Taliban leader is not dead after all

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Even by the standards of a bullet- and bomb-dodging Taliban commander, Hakimullah Mehsud has displayed notable survival skills.

The Pakistani Taliban chief was believed dead in a leadership duel last summer, only to stage a news conference a few days later. A U.S. drone strike in January was followed by intense speculation about his fate, then statements by Pakistani intelligence officials that he was "100 percent" dead.

On Thursday, those intelligence officials circulated another message: Mehsud is alive.

Earlier reports of Mehsud's death — repeated by U.S. officials — were hailed as a potentially fatal blow to the Pakistani Taliban, a loose network of border-based militants that has carried out a cascade of suicide attacks in recent years. News of his survival again underscored the staying power of a group that Pakistan's military has targeted with unprecedented force in the past year. It also exposed blind spots for the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence services, which struggle to develop reliable information in areas where the Taliban has reigned.

Offensives in the tribal areas over the past six months have scattered fighters and prompted some Pakistani officials to deem the group hobbled, but its leadership remained at large and attacks claimed by the Taliban never fully ceased. In the Swat Valley, where the army pushed out militants last spring, a recent string of targeted killings has sparked fears of a Taliban resurgence.

But Mehsud is not necessarily back. He may have survived the January attack, but he was wounded, and has been sidelined ever since, three senior intelligence officers said. He has been replaced by Waliur-Rehman, a South Waziristan commander who was Mehsud's adversary in the leadership duel last August, they said.

The twists in Mehsud's reported fate reflect significant human intelligence gaps in Pakistan's craggy tribal areas, officials and analysts said. More than 70 Pakistani agents and informants have been killed in the region since 2004, intelligence officials said, and there are regular reports of suspected spies whose throats are slit by militants.

"There was nobody to confirm it on the ground, actually," an intelligence official said of Mehsud's fate after the drone strike.