Videos released on Monday of a Pakistani Taliban chief thought to have been killed by a US drone strike in January reveal that he not only is alive but has apparently expanded his group's ambitions.
In the videos, Hakimullah Mehsud vows attacks on US cities, which he says his suicide bombers have already penetrated. The videos provide the first solid evidence that he survived the missile strike, and they come after the Pakistani Taliban's widely dismissed claim of responsibility for the failed attack in New York's Times Square.
In that case, authorities were zeroing in on a naturalised US citizen from Pakistan, though any connections to extremist groups were unknown.
Mehsud's profession of global goals was a departure for the Pakistani Taliban, a motley militant network. The group is linked to al-Qaida, but it has displayed no ability to carry out attacks outside Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last year, it falsely asserted responsibility for a shooting in New York.
Intelligence officials and analysts said the threats against the United States probably represented more of that same bravado, meant to rally the troops of a weakened organization but also prove that it has not been beaten.
"These guys bluster a lot," said Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "This would be one way to inject some sort of confidence, to revitalise the organisation, by sending this message out that `we are very much around.' "
The Pakistani Taliban has led a sustained campaign of bombings in Pakistan over the past three years, but a recent army offensive in its South Waziristan sanctuary pushed many of its fighters and leaders to North Waziristan. Attacks are now more sporadic but have recently included high-profile targets, including the US Consulate in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
On Monday, Pakistani intelligence and military officials said that Mehsud's threats might also have been intended to pressure the army to open a new front in North Waziristan in hopes it would become overstretched and lose control of South Waziristan. US officials also want Pakistan to target North Waziristan, a haven for al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban fighters who stage attacks in Afghanistan, but Pakistan is reluctant.
The officials said the South Waziristan operation had eliminated the Taliban's training infrastructure, making it unlikely that the group could plan strikes in the United States or that it orchestrated the failed Times Square attack.
"These days, most of their trained suicide bombers are being killed in Pakistan," said one intelligence official based in Peshawar.
A US counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that "the Pakistani Taliban has threatened in the past to conduct attacks inside the United States; that's the gold standard, after all, for many terrorist groups."
"But their primary focus has been on the region and you've got to wonder if they'd really want to be associated with what some have called an `amateurish' attempt," the official said.
The videos were seen by some US counterterrorism officials as an attempt by Mehsud to reassert his standing within the Pakistani Taliban. US intelligence officials have said that Mehsud's disappearance since January had created confusion at the top of the organization, possibly triggering a leadership struggle.
The emergence of the videos, which counterterrorism monitoring groups deemed authentic, underscored the patchiness of Pakistani intelligence in the tribal areas where the Taliban hides. In the weeks after the January missile strike, Pakistani and U.S. officials said they were confident even certain that Mehsud had been killed.
But Pakistani intelligence officials reversed course last week and said they thought Mehsud had survived but been sidelined by another commander, Wali ur-Rehman. That assessment was thrown into doubt with the new videos, which showcase Mehsud.
In the first video, Mehsud is shown with two masked militants and says he is "alive and healthy" on April 4, 2010. Speaking in Pashto but with English subtitles, Mehsud pledges that "the time is very near when our fedayeen (suicide bombers) will attack the American states in their major cities."
In the second video, a still photo of Mehsud is displayed over a map of the United States, accompanied by "animated explosions," according to the SITE Intelligence Group. An audio message recorded by a voice that sounds like Mehsud's asserts that it was recorded on April 19 and that the United States is now the group's "main target."
It is unclear why the Taliban would wait so long to release the videos. Mehsud's last video was released in January, days before the drone attack. It showed Mehsud with the Jordanian doctor who later carried out a suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan, killing eight.