is a mujahideen and we wish him martyrdom. Jihad is not linked with Hakimullah alone and wouldn't stop even if he is killed. We will continue jihad whether Hakimullah Mehsud is alive or dead. There are so many lions in this jungle and one lion would replace another to continue this noble mission," said TTP spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan on January 15.

But international media kept insisting, now citing intelligence sources in Pakistan and the United States, that Hakimullah had been killed in the strike, which took place in the Dattakhel area, around 50 kilometers west of Miramshah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan agency.

Pakistani security officials were said to have intercepted conversations between Taliban militants in the tribal areas discussing Hakimullah's possible demise in the January 12 attack, when two missiles were fired by the Predator hitting a double cabin pick-up vehicle and a car near Dogga village in Dattakhel Tehsil.

The pick-up immediately caught fire, killing four men on the spot. Their badly mutilated bodies were pulled out of the vehicle and buried shortly afterwards. One more person was killed in the car, which was targeted by another drone. His body was mutilated beyond recognition. There was no way to ascertain the identity of the slain people whose vehicles were targeted by the drones. However, it was believed that one of those killed was Hakimullah.

The Predator attack came just two days after a strike that ended an undeclared, 55-day halt in the US drone campaign prompted by the diplomatic fallout from the November 26 killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization strike on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

It now transpires that while up to nine Turkmeni militants died in the January 12 strike, a senior al-Qaeda-linked figure was killed in the January 10 attack: Aslam Awan, alias Abdullah Khorasani, has been identified as a close associate of the external operations chief of al-Qaeda, the branch tasked with strikes on the United States, Europe and areas outside of South Asia.

Western media, citing US intelligence sources, claim Aslam Awan was a Pakistani national who hailed from Abbottabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province, where al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was found and killed last May by US forces.

Aslam Awan alias Abdullah Khorasani was a significant figure in what US officials described as the remaining core leadership of al-Qaeda based in Pakistan's tribal areas. Aslam Awan's boss, the external operations chief, has not been named, although he is reportedly known by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Several previous chiefs of external operations for al-Qaeda have been caught or killed in US drone attacks or counter-terrorism operations, the most notorious being Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

Khalid Sheikh was captured from Pakistan's garrison town of Rawalpindi in March 2003 and is still being held by US authorities in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. External operations chiefs of al-Qaeda have proved more vulnerable to capture or death than the terror group's most senior leaders, likely because their role involves interacting with militants in the field.

According to a January 22 news report by Reuters, the killing of Aslam Awan signaled that the Pakistan-US intelligence partnership was intact despite political tensions between the countries.

"The January 10, 2012 strike - and its follow-up two days later [on January 12] - were joint operations which were carried out by making use of Pakistani spotters on the ground and demonstrated a level of coordination that both sides have sought to downplay since tensions first erupted in January 2011 with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore," wrote Reuters, quoting an unnamed Pakistani security source based in the tribal areas.

Analysts believe the rising number of successful US drone attacks on top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in recent months has forced Hakimullah underground.

Hakimullah was first declared a most-wanted fugitive by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation after he was blamed for a 2009 suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan that killed six senior CIA officials. In May 2010, Hakimullah also claimed credit for a foiled bombing in New York's Times Square that month, and promised further attacks in the United States.

Giving broad hints that Hakimullah is still alive, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said Pakistan needs DNA evidence or confirmation from his own sources to verify if the TTP chief is alive or dead. He had earlier signaled that he believed the latter.

Sailab Mehsud, a Pakistani journalist from South Waziristan, says the majority of the people killed in the January 12 drone attack were Turkmeni and that Hakimullah was not among them.

The reports of Hakimullah's death come almost exactly two years since international media last issued similar reports. On January 14, 2010, media said he had died in a US drone attack on compound in the Shaktoi area of North Waziristan.

The TTP released an audiotape a few days later confirming Hakimullah was alive, but rumors persisted until May, when Hakimullah was seen in the February 28, 2011, execution video of former Inter-Services Intelligence official Colonel Sultan Ameer Tarar, better known as Colonel Imam.

Although Hakimullah seems to have survived yet another US drone attack, he remains a prime target of the CIA-run drone campaign. The successful strike on Aslam Awan suggests that military intelligence continues to flow between Islamabad and Washington, and Hakimullah will need to keep a low profile to cheat death a fourth time.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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