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Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's most wanted Taliban

Text by Guillaume LOIRET

Latest update : 2009-08-07

Pakistani officials say there is growing evidence that Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who has a $5 million price tag on his head, has been killed in a US military strike. A portrait of Pakistan’s most wanted Taliban.

Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan’s Mehsud clan, has established himself as the head of the Pakistani Taliban.

His fiefdom: South Waziristan, a natural mountainous refuge located to the north-west of the tribal zones and near the Afghan border. This is where the Taliban leader found a safe haven and where he established numerous terrorist training camps, some of which spilled over on both sides of the border.

His supporters: Baitullah Mehsud can boast of having had the notorious Afghan Taliban supremo, Mullah Mohammad Omar, as both a mentor and role model. Mehsud has made no secret of his allegiance to the al Qaeda terrorist network. Indeed, the US State Department has described him as "a key facilitator of al Qaeda in the tribal zones" of Pakistan. Since 2007, he has been at the helm of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), an umbrella organisation grouping some forty Islamist movements in the north-west tribal zones. The TTP counts approximately 60 thousand heavily armed fighters, 10 to 20 thousand of which are under Mehsud’s direct command.

His exploits: Islamabad and Washington accuse Baitullah Mehsud of masterminding the bloodiest attacks to have struck Pakistan over the past two years, starting with the army’s 2007 assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which had become a bastion of radical Islamists. Mehsud is suspected of having planned the September 2008 attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel, the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, and the raid against the headquarters of the Pakistani secret service -- the notorious ISI -- last Spring. In fact, the majority of the nearly 200 attacks recorded since the summer of 2007 allegedly bear Mehsud’s signature.

From reclusive soldier to Taliban chief

Yet, until 2005, Mehsud was merely a junior militant leader among several others, in charge of just a dozen fighters and deemed a poor negotiator. His spectacular rise among the Pakistani Taliban is a result of both experience and circumstance.

Like his Jihad mentor Mullah Omar, Baitullah Mehsud is reputed a discreet man who keeps clear of cameras. Rare snap shots show his face three-quarters veiled by his turban, although his personal history is better known.

Mehsud, who is now thought to be approximately 35 years old, was born to a modest family of the Bannu district, near South Waziristan. After early instruction in a religious school, some say he continued his training in Afghanistan opposing the Soviet army in the late 1980s. There is evidence that he fought in the mid-1990s alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, where he swore allegiance to Mullah Omar. He later returned to the Pakistani Taliban's Waziristan stronghold across the border, where from 2001 he has welcomed foreign fighters, Arabs and Uzbeks in particular, who were forced to retreat by the US offensive.

It was not until 2005 that Baitullah Mehsud definitively emerged as a prominent figure among the Pakistani Taliban. That year he negotiated a peace deal with local authorities in the South Waziristan region, which gave him the resources and flexibility required to recruit and train new fighters. Once his militia was ready he was able to rout the Pakistani army stationed in the region. At the time, former Guantanamo inmate Abdullah Mehsud was in charge of Pakistan's Islamist insurgency. But his death in July 2007 during a Pakistani army assault in Baluchistan, in the south-west tribal zone, paved the way for Baitullah Mehsud to take over leadership of the country's Taliban movement.

Since then, Baitullah Mehsud has been Pakistan's most wanted man, escaping several US military air strikes. On Wednesday, a US drone struck one of his shelters in South Waziristan, killing his second wife. Whether Baitullah Mehsud also perished in the attack remains to be seen. While several Pakistani officials and local residents have reported his death, others say conclusive evidence may never be found.

Date created : 2009-08-07