Baitullah Mehsud, the most feared and dangerous militant commander in Pakistan’s tribal region, has not only become the public face of militancy in the country, but is now also openly posing a serious threat to U.S. efforts to bring stability to neighboring war-torn Afghanistan. Mehsud leads the recently formed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan), a joint group of various local Taliban outfits sharing the common objectives of implementing sharia (Islamic law) and waging jihad against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
Mehsud—who is suspected of having close ties with al-Qaeda—has been in the headlines of local newspapers for more than three years now because of his prominent role in spearheading the insurgency against Pakistan’s armed forces, who are currently hunting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal areas. Lately Mehsud has become a menacing presence in Pakistan due to the widespread belief of his involvement in the deadly wave of suicide bombings—mostly targeted against security forces—that has shaken the whole nation. A UN report released in September last year blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan (Daily Times [Lahore], September 30, 2007). According to some reports, Mehsud has compiled his own hit list of political leaders and high-profile government officials, and has formed special squads for carrying out such terrorist acts (Daily Times, May 31, 2007).
Already a household name in Pakistan, Mehsud rose to global notoriety two weeks ago when officials named him as the prime suspect and alleged mastermind behind the killing of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, which was the most high-profile political assassination in the recent history of the country. Pakistani authorities have released the text of a Pashto-language telephone conversation allegedly intercepted by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, in which Mehsud congratulates “brave boys” for accomplishing a “mission,” which—according to officials—refers to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (English-language version by Agence France Press, December 29, 2007).
At thirty four years old, Mehsud is a warlord based in the restive South Waziristan tribal agency and is said to be much revered by militants on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. Locals say that he has more than 20,000 fighters, mostly from his Mehsud clan. Officials as well as his aides claim that he also has hundreds of trained fidayeen (men of sacrifice) ready to lay down their lives as suicide bombers upon his instructions.
According to his aides, Mehsud has taken an oath of allegiance to the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Apart from sharing the same ideologies on sharia and jihad, Mehsud also shares with his spiritual leader an aversion to publicity and photographs. As a guerrilla fighter, Mehsud sharpened his skills under the guidance of legendary Pashtun commander Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is widely believed to have helped Osama bin Laden escape targeted bombing by the United States in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in early 2002.
Known as Amir (commander) among his followers, Mehsud was an unknown figure on the tribal scene until late 2004, when he filled the vacuum left by the famous tribal militant leader, Nek Muhammad Wazir, who was killed in a missile attack in June 2004. In February 2005, the Pakistani government brokered a deal with Mehsud in a bid to bring normalcy and peace to violence-stricken South Waziristan. In return for amnesty, Mehsud promised not to attack security posts or cross into Afghanistan for jihad, but backed out of the deal in late August 2007 following the Red Mosque military operation in Islamabad. Local journalists from Waziristan say that the so-called peace deal raised his stature and allowed him to further strengthen his support base (author’s interviews). As a result, the government’s writ is confined to the compounds of its security forces while gun-brandishing fighters control the countryside in the South Waziristan agency. Mehsud had his moment of glory when the government conceded to his demand to free militant prisoners in return for releasing more than 250 Pakistani soldiers, seized by his fighters and held hostage for two and half months. Among the released militants were presumably a number of would-be suicide bombers (Dawn [Karachi], December 31, 2007).
The rising popularity of this young and committed jihadi on both sides of the border has made him a bridge linking the Pakistani Taliban with the Afghan Taliban on the other side of the frontier. Many believe that Mehsud has already been involved in the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan by dispatching his men to fight against the U.S.-led Coalition forces. A close aide of Mehsud, Hakimullah Mehsud, was captured by NATO forces in the border region while trying to cross into Afghanistan with five foreign fighters (Dawn, March 8, 2007).
Once described as a “soldier of peace” by a top Pakistani military general, Mehsud is now not only defying Islamabad, but has emerged as a major irritant in the global war on terror. Some of the latest reports from the frontier may be right in citing him as the new triggerman for al-Qaeda in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan—an area which carries immense strategic importance for the terrorist network.