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Stories that bounced: The nine lives of 4 most-wanted men

Ever wonder how they keep dying and resurfacing?

SAMAA | - Posted: Sep 18, 2021 | Last Updated: 3 months ago
Posted: Sep 18, 2021 | Last Updated: 3 months ago

As we watched the Afghan Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, we began to slowly realize in the newsroom that our reporting on them would be completely different from now on. They had overnight gone from “international terrorists” to heads of government. This was, of course, the story of that Afghan Taliban, who were extremely difficult to cover from Pakistani newsrooms. Similarly fraught was the reportage on the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the country. Their intertwined networks and shadowy connections were every reporter’s and editor’s nightmare. The dangers of covering terrorism were not just physical for journalists.

And as Imran Khan’s CNN Haqqani Network flub revealed Wednesday, keeping track of “terrorist” outfits is a full-time job. The worst part of it has been keeping tabs on their connections with each other, verifying the attacks they have claimed and, oddly enough, their deaths.

Many a desk editor has been burned by reporting on these banned outfits. Corroborating reports and rumours was always a minefield. You never knew if you were being played by some invisible hand that wanted some news to be planted. Alternately, how did one confirm such news without contacting them directly? And could one even trust that information?
As a result, over the years, frequent reports in the media about the banned TTP later turn out to be complete hot air. Echoes that masqueraded as fact flooded Twitter and WhatsApp. Misinformation and disinformation added to the dangers of covering terrorism. There were claims of drone strikes, the deaths of senior leaders (Afghan Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda), even videos of soldiers dancing with fighters. It was extremely difficult to fact-check videos or photos, in particular. Woe betide any news outlet that ran with breaking news of so-and-so terrorist’s killing in a drone strike only to discover, hours later that he was indeed alive. In newsroomspeak we call these stories that “bounce”. Here are the most notable stories of the biggest names that bounced over the last 20 years:

Baitullah Mehsud of the TTP and risks of reporting

Baitullah Mehsud TTP

A US drone strike in North Waziristan in August 2008 killed Baitullah Mehsud, the former emir of the banned TTP. Before he actually died, he was killed several times in drone strikes—but the TTP denied it each time. However, even a TTP faction, commanded by Hakimullah Mehsud, once got it wrong themselves. They claimed that a drone strike on August 5, 2008 had wounded Baitullah Mehsud. However, another TTP fighter Wali-ur-Rehman flatly rejected this statement.

Eventually, it actually took three weeks to establish Baitullah Mehsud had been killed. American and Pakistani officials said they suspected he was dead but they were reluctant to confirm the news. Taliban fighters, on the other hand, have repeatedly denied his killing while speaking to reporters. However, two of the leaders later confirmed Baitullah Mehsud’s death.

A financial reason for verification

The confirmation of death is important for a less obvious reason: money. The Government of Pakistan set the head money for Baitullah Mehsud at Rs50 million. Peshawar and Islamabad newspapers published advertisements of the reward for his arrest. The Americans had offered up to $5 million for information leading his capture.

It was Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the then PPP-era foreign minister, who told the media that the country’s intelligence sources had confirmed Baitullah Mehsud’s death, but ground evidence did not confirm this information.

Not only that, in 2007, domestic and foreign media claimed that Baitullah Mehsud had died from an illness, but after some time, this proved wrong. Other misinformation surfaced after drone strikes on several of his hideouts in Ladha sub-division.

Abu Bakr Baghdadi and ISIS

Abu Bakr Baghdadi ISIS

Rumors of the death of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi followed similar patterns of being slippery to cover. ISIS occupied a large area of ​​Iraq and Syria in June 2014 and announced the formation of its government. Al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph.

His head money was $10 million, then $25 million in 2016, the same as the offer for al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The US had offered up to $25 million for information leading to Baghdadi’s whereabouts.

In May 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported his death in a Russian airstrike in the Syrian city of Raqqa. He was once reported dead in an Israeli hospital as well. News of his death continued to circulate when he disappeared from public view for eight months.

US Special Forces ultimately killed Baghdadi in October 2019 in a covert operation in Idlib, Syria. A day before his death, the then US President Donald Trump tipped the world off in a tweet that he was going to unveil big news.

Osama bin Laden denials

Osama Bin Laden Al-Qaeda

From the mountains of Tora Bora to the Pakistani border, the media reported the death of al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden several times, and each time a denial opened the floodgates of misinformation. When bin Laden was killed, no one could believe that it had happened in Abbottabad, 134 kilometers from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

A government official in Afghanistan had said as far back as 2004 that he had received credible reports that an attempt had been made to capture bin Laden in Pakistan but that he had managed to escape. At one point, B-52 and B-1 bombers bombed Tora Bora for 56 hours to capture or kill him.

The banned TTP denied news of his death at midnight on May 2, 2011. The TTP said he was safe. Here too misinformation spread like wildfire making it risky to publish news. Was he dead or alive? Had he been killed earlier and the body just declared? Was he imprisoned in the US? Was the operation all a drama?

Maulvi Faqir Muhammad’s disappearance and reporting the jail release

Maulvi Faqir Mohammad

According to the media, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) arrested Maulvi Faqir Mohammad on February 26, 2013, along with four other accomplices from Nazian district in the border province of Nangarhar while he was on his way to Pakistan near Torkham. He was heading to Tirah Valley. After his arrest, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad was interrogated at Bagram jail.

However, only a few months after his arrest, reports began circulating that the authorities had released him and his accomplices. No official sources confirmed this. At that time, observers thought that Maulvi Faqir Muhammad was no longer important to anyone.

When the Afghan Taliban took control of Afghanistan on August 15, however, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad was among the prisoners released from its jails. There was speculation on social media that he had not been released, but had escaped as soon as the Taliban took power. It was difficult to get official confirmation.

However, he said himself, to SAMAA Digital that he was released from jail on August 15, 2021. “My four comrades who were arrested with me completed their imprisonment four months ago and they were also released then. There is no truth in the claim that I was released a few years ago,” he said.

“I think this is a result of a misunderstanding,” he said on social media. “It has nothing to do with the hand of any organization or propaganda. Being in Bagram was a very popular thing and everyone knew it.”

Maulvi Faqir Mohammad’s house and hujra were raided in 2005 and 2006 on charges of links with foreign militants. According to reports, in 2010 he himself claimed responsibility for attacks on Pakistani checkpoints in the border areas of Bajaur. Later, as a result of the Pakistan Army’s Operation Rah-e-Rast in Swat and other districts of Malakand Division, the militant group’s network was paralyzed.

The authorities had claimed that Maulvi Faqir Muhammad was killed on March 5, 2010 in an attack on militant hideouts in Bajaur. But he appeared in Afghanistan in July 2011.

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Taliban return to power, Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network, maulvi fakir muhammad, baitullah mehsud, pakistan army operation, millitant group network,
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