Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 9, 2009

The living dead: Baitullah and Noordin

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 9, 2009


Reports — or more accurately, rumors — continue to spread regarding a shoot-out at a Taliban Shura to choose a successor to the possibly-probably-dead Baitullah Mehsud.  See a Monday morning report (below) that claims two prominent candidates killed each other.  The picture above is said to be of a more peaceful Waziristan Shura held in November 2008. (photographer unknown)

(Early Sunday morning post) Most news outlets seem increasingly confident in reporting the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban-in-Pakistan.  But Bill Roggio with the Long War Journal makes a case for skepticism, or just a bit of restraint.  In a post made very early Sunday morning US time, Roggio writes:

While it is still unknown if Baitullah survived the strike or perished, the Pakistani government’s track record accurately reporting on the death of senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders is poor [see the list below]. The Taliban, on the other hand, have been honest about the death of their senior leaders. Each time they refuted a claim of a leader being killed, they have been able to prove the commander is alive. (See Pakistani claims… are suspect.)

Yesterday media reports and authoritative sources were proclaiming the death of Noordin Mohamed Top, the most wanted terrorist bomber in Indonesia.

But this morning several news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, are reporting doubts.  Tom Wright writes:

Police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri declined to confirm Mr. Noordin’s death on Saturday afternoon, saying police would wait for DNA tests on the body, which should take about a week. Later, pictures began to circulate of the man shot dead in the bathroom of a farmhouse near Temanggung, a town in central Java, a province on Indonesia’s main island where Mr. Noordin is believed to have spent most of the past six years on the run. Those pictures didn’t look like Mr. Noordin, according to people who have seen them. (See Doubts arise…)

Apparently US, Pakistani, and Indonesian security forces failed to deploy  sufficient silver bullets, ivory crucifixes, and mirrors.   Has anyone considered carpet-bombing with garlic?

HLSWatch typically avoids breaking news stories such as the unfolding saga of these two.   I have broken with our typical focus on policy and strategy because, 1) I have perceived Baitullah as a significant strategic player in Afpak, with ambitions for a wider role.  I believe his demise would/could prompt some interesting strategic shifts. 2) I have a personal interest related to the July Jakarta bombing for which Noordin has taken credit.  3) The coincidence of their presumed deaths and the increasing confusion over whether they are alive or dead raise  issues of strategic communications and operational technique. 4) It’s the weekend and I am less disciplined in making editorial choices.

See yesterday’s aggregation and comments by scrolling to the story with pictures below.

Some Sunday morning coverage:

TTP leader dead in succession fight? (DAWN)

Mystery of Taliban chiefs deepens (BBC)

Deadly shootout at Taliban talks (Aljazeera)

Indonesian police cannot confirm Noordin’s death (Bernama)

Noordin DNA tests could take two weeks (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Jakarta bomb suspect “not killed”(Aljazeera)

Sunday evening update:

Pakistani Taliban leader “ill” (BBC)

Taliban in Turmoil (TimesOnline UK)

Mystery over Noordin Mohammed Top thickens (Long War Journal)

Indonesia needs to destroy Noordin’s network (Bloomberg)

Monday morning update:

Indonesian police “very confident” Noordin M. Top dead (Long War Journal)

Taliban fight over “weapons, cash” after Mehsud’s death (Bloomberg)

Hakeemullah and Wali both dead (DAWN, but reprinted from Associated Press of Pakistan, the official government outlet)

Pakistan: Al-Qaida has role in Taliban succession (AP)

At roughly 9:30 am (eastern) Dera Ismail Khan, a reporter for the Associated Press, filed a one-liner saying he has received a telephone call from an individual claiming to be Hakimullah Mehsud, one of those alledged to have been killed in the Shura shoot-out.  Khan has previously interviewed Hakimullah and said the voice was consistent with his memory of the Taliban leader’s voice.

At roughly 10:40 am (eastern) Zeeshan  Haider, a reporter for Reuters, files a similar — but more complete — report of a telephone conversation with Hakimullah, who claims Mehsud is still alive.  The other party in the alleged shoot-out has also been reported making phone calls.


The BBC is reporting, “DNA tests show that a man killed in a weekend raid was not Noordin Mohammed Top, one of the region’s most wanted men, Indonesian police say.”

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 9, 2009 @ 9:26 am

Well I am in generally doubtful of the significance of body counts even of leaders. Your blog and your post and hoping you will articulate some more your reasons for significance of these guys. Even after the allies were winning in WWII, the Germans and Japanese killed a lot of the allies. The death of the then incapacitated FDR was significant only at the time and before people understoond Harry S.Truman. But hey mayber you are right and I am wrong. We are all individuals and all have talents and defects. So persuade me overtime that we should follow the political leadership of the Taliban whereever as being of significance.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 9, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

I perceive that Baitullah has been a game-changer. His charisma, skill at building alliances, and swift removal of adversaries has given him unprecedented power along the Afpak border. He has used this power in a strategically innovative manner.

Traditionally the tribes of the FATA have been satisfied to be left alone by Islamabad. The Pakistan constitution gives the Federally Administered Tribal Areas significant autonomy. Most of the tribes have had little sense of identity with Pakistan, and much more with their Pashtun cousins in Afghanistan.

Baitullah shifted significant attention from supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan to challenging the Pakistani state. Whether this was smart or not, effective or not, I am not arguing. But the strategic shift — largely orchestrated by Baitullah — has been significant. Moreover, I am not sure it is a shift that can (yet) be sustained without the potentially unique skills and personal relationships of Baitullah. Especially if the current level of pressure continues to be applied.

Further, Baitullah has become even more ambitious seeking to undertake terrorist operations in Barcelona (please see: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/sentinel/CTCSentinel-Vol2Iss1.pdf) and threatening Washington D.C. These could be examples of little more than egotistical over-reach. But Baitullah has shown sufficient capability that it would be unwise to dismiss him without second thoughts… and ongoing attention.

I could offer more evidence, but this is my “theory of the case” that Baitullah’s death could have strategic significance.

In the case of Noordin M. Top he is (was?) not much more than an especially murderous thug. I won’t try to argue otherwise. He has political ambitions and connections, but there is very little evidence for his ability to move from tactical mayhem to strategic impact. He presents much less of a threat to Indonesia than Baitullah has presented to Pakistan. So, Bill, I will spot you one.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 9, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

A bit more than hour after posting the prior comment my algorithms spawned a WSJ opinion piece that is organized around the following:

“The fashionable view in anti-antiterror precincts is that terror leaders are like daisies—mow one down and another will pop up to take his place. But not all leaders are easily replaced, and the charismatic and daring Mehsud is probably one of them.”

The WSJ piece was posted about the same time I was responding to William R. Cumming. I am not sure if I am thrilled or troubled to be involuntarily “channeling” the WSJ editorial page.


Comment by Arnold Bogis

August 9, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

But as an aside, Baitullah (and the Pashtuns in general) have not been the only internal “threat” faced by the Pakistani government. There has been a long running hot and cold insurgency in the Baluchistan, for instance. So his death or a temporary dampening of that particular insurgency does not address the long term issue of ungoverned areas with unpredictable actors willing to host/protect international terrorists in a state with nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapons complex that is increasing in size.

With no real knowledge, I would bet that Zarqawi’s reach was greater in reality than Baitullah’s in aspiration. His brashness might have eventually led to his downfall at the hands of someone or something other than a drone at some point. Once the dust settles, there is still the risk that Pakistan will declare victory, turn again toward India, and allow Al Qaeda elements (that don’t plot openly against the government) to remain unmolested in the FATA. Al Qaeda with relatively secure lodging in a nuclear state. That prospect does not make me feel comfortable.

Comment by christopher tingus

August 10, 2009 @ 6:27 am

The emails sent Chris Uncle from very educated and astute friends throughout India say, “Do not underestimate the reality taking place within Pakistan despite any good news you may hear from the press in the west for we are very, very worried indeed.”

This from numerous dear friends throughout India, well educated and astute in global commerce and politics, all who consider the weapons of WMD in Pakistan in very loose hands and given the compexities of the rule in teritorries, many are doubtful that the region has any chance that any stability will truly remain intact.

This is a global problem and should be addressed by the good nations who realize the preciousness and goodness of Life and people seeking harmony and peaceful coexistence.

It is obvious that India should be very, very concerned I am told of what is taking place within Pakistan with its numerous differences within will evolve into a scenario which will affect many and have far reaching implications affecting everyone of us globally.

If this the case, if the relationship with government there is reliable and with good intent to the west, why will NATO not be asked for troop support only to reinforce WMD sites to assure that what appears the inevitable will not take place.

WMD in the hands of AQ especially as well as the same in the hands of the “Brutes of Tehran” as I refer to a blood thirst regime willing to spill the precious blood of a fellow Persian (NADA) murdered in cold blood on the streets of Tehran.

Dastardly evil with probable etrrorist strikes in Australia and in Europe will see heightened anxiety and we must decide who is on what team and continue proactive drone strategy and other tactics that portray to those seeking our demise that we have the inherent strength challenge those who are very willing to cut the head off even in the midst of the Lord’s eyes….

Our destiny is in great peril with the only hope that an evolving Germany will deal with swift hand and use its reemergence with sword in hand which in its harshness will strike decisively.

God Bless us!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 10, 2009 @ 6:34 am

Thanks Phil and Arnold. Pretty convincing discussion. What I find so very interesting is that huge number of Afghans fled into Pakistan in the 80’s. These huge camps of refugees/migrants were never fully taken into account by the Pakistan government I guess on the theory of return. The same theory of course has been utilized by the ARAB states to justify doing so little for the disapora caused by the 1948 triumph of the founders of Israel.

Well, now going to espouse a brand-new hot off the press Cumming theory. It is not failed states that are the source of terrorism. It is the large-scale refugee/migrant issue that is the problem even in Europe. It is interesting that there was a huge fight over terminology after Hurricane Katrina to keep the population largely minority that successfully evacuated and in many cases left the STATE of LOUISIANA forever from not being labeled refugees but to be labeled evacuees. By the way just for the record, in most cases except for Crisis Relocation Program during the height of the cold war under the federal civil defense program the theory for natural and even other man-made disasters was an early return of the evacuees to their homes or domiciles. We should now know that if the event is large enough domestically that is not going to happen and interesting the various UN conventions on refugees status use terminology remarkable applicable to the Katrina “Refugees.” Of course as Prof. then later Senator from CA always stated “Semantics is Everything.” Anyhow on with the story.

Deputy Secretary Jane Lute once held the UN Refugee portfolio. She might be an interesting interview on this topic. My point is that large scale semi-voluntary migrations are really refugee situations. I think this whole arena might be fertile grounds for study by the INTEL community (of course maybe already happening). It does seem that many of these terrorists have shown remarkable agility in moving around whether voluntarily or otherwise. I always found it interesting that the SUDAN bowed to US pressure and kicked out UBL.!
Well here goes to study as to whether its failed states or the refugees/migrants from those failed states that are the big problem. By the way a postscript. Bob Gallucci, former Clinton era Ambassador and Dean of School of FS at Georgetown now at the head of the McCarthur Foundation. They are one of the leaders in the study of migration issues. Might be an interesting and fruitful coincidence of timing if my paradigm proves correct.
To summarize, the Pakistan Government might have been barely able to handle its internal problems but now continues to misfire in the face of continued migration/refugee issues. Perhaps I am right the labels (semantics) are crucial in analysis of terroris and perhaps not.

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August 18, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

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