PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A U.S. drone strike Friday killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in a major blow to the group that came after the government said it had started peace talks with the insurgents, according to intelligence officials and militant commanders.
Mehsud, who was on U.S. most-wanted terrorist lists with a $5 million bounty, is believed to have been behind a deadly suicide attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan, a failed car bombing in New Yorks Times Square, and other brazen assaults in Pakistan that killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
The ruthless, 34-year-old commander who was closely allied with al-Qaida was widely reported to have been killed in 2010 – only to resurface later.
But a senior U.S. intelligence official said Friday the U.S. received confirmation that Mehsud had been killed. Two Pakistani intelligence officials also confirmed his death.
A third commander said the Taliban would likely choose Mehsuds successor today.
The groups deputy leader was killed in a drone strike in May, and one of Mehsuds top deputies was arrested in Afghanistan last month.
Mehsud was on the FBIs most-wanted terrorist list and has been near the top of the CIA Counterterrorism Centers most-wanted list for his role in the December 2009 suicide bombing that killed seven Americans – CIA officers and their security detail – at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan.
After taking over as the Pakistani Talibans leader, he tried to internationalize the groups focus. He increased coordination with al-Qaida and Pakistani militants, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and funded the groups many attacks by raising money through extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery.
The Pakistani government has been trying to cut a peace deal with the militants to end years of fighting in northwestern Pakistan. During a visit Thursday to London, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said talks with the Pakistani Taliban had started, though he gave no other details.
Sharif met with President Barack Obama in Washington on Oct. 23 and pressed him to end the drone strikes. The U.S. has shown no sign that it intends to stop using what it considers a vital tool to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The attacks are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, where many people view them as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty and say too many innocent civilians are killed in the process.
Pakistani officials regularly criticize the strikes in public, although the government is known to have secretly supported at least some of the attacks.