HOW do you track down a foe without a face? That is the challenge posed by Baitullah Mehsud, the man who could well be the newest Enemy No. 1 in the war on terror. Since he first emerged as a young jihadist leader three years ago, the black-bearded and slow-talking tribal leader has transformed his Mehsud clan's mountainous badlands in the northwest corner of Pakistan into a safe haven for Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and outlawed Pakistani jihadists.
Though uneducated, and only in his mid-30s, Baitullah snookered Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf into a fake peace deal two years ago -- and even got him to hand over a few hundred thousand dollars. Just as important, Baitullah has learned the hard lessons of previous jihadists who grew too enamored of the spotlight for their own good.
According to Afghan Taliban who know him, he travels in a convoy of pickups protected by two dozen heavily armed guards, he rarely sleeps in the same bed twice in a row, and his face has never been photographed. They say his role model is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the equally mysterious Taliban leader who disappeared from view in 2001.
US officials have distanced themselves somewhat from the Pakistani government's swift -- perhaps too swift -- conclusion that Baitullah was behind the December 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The slain former prime minister's Pakistan Peoples Party also disputed that claim, pointing the finger instead at figures within the government. Even Musharraf toned down previous statements from his own officials definitively assigning blame to Baitullah, and late last week he invited Scotland Yard to help with the investigation.
Still, most US experts agree that Baitullah is the most likely culprit. Musharraf told a press conference last Friday that the tribal leader was behind most if not all of the 19 suicide bombings in Pakistan, including the two aimed at Bhutto, in the past three months. "He is the only one who had the capacity," says one Afghan Taliban with close connections to Mehsud, Al Qaeda and Pakistani militants. (The source, who has proved reliable in the past, would speak only if his identity were protected.)
Last week the Pakistani government produced an intercept in which it claims Baitullah was heard telling a militant cleric after Bhutto's murder: "Fantastic job. Very brave boys, the ones who killed her." Pakistani and US authorities now fear that Baitullah, encouraged by the chaos that followed Bhutto's assassination, will try to wreak more havoc before the rescheduled February 18 national elections.
The Afghan Taliban source claims that Baitullah and his Qaeda allies had laid out remarkably intricate plans for killing Bhutto, who was a champion of secular democracy and a declared enemy of the jihadists. He says Baitullah and Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri -- along with Zawahiri's deputy, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, Al Qaeda's new commander of military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- had dispatched suicide-bomber squads to five cities: Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where she was killed.
Their orders were to follow Bhutto with the aim of assassinating her if an opportunity presented itself. (Two US counterterrorism officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing the investigation, say there are growing indications of Baitullah's involvement in the assassination.)
Baitullah and his allies have even grander plans, the Afghan source says. Her assassination is only part of Zawahiri's long-nurtured plan to destabilize Pakistan and Musharraf's regime, wage war in Afghanistan, and then destroy democracy in other Islamic countries such as Turkey and Indonesia.
Baitullah's alleged emergence as the triggerman in this grand scheme illustrates the mutability of the jihadist enemy since 9/11. As recently as June 2004, Iraq was said to be Al Qaeda's main battleground, and Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was the terror chieftain whom US authorities worried about most. Baitullah was then a largely unknown subcommander in South Waziristan. But that same month, a US Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone killed Nek Mohammad, the young, dashing and publicity-hungry tribal leader in Waziristan.
Al Qaeda and tribal militants promoted the young Baitullah to a command position. His equally young Mehsud clansman, Abdullah Mehsud -- a one-legged jihadist who had recently been released from two years of detention in Guant? Namo -- also seemed to be a rising star. But after the botched kidnapping of two Chinese engineers working on a dam in the tribal area, a local council backed by Al Qaeda removed Abdullah and replaced him with the little-known Baitullah, who was seen as being more levelheaded. (Abdullah was later killed in a shoot-out.)
Since then, Zarqawi has been killed by US forces, Iraq has receded as a haven for Al Qaeda, and Baitullah has come into his own as a terrorist leader in newly unstable Pakistan. Last month a council of militant leaders from the tribal agencies and neighboring areas named Baitullah the head of the newly formed Taliban Movement in Pakistan, a loose alliance of jihadist organizations in the tribal agencies.
Taliban sources who would speak only on condition of anonymity describe Baitullah as a key middleman in the jihadist network: his tribesmen provide security for Al Qaeda's rough-hewn training compounds in the tribal area as well as foot soldiers for Qaeda-designed attacks. With a long tradition as smugglers, the tribals (most of whom, like Baitullah, take Mehsud as their surname) run an extensive nationwide trucking and transport network that reaches from the borderlands into teeming cities like Karachi, allowing Baitullah to easily move men and weapons throughout Pakistan.
Baitullah has clearly outsmarted the unpopular Musharraf, whom President George W. Bush praised again last week as an "ally" who "understands clearly the risks of dealing with extremists and terrorists." In February 2005, with his military getting bloodied in the tribal areas, the Pakistani president decided to strike a peace deal with Baitullah and other militant leaders and their frontmen.
Under the terms of the deal the militants agreed not to provide assistance or shelter to foreign fighters, not to attack government forces, and not to support the Taliban or launch cross-border operations into Afghanistan. As part of the deal, Baitullah coaxed the government into giving him and the other leaders $540,000 that they supposedly owed to Al Qaeda.
The large cash infusion bolstered the jihadist forces, and under cover of the ceasefire Baitullah's territory became an even more secure safe haven. He and other militant leaders have assassinated some 200 tribal elders who dared to oppose them. The Pakistani government struck a similar peace agreement with militants in North Waziristan in September 2006, transforming much of that tribal area into a militant camp as well.
One of Baitullah's biggest successes came in August, when his men captured more than 250 Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary troops, who surrendered without firing a shot. Mehsud demanded the release of 30 jailed militants and the end of Pakistani military operations in the Mehsud tribal area as the price for the men's release. To show he meant business, he ordered the beheading of three of his hostages.
Once again, Musharraf gave in. On the day after Musharraf declared a state of emergency -- which he claimed was aimed at giving him a stronger hand to fight militants like Baitullah -- the Pakistani president released 25 jailed insurgents including several failed suicide bombers. Last week Mehsud's forces captured four more Pakistani paramilitary troops in several brazen operations that may have led to the death of 25 of his men.
In his few statements to the press, Baitullah has made his agenda frighteningly clear. He vowed, in a January 2007 interview, to continue waging a jihad against "the infidel forces of American and Britain," and to "continue our struggle until foreign troops are thrown out" of neighboring Afghanistan.
He knows he's a marked man: "The Angel of Death is flying over our heads all the time," he told the now deceased Taliban leader Mullah Akhund Dadullah at a dinner, according to one senior Taliban source. But from his secure corner of Pakistan -- a country run by a widely despised autocrat who, after Bhutto, has few real democratic successors -- Baitullah may well wage that fight for a long time to come.
© Newsweek International. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement.