American and Pakistani officials say it looks more and more likely that Baitullah Mehsud, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, was dead. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told reporters in Islamabad on Aug. 7 that, “According to my intelligence information, the news is correct. We are trying to get on-the-ground verification to be 100% sure. But according to my information, he has been taken out.”
Local Pakistani media, citing “tribal sources” in South Waziristan, are reporting that Mehsud’s funeral prayers had been held and that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s shura, or council, was meeting to choose Mehsud’s successor. It may be days, or weeks, before confirmation is obtained. Hellfire strikes often obliterate targets, leaving little for investigators to work with. Pakistani officials are reportedly trying to collect material evidence, but US intelligence officials will also be paying close attention to chatter on the Taliban’s communication channels.
“Taking Mehsud off the battlefield would be a major victory,” says a US counterterrorism official. “He has American blood on his hands with attacks on our forces in Afghanistan. This would also affirm the effectiveness of our government’s counterterrorism policies.”
If confirmed, Mehsud’s death would bring to a dramatic end a short but terrifying career. Over the past two years, Mehsud, who is believed to be about 35, emerged from near obscurity to claim a place in a hall of infamy along with the Saudi Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda (who are still at large) and the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed while leading the radical insurgency in Iraq.
Cagey, dogged and charismatic, Mehsud had a knack for uniting disparate factions around a common cause; he transformed the badlands of South Waziristan into the most important redoubt for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. He denied involvement in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, but he was not unhappy about it: the Pakistani government produced an alleged message from him congratulating the perpetrators: “Fantastic job. Very brave boys, the ones who killed her.”
With a reported 20,000 militants at his command, Mehsud was believed to have been the architect of the 2008 bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel, the mastermind behind a terrorist cell uncovered in Barcelona that same year and the dispatcher of numerous suicide bombers in South Asia. In early 2009, he threatened a massive terrorist attack on Washington that would “amaze everyone in the world.”
Born in 1972, Baitullah Mehsud had to suffer an early childhood dislocation when he moved, along with his father, from his Nargosha village to Landi Dhok in Bannu, close to the South Waziristan tribal region.
His father served as a Pesh-Imam (prayer leader) in a mosque in Landi Dhok before moving to Miramshah in North Waziristan and there also he led prayers in a mosque. Baitullah got a little religious education in Miramshah’s Pepal Madressah.
And it was in Miramshah where Baitullah is believed to have come into contact with Taliban militants who persuaded him to join them in the fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.He fought well in Afghanistan and established himself as a fighter, a senior security officer, who himself belongs to the Mehsud tribe, recalled.
Baitullah returned to his native South Waziristan after the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime in November 2001.
He shot to prominence after the notorious Taliban commander in South Waziristan, Nek Mohammad, was killed in a missile attack in Wana in June 2004. But he keep a low profile when the one-legged former Guantanamo detainee, Abdullah Mehsud, reined supreme in the Mehsud territory.
His real chance to claim leadership came soon after Abdullah kidnapped two Chinese engineers in October 2004. Miffed that the fiery militant commander had picked up an unnecessary fight with Pakistan’s security forces, a shura of the local Taliban removed Abdullah Mehsud and handed over the command of the Taliban in South Waziristan to Baitullah.
Known for his cool-headedness, the military hailed Baitullah’s ascension, called him a soldier of peace and signed the Sara Rogha agreement with him in February 2005.
The peace agreement collapsed in a matter of months, with both sides accusing each other of violating its terms, leading to the beginning of hostilities that took a huge toll.
Baitullah proved himself a tough warrior, taking due advantage of a territory that was native and treacherous, by defeating two successive military operations.
He catapulted to the limelight when he took hundreds of Pakistani soldiers hostage in August 2007. It was perhaps because of this singular feat that militants in the length and breadth of Fata at a 20-member shura meeting chose him as leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in December 2007.
Baitullah unleashed a wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan. Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani once told journalists that the TTP leader was behind almost all attacks inside Pakistan.
According to a UN report, Baitullah was behind 80 per cent of the suicide bombings in Afghanistan.
He gained in stature to the extent that The Time magazine rated him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Not to be left behind, The Newsweek described him as more dangerous than Osama bin Laden.
Accounts vary about the actual strength of his force, but intelligence agencies put the number of his fighting force at 20,000 to 30,000, including 2,000 to 3,000 foreign militants, mostly of Central Asian origin – Uzbeks and Chechens.
He ran a number of training camps, including those indoctrinating suicide bombers – a weapon – he once called his own atom bombs.
A short-stocky man, Baitullah suffered from diabetes that once prompted reports of serious illness and then death in late 2008. Much to the disappointment of many, the man bounced back to host a big feast of lamb and rice to celebrate his second marriage to a daughter of the local influential tribal leader, Malik Ikramuddin. He, however, remained issueless.
According to one account, he was also the ghost writer of a book in Urdu, Carvan-i-Baitullah Mehsud, using the pen-name of Abu Munib. In the book, he described his ideology, war strategy and details pertaining to his movement.
The United States had announced a $5 million bounty on Baitullah’s head in March this year. But it took Pakistan several months before making up its mind to declare him as Pakistan’s enemy number one and announce a reward of Rs50 million for his capture, dead or alive, in June.
Trouble began to emerge for the TTP leader when the government announced the launching of a military operation against him in June. No ground offensive was launched and the government changed its tactics to use air strikes and artillery, besides imposing an effective economic blockade to stop fuel and food supply to the area. Thousands of Mehsuds fled the area.
He was under pressure both from within his own Mehsud clan, which wanted him to ease it off with the government, and his commanders who egged him on to fight off the military. For the first time, his decision and thought-making process was shaky, an official familiar with the situation in the area said.
He wouldn’t stay in one place for two months and would constantly change places. His nerves were on edge, he remarked.
It is useless to run away. I know some day, one day they will come and get me, one senior official quoted Baitullah as telling a fellow Mehsud tribesman.
Little did the man, described by a senior security official as someone with fox-like instincts to sense danger, suspect that he was exposing himself to a missile target by relaxing with his younger wife on a roof in Zanghara, South Waziristan.
How Was He Killed?
The book “The Triple Agent” describes the details of the killing of Baitullah Mehsud. It highlights interesting details of the decision making mechanism at the CIA and the remarkable accuracy that led to his death.
“On a brutally hot night, and Baitullah Mehsud was restless. His diabetes made him constantly thirsty, and his legs were swollen and achy. Shortly after midnight he opened a small door and, trailed by a second robed figure carrying medical equipment, climbed out onto the roof. A full moon bathed the rooftop in light and illuminated Mehsud’s bearded form as distinctly as if he were onstage. There was a small mattress on the roof, and Mehsud walked over to it and flopped down, belly first. The second figure knelt next to him and began to set up what appeared to be an intravenous drip. The CIA’s analysts quickly concluded that the other person was a doctor. Could it be Balawi1? It didn’t matter. The Predator team armed their Hellfires a second time.
The missile launch awaited only final approval from the CIA director, but now there was a hitch. Leon Panetta2 had authorized a strike on a second-floor bedroom, but Baitullah Mehsud was lying on the roof on the building. The change was not insignificant: Panetta had insisted on maximum precautions to prevent the deaths of innocents, particularly women and children. What if the missile caused the entire building to collapse? Panetta would have to sign off on the change, or not. And he would have to decide quickly or risk letting the opportunity slip away. At that precise moment Panetta was not in his CIA office but in downtown Washington, attending a meeting of the National Security Council at the White House.
A little before 4:00 P.M. Washington time, he (Panetta) excused himself from the meeting and walked into the hallway to take an urgent call. He frowned as he listened, visibly worried. For several minutes he paced the floor with his cell phone to his ear, asking questions and going over details and options. By some accounts there were dozens of people staying in the same house as Mehsud, including mothers with children. “Is that thing going to collapse?” Panetta asked. “What’s in there? Are there women and family members around?” On the other end of the line, his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, and a senior counterterrorism adviser passed along updates. It was a tricky shot, from twenty-three thousand feet away, but the agency would use a smaller, less destructive missile, Panetta was told. The targeting would be extraordinarily precise. And the damage would be minimal. Panetta gave his consent.
It was now 1:00 A.M. in the Pakistani village. Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and chief protector of the Jordanian physician Humam al-Balawi, now lay on his back, resting as the IV machine dripped fluid into his veins. At his feet, a pair of young hands, belonging not to a doctor, as the CIA supposed, but to his new wife, were massaging his swollen legs. Barely aware of the buzzing of a distant drone, oblivious of the faint hissing of the missile as it cleaved the night air, he took a deep breath and looked up at the stars. The rocket struck Mehsud where he lay, penetrating just below the chest and cutting him in two. A small charge of high explosives detonated, hurling his wife backward and gouging a small crater in the bricks and plaster at the spot where she had knelt. The small blast reverberated against the nearby hills, and then silence. Overhead, the drones continued to hover for several minutes, camera still whirring. A report was hastily prepared and relayed to Panetta at the White House. Two confirmed dead, no other deaths or serious injuries. Building still stands.
1. Balawi (Humam al-Balawi) was the 31-year-old Jordanian pediatrician, who switched sides, and blew himself up later in a suicidal mission killing 9 CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan – the worst ever in CIA’s history.
2. Leon Panetta was the then Director CIA.
“The Triple Agent” by Joby Warrick (Kindle Locations 1425-1428)