ISLAMABAD — Pakistani and U.S. intelligence wrongly reported the death of the head of the Pakistani Taliban in a CIA drone strike, and the brash, ruthless commander is now believed to be alive, Pakistani spies said Thursday in an apparent propaganda coup for the insurgents.
The reports that Hakimullah Mehsud survived the January missile attack in an area close to the Afghan border will raise questions about the quality of the intelligence being gathered in the region.
In Washington, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said he had seen "no evidence" that Mehsud "is operational today or is executing or exerting authority over the Pakistan Taliban as he once did."
"So I don't know if that reflects him being alive or dead, but he clearly is not running the Pakistani Taliban anymore," Morrell told reporters.
The Taliban had always claimed Mehsud was alive and dismissed the earlier reports of his death as lies.
The militant network said it was not going to offer any evidence such as a video recording because doing so could help security forces hunt Mehsud down. But until there is proof he is alive, questions may linger about his fate, given the apparently patchy nature of intelligence in the tribal regions.
Four intelligence officers said Pakistan's main spy agency now believed Mehsud is alive. They cited electronic surveillance and reports from sources in the field, including from inside the Taliban. One of them said Mehsud was believed to have been wounded in the attack but had largely recovered.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because they work for the spy agencies, which do not allow operatives to be named in the media.
If he is alive, it won't be the first time Mehsud, believed to be in his 20s, has defied reports of his death.
After his predecessor died, the interior minister was among those who claimed Mehsud was killed in a succession struggle.
But the militant met with reporters, on camera, in the weeks afterward and went on to lead a surge of bomb attacks across the country that left more than 600 people dead in the last three months of 2009.