ISLAMABAD - Two new videos from the Pakistani Taliban appear to show their leader alive and refuting earlier American and Pakistani claims that he was killed in a U.S. missile strike earlier this year, monitoring groups said Monday.
The videos featuring Hakimullah Mehsud surfaced over the weekend after an attempted car bombing in New York City, and were the strongest evidence yet that he had survived the January missile attack. They underscore the patchy nature of intelligence gathering from the remote, isolated Pakistani tribal regions where Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant groups have congregated.
In the clips, both apparently dated in April, Mehsud promises attacks on major U.S. cities, but officials have played down any Taliban links to the scare in Times Square. One of the videos, broadcast on Pakistani television, shows Mehsud sitting in between two masked, armed men.
In the background is a banner featuring crossed swords and verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Speaking in Pashto, but with English subtitles, Mehsud assures viewers he was not killed in a missile strike or any other way, referring to specific reports of his death as lies and propaganda.
"(Praised be to God), on the 4th day of April 2010, I give good news to the Muslim (world) about being alive and healthy," Mehsud says in the nearly 9 minute clip. The second clip is 2 minutes, 19 seconds long, and has a still picture of Mehsud next to a map of the United States showing explosions in three cities coast to coast, according to IntelCenter, a U.S.-based militant media monitor.
The map is not detailed enough to identify which cities. A voice that sounds like Mehsud's says the tape was recorded on April 19. Speaking Urdu, he says the group's main targets from now on are U.S. cities, and that "good news will be heard within some days or weeks."
U.S. and Pakistani officials had been confident until recently that a January missile strike had killed Mehsud somewhere along the border dividing South Waziristan and North Waziristan tribal regions. The Taliban, however, had consistently denied that Mehsud was killed, but they refused to provide evidence that he was alive on grounds it would endanger his security.
Last week, four Pakistani intelligence officials said the spy networks had determined that Mehsud was alive after all after getting new information from 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. Another intelligence officials also said Mehsud was no longer the major force in the Taliban movement, which has carried out scores of attacks in Pakistan in recent years and is allied with al-Qaida and militants in Afghanistan fighting U.S. and NATO troops.
And in Washington last week, 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."
Neither official explained Mehsud's alleged loss of clout, but the militant network has been pummeled over the last six months by relentless U.S. missile attacks and Pakistan army offensives that have pushed it from once-secure bases along the border. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because the spy agencies do not allow their operatives to be named in the media.