Even before he was accused of being behind the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Baitullah Mehsud ranked as one of Pakistan's most wanted men. While the United States has been urging Pakistan to scour its largely ungoverned tribal regions for al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, the Pakistanis have been more focused on tribal extremist figures like Mehsud, who has mounted a serious challenge to the authority of Pakistan's embattled government.
In recent weeks, his militiamen are believed to have overrun several Pakistani military forts in the lawless northwestern region of Waziristan. "Pakistani officials are increasingly aware of the threats Mehsud poses inside their own country," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. "It's clear that he would like to destabilize the Pakistani government and is willing to use violence to try to do just that."
U.S. officials are also alarmed by the activities of Mehsud, who as a leader of Pakistan's own Taliban movement is closely tied to the Afghan Taliban, as well as to top al Qaeda leaders. Mehsud is quickly becoming a serious destabilizing force in the region, accused of funneling an astonishing number of suicide bombers to targets not only in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces operate. "Baitullah Mehsud is a primary ringmaster for cultivating and deploying suicide bombers," says Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the Rand Corp. think tank. "He himself has said so. It's a banner of honor he drapes about himself."
Indeed, a United Nations report from last August quotes a Taliban source claiming that more than 80 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan pass through recruitment centers, training facilities, or safe houses in Waziristan before they reach their targets.
Mehsud is the primary suspect in a number of suicide bombings, but not all of his bombers have been successful. Some, for instance, have blown up only themselves. "In Afghanistan, we have seen hundreds of these suicide bombers, but they don't get any better," says Fair, who worked last year with the United Nations mission in Afghanistan. "He may have quantity, but he doesn't have quality. His suicide bombers tend to be better in Pakistan."
While both Pakistani and U.S. officials have fingered Mehsud as the likely mastermind of the Bhutto assassination, his actual role remains unclear, like many other details about his life. He is believed to be in his mid-30s but has never completed studies at a school or a madrasah (a religious school).
He has kept his face hidden from journalists, meaning that few outsiders even know what he looks like, although locals report that he receives treatment for diabetes. "Despite the fact that he is a diabetic, he is a very active man," says Hussein Barki, a local tribal chief. "He changes his hide-outs so frequently, leaving the intelligence agencies clueless about him."
Mehsud began his rise a decade ago, when he headed off to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. He comes from the Mehsud tribe, the largest in South Waziristan, but he, like most of his jihadist counterparts, did not have any stature in traditional tribal leadership. "They came up outside the tribal structure through the meritocracy of jihad," says Fair. "They raised money harboring al Qaeda and other elements" in Pakistan's tribal regions.
Mehsud at one point was identified as an aide to Abdullah Mehsud, a former U.S. prisoner at Guantánamo Bay who emerged as a Taliban commander. He soon split from Abdullah, who was killed last year in a shootout with Pakistani forces.
Baitullah Mehsud was also involved in one of the short-lived peace deals that the Pakistani government has tried to strike in recent years with tribal leaders to rein in extremists. The 2005 deal quickly failed, but Mehsud gained enhanced credibility for his role. "The lesson is you can't make peace deals with these extremist leaders," says Lisa Curtis, an expert on Pakistan at the Heritage Foundation.
His most high-profile attack came in August when his militia captured some 250 Pakistani soldiers and held them hostage for two months. To resolve the crisis, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf struck a deal with Mehsud to swap the captive soldiers for 25 militants (including a number of suicide bombers) held in government custody. Mehsud freed the soldiers, but Musharraf refused to release the militants, sparking the current wave of attacks by Mehsud on Pakistani government targets.
Some U.S. officials hope that Mehsud may finally be overreaching with his frontal assault on the Pakistani government. "The arrogance of his subsequent combat operations may be a heck of an opportunity for the Pakistanis to really go after him," says Dell Dailey, a retired lieutenant general who serves now as the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.
But Mehsud has become deeply entrenched in Waziristan. The immediate source of his power is a corps of several hundred foreign fighters, mostly Uzbeks and other Central Asians, whom he commands. Along with his tribal followers, Mehsud is estimated to command several thousand armed militiamen, although he has claimed higher numbers.
Either way, Mehsud has established himself as someone locals respect, as well as fear. "He is no doubt the most influential and powerful person of South and North Waziristan," says Barki, the tribal chief. "He has restored law and order in the area. But people also believe that there are many bad people in his militia."
Pakistani forces have tried to strike back at Mehsud and his followers, but the most visible results have been significant casualties on the government side. With the powerful traditions of tribal loyalty, Mehsud also appears to have benefited from the local reaction to the government's assault on him. "Those who are not supporters of Osama [bin Laden] or Baitullah, even they have been forced by the indiscriminate military operations to harbor sympathies for them," says Momin Khan, the owner of a small trucking company in South Waziristan.
Still, Mehsud is a "ferocious enforcer" of his harsh interpretation of Islamic law, according to one U.S. intelligence official, and his zealotry has begun to alienate many locals. "He has enforced his own rules in the area binding men not to shave their beards," says Naseeb Khan, who runs a small public telephone office in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan. "Playing music and watching videos are against the law here."
Still, Khan adds that if he needs to settle any kind of legal issue, he will go to Mehsud and not the local courts. Says Khan, "He is the law here."