Baitullah Mehsud-A living legend

Baitullah Mehsud is a Pashtun from the Shabikhel sub-tribe of the Mehsud tribe. He was born in the early 1970s in a village called Landi Dhok in the Bannu region of the North West Frontier Province, which is some distance from the Mehsud tribe’s strongholds in South Waziristan.

With a reputation based on his record as a fearless fighter willing to die for the cause, Baitullah’s lack of a religious title has not held him back. Although he is the most powerful militant commander in Pakistan, he remains a shadowy figure with perhaps a larger-than-life reputation.

Commander Mehsud has recently been named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Newsweek has labelled him “more dangerous than Osama bin Laden”.

President Pervez Musharraf accused him last year of being responsible for dozens of suicide attacks which led Pakistan into emergency rule.

The CIA says he was the brains behind the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto.

Baitullah Mehsud is not a household name—yet. Terrorist leaders tend to be nameless and faceless until their deeds earn them infamy. Osama bin Laden’s name was largely unknown to the public until Sept. 11, 2001. But with General Pervez Musharraf’s recent imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan and his desperate struggle to hang onto power, Baitullah’s name has begun to emerge in daily news reports coming out of Pakistan. Some portray him as an annoying stone in Musharraf’s shoe, just one of several problems confronting the general. But others see Baitullah as a pivotal figure who could tip the political balance in Pakistan toward militant Islam and spark terror attacks throughout the world.

Baitullah commands a force of 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. He has dispatched suicide-bombers to kill Pakistani police and soldiers in Swat, Kohat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, and Peshawar. On August 30, his forces brazenly captured 213 Pakistani soldiers and held them hostage for two months until his demands were met. One day after declaring the current state of emergency, General Musharraf reached a settlement with Baitullah, exchanging 25 militants in government custody for the captured troops. Musharraf later admitted that these men were trained suicide bombers, and one of them was under indictment for participating in a suicide bombing. As part of the deal, Baitullah agreed to expel foreign militants from his territories and stop attacking the army. But Baitullah has signed peace accords with the Pakistani government before and reneged on his word.

Baitullah has no formal education or religious schooling but is a natural leader with keen political instincts. He controls a critical battleground in the war on terror, South Waziristan, a tribal territory in Pakistan on the Afghanistan border about the size of New Jersey. The Taliban currently thrive in this region and Al Qaeda is welcome there. There’s a better than even chance that Osama bin Laden is living somewhere in Waziristan under Baitullah’s protection.

Baitullah’s advocates say he has brought peace to the region, but detractors note that the peace came at a price—literally. Like a Mafia boss, he and his lieutenants shake down the populace for protection money. He’s closely allied to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and, like the Taliban, he enforces an extreme form of shariah in his territory. Women must observe a strict form of purdah, and men are forbidden to shave their beards. Playing music and watching videos are against the law. He has ordered the murder of adulterers by stoning. There are few Pakistani government courts in the region, and the Waziristanis seldom use them. Instead they go to Baitullah to settle their differences. In South Waziristan and parts of North Waziristan, he is the law.

Baitullah is said to have a signature method of dealing with people he deems disloyal. He first sends the offender 1,000 rupees, a spool of thread, a needle, and a note instructing the person to have a kafan (burial shroud) made within 24 hours. When the time is up, the person is murdered.

Baitullah is also said to have ordered the suicide-bomber attack on Benazir Bhutto the day after she returned to the country on October 18, 2007. The explosions were close enough to Bhutto’s car to shatter the windshield. Baitullah denies that he was behind the attack, though it’s no secret that he despises her for her pro-American stance. He also opposes Musharraf for the same reason.

Both the Taliban and Al Qaeda have sought his support to accomplish their particular goals. The Taliban want to concentrate their efforts on waging war in Afghanistan and regaining control there. Al Qaeda militants want a worldwide jihad against all governments aligned with the United States, starting with Pakistan. Baitullah can send forces east into Afghanistan to help Taliban fighters or keep them in Pakistan to undermine the government. So far he has done both.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has given Pakistan $10 billion to help fight terrorism. But some believe that some of that money found its way into Baitullah Mehsud’s accounts. If so, what has he done with it? Is he content to serve the interests of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, or does he have ambitions of his own—even nuclear ambitions?