Camera-shy killer and a savvy dealmaker | delhi | Hindustan Times
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Camera-shy killer and a savvy dealmaker

Baitullah Mehsud is said to be behind most of the suicide attacks in Pak, making it tough to believe he didn't do the biggest yet, writes Yashwant Raj.

delhi Updated: Dec 30, 2007 00:46 IST
Yashwant Raj

Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations, I just got back during the night.
Baitullah Mehsud: Congratulations to you, were they our men?
Maulvi Sahib: Yes they were ours.
Baitullah Mehsud: Who were they?
Maulvi Sahib: There was Saeed, there was Bilal from Badar and Ikramullah.
Baitullah Mehsud: Three of them did it?
Maulvi Sahib: Ikramullah and Bilal did.
Baitullah Mehsud: Then congratulations.

(Transcript of a conversation between Baitullah Mehsud and a militant, according to the Pakistani government)

Baitullah Mehsud has since denied being the Baitullah Mehsud of the above conversation, transcripts of which were widely circulated on Thursday as proof of his involvement in the killing of Benazir Bhutto.

A spokesperson for Mehsud said on Friday, "I strongly deny it. Tribal people have their own customs. We don't strike women." The denial has been noted and filed, but not accepted as the final word on the issue.

Mehsud and his people are not exactly gentlemen, despite their protestations. The militant commander is said to be behind most of the suicide attacks in Pakistan — making it tough to believe he didn't do the biggest yet.

If there was a pecking order in terror, he is assured of a position somewhere near the top. He was recently chosen chief of the Tehrik Taliban-e-Pakistan, a coalition of pro-Taliban groups from Pakistan's northwest.

The 34-year old Mehsud is famously camera shy, much like the Taliban chief Mullah Omar — the two reportedly share a good relationship. According to the BBC, "He does not allow his picture to be taken."

So, very few people outside his group know what he looks like. Mehsud is only 34 and came into his own after the death of his more famous brother Abdullah Mehsud, whose long hair made him look like a rock star.

Abdullah fought along side the Taliban in Afghanistan and lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine in 1996. After 9/11, Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum captured him and handed him over to the Americans.

He was freed after two years, returned to Waziristan and died in 2007 fighting Pakistani army in a raid on his residence.

Baitullah doesn't share his elder brother's flamboyance and love for publicity.

But he is just as menacing, if not more. Mehsud belongs to the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan's South Waziristan region, which he has turned into a safe haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters on the run from American forces.

He likes to find a justification for his actions in religion and is a firm believer in jihad. He told the BBC in an interview earlier this year, "Only jihad can bring peace to the world."

But he is not beyond doing deals. And deals for profit. He is believed to have taken money from the Taliban to hunt down diplomats of countries that published pictures of Allah during the Danish drawing controversy.

Indian official sources told the Hindustan Times, "He also took considerable amount of money from the Pakistanis to sign a peace accord." Apparently they needed money to pay off debts owed to al-Qaeda.

He was being paid to denounce his Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers. But, he told the negotiators, he owned them money and would not be possible to cut links without returning what he owed them.

Indian intelligence sources said, "We don't rule out his involvement in the assassination — but we will have to wait for other indicators before coming to a conclusion."

After all Baitullah is known to have worked very closely with the Pakistani intelligence. And was perhaps a conduit between his "runners" and their Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.

It is said Baitullah worked very closely with Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who helped Osama bin Laden escape from the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. Osama trail has gone cold since.

But Baitullah stayed in business. First with his brother and now on his own leading a 20,000-strong militia. That's a lot of firepower. Could he have been behind Bhutto's assassination?