For someone who has been called "The Newest Enemy No. 1 in the War on Terror," and "al Qaeda's newest triggerman," remarkably little is known about Baitullah Mehsud, the powerful commander of Taliban forces in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's mountainous and lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
He is said to have planned scores of suicide attacks on government and military targets in Pakistan, and many believe he ordered the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But, according to Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency News, although he has become "the most powerful militant commander in Pakistan, he remains a shadowy figure with perhaps a larger-than-life reputation."
After fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the black-bearded jihadist leader first popped up on anti-terrorist radar screens after being promoted to a Taliban command position following the death of militant leader Nek Mohammad, who was killed in a missile attack in June 2004.
Since then, Mehsud's rise to power reflects the transformation of Pakistan into al Qaeda's main battleground and safe haven. In December 2007 he was appointed to head the Pakistan Taliban movement, known as Tereek Taliban-e-Pakistan. Operating under Afghan Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, Mehsud is believed to command some 20,000 fighters.
Pakistan's top Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, center, with back to camera, talks to reporters in South Waziristan. Mehsud reportedly masterminded recent suicide attacks on government and military targets in Pakistan and may have ordered the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last year. (AP Photo)
Mehsud shuns publicity and refuses to have his photograph taken. During those rare occasions when he gives interviews, he covers his face with a black cloth. He reportedly rarely sleeps in the same bed two nights in a row and travels in a convoy surrounded by armed guards. A Pashtun tribesman, Mehsud was born in the South Waziristan village of Landidog and is said to be in his mid-30s. According to one analyst, Mehsud is "not well educated" but is famous for his political acumen and military skills. His colleagues say he's "a natural leader who has great ability to infuse vitality among his followers."
Mehsud once admitted to an interviewer that he has crossed into Afghanistan to fight foreign troops. It is, he claims, the duty of Muslims to wage jihad against "the infidel forces of America and Britain." As he told the BBC last year, "Only jihad can bring peace to the world."
Last year Mehsud said his aim was to target London and New York City.
Intelligence sources cite reports of a Mehsud-dispatched terrorist cell recently arrested in Spain as proof of his global ambitions. He and his troops are skilled fighters. In August 2007 they captured more than 250 Pakistani soldiers, who reportedly surrendered without a fight. Mehsud then demanded that the military pull out of the tribal area and the government release 30 imprisoned militants. To emphasize his demands he had three of the soldiers beheaded. President Pervez Musharraf soon released 25 of the jailed militants.
Given Mehsud's penchant for secrecy, it's not surprising that Pakistani papers and television news reports have been full of reports that he was gravely ill, dying or already dead from illnesses ranging from diabetes to typhoid or attacks by the Pakistani military. In October 2008, however, a Taliban spokesman in Pakistan said he was "fit and well."
Apparently Mehsud knows it is only a matter of time before he falls victim to a Pakistan army bullet or a U.S. drone missile. As he reportedly told a Taliban leader, "The Angel of Death is flying over our heads all the time."