Baitullah Mehsud is a natural leader: cagey, dogged and charismatic, with an apparent knack for uniting disparate factions around a common cause. But instead of channeling those talents toward building an empire, Mehsud is trying to bring one to its knees. The shadowy Pakistani Taliban commander, whose vertiginous rise to infamy landed him on 2008’s TIME 100 List, has transformed the badlands of South Waziristan into al-Qaeda’s most important redoubt. Among the atrocities attributed to Mehsud is the brazen assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Dec. 2007. Mehsud has denied involvement, but even if he’s innocent of that crime there’s no shortage of reasons TIME dubbed him “an icon of global jihad.” On March 31, Mehsud claimed responsibility for an assault the previous day on a police academy in Lahore, Pakistan that left 12 dead. He also threatened a massive terrorist attack on Washington that would “amaze everyone in the world.”
Mehsud, thought to be about 35, is an uneducated Pashtun tribesman from a modest clan; his family reportedly made their living driving trucks. He suffers from diabetes.
Though given to boasting about his grand plans for inflicting mass-murder, Mehsud is also cautious. He shuns photographers there is no definitive snapshot of his face travels in convoys protected by armed guards and hops between safe houses. Despite his bellicose rhetoric, Mehsud has been described as baby-faced and jocular in person.
Mehsud served as a Taliban fighter against the Soviets in the battle for Afghanistan, but first rose to prominence as a supporter of Abdullah Mehsud, a one-legged militant imprisoned soon after the 9/11 terror attacks at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Baitullah Mehsud quickly leapfrogged his boss, and his ascension up the jihadi ladder was made apparent in 2005, when swathed in a black cloth to shield his face he negotiated the public signing of a cease-fire agreement with the Pakistani government. He has also served as the protege of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Under the cover afforded by the agreement he was once touted by a Pakistani Army official as a “good Taliban” Mehsud quickly tightened his grip on Waziristan, converting the rugged region into a haven where militant groups could freely operate camps and training facilities. In 2007, he signaled the depth of his influence in the region when he took hostage more than 200 soldiers who had been on patrol.
The 2007 assault on a group of radical students at Islamabad’s Red Mosque by the Pakistani army shattered any pretenses of a peace agreement, and Mehsud’s vows of revenge for the incident only brought him greater fame. In December of that year, he was tapped by a Taliban council to consolidate the group’s loosely affiliated factions in Pakistan. The same month, on Dec. 27, former Prime Minister Benazir was assassinated.
With a reported 20,000 militants at his command, Mehsud is 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 the region. Mehsud has reportedly executed more than 100 rival tribal leaders to consolidate power.
Has a $5 million bounty on his head, courtesy of the U.S. government.
“Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world.”
Explaining that recent attacks were intended to avenge American missile strikes on Pakistani border areas.
“Only jihad can bring peace to the world.”
Espousing his philosophy during an interview with the BBC.
“Fantastic job. Very brave boys, the ones who killed her.”
Communication intercepted and produced by the Pakistani government that allegedly fingered Mehsud as being behind Bhutto’s assassination.
“He is the law here.”
Naseem Khan, a business owner in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan.
“South Waziristan now seems like a state within the state, and Baitullah Mehsud is running this like a head of government. Now he’s an all-powerful man whose writ and command is visible across the tribal belt.”
On Mehsud’s burgeoning influence.
“Baitullah is much stronger, much better. His way of talking, how he acts he is a much more powerful leader.”
Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Pakistan bureau chief for al-Jazeera, weighing in on comparisons between Mehsud and Mullah Omar, the famously reclusive leader of the Afghan Taliban.
Read Joe Klein on Mehsud
Read “The Face of Pakistan’s New Taliban”