The Face of Pakistan’s New Taliban

Suicide Bomb Taliban Pakistan

Already blamed by Pakistan and the CIA for killing Benazir Bhutto, Baitullah Mehsud is just getting started. The articulate, baby-faced commander of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal wilds along the Afghan border is waging an increasingly coordinated insurgency threatening further destabilization on the eve of parliamentary elections. His forces have embarrassed the Pakistani military in recent weeks by attacking its forts, inflicting heavy losses and seizing weapons before retreating into the mountains of South Waziristan, Mehsud’s home turf.

In what appears to be a coordinated effort, the attacks on the forts in South Waziristan came at the same time as the electrical grid and another fort in neighboring North Waziristan came under attack. The upsurge of attacks in an area that has been relatively calm of late rings alarm bells for terrorism analyst Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute For Peace Studies. “We are seeing this now, simultaneous attacks from different regions. This is a strong indication that different groups are working together. They are coordinating attacks, sharing the same objective.”

The thirtysomething Mehsud cut his teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and later sharpened his political aspirations while serving the Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Omar, to whom he refers as his “Ameerul Momineen,” or Commander of the Faithful. But some local analysts see Mehsud as potentially an even more formidable jihadist than his mentor.

Mehsud is an affable jokester who wears a camouflage vest over his traditional tunic and trousers, according to Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Pakistan bureau chief for al-Jazeera. Zaidan interviewed Mehsud just days after he was chosen by several diverse militant groups in December to lead the new Tehrik-i-Taliban movement. The interview, which will air Friday, is a first for the commander who seems to take his PR cues from the notoriously camera-shy Mullah Omar. Mehsud was surprisingly plump, says Zaidan, but his soft, stout figure and easy camaraderie belie a powerful charisma and laser-like focus. Zaidan attributes some of Baitullah’s savvy to better education and more exposure to al-Qaeda: “These militant leaders now, they are living in the eye of the storm. They learn more in one minute than the Taliban did in a year.”

By comparison, says Zaidan, “I interviewed Mullah Omar once, in 1995. He was just starting out, like [Baitullah] is. But Baitullah is much stronger, much better. His way of talking, how he acts — he is a much more powerful leader.”

The Pakistani government appears to agree. It has accused Mehsud of orchestrating the attack that killed former Prime Minister Bhutto in December, and CIA Director Michael Hayden has indicated that he supports this conclusion. Authorities are currently interviewing Aitzaz Shah, a 15-year-old militant who confessed last week that he had been part of a backup plan, one of several local suicide cells scattered across the country that was ordered to attack when the right opportunity presented itself.

A recent Gallup poll shows that more than half of Pakistanis remain unconvinced; some even suspect government involvement in the assassination. Mehsud, through his spokesman, has denied involvement, but Zaidan believes Mehsud would certainly have had a motive to kill Benazir. “If I put myself in his shoes, of course I’m not going to take credit. Why give a clear answer to the intelligence services? Make them work. From Mehsud’s interest point, it suits him to kill her. Musharraf is no longer of use to the West; he is too unpopular. But Benazir could deliver. She had popular support. These people think once you eliminate Bhutto, you have given a big blow to the government.”

To Rana, the confession of the boy bomber meshes well with the modus operandi of Mehsud’s loose coalition. “Mehsud is not only organizing in the tribal areas,” says Rana. “He is trying to unify all of the insurgent movements, even from Karachi and Baluchistan. These groups will have mutual understanding on one issue, and they will work together to achieve their common goals.”

Their primary agenda is ousting Western forces from Afghanistan, and they have made clear their intention to attack all local allies of the U.S. and NATO. That makes the Pakistani government a prime target, and U.S. and Nato commanders in Afghanistan have noted that al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the border areas appear to have shifted their focus away from Afghanistan to striking targets in Pakistan.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban is due to meet again in the coming days, says Rana. An umbrella movement in its infancy, it will need time to iron out internal differences and optimize its operational capacity. But already, Rana has seen evidence of enhanced capabilities and the sharing of training and resources. And, following the classic guerrilla warfare playbook, the movement is combining military assaults on army posts with political work among the local civilian population. “Once they are united, with support bases in Karachi, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, they will form small Taliban committees,” says Rana. “They will not be violent or militant. They will preach to the people, they will say this is good, and this is against Islam. They will praise those who go to mosque and shame the others. They will tell the people they are just there to bring Sharia. Once they are accepted, then will come their militias.”

That vision sounds frighteningly similar to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Of course, Mehsud was with Mullah Omar when the Taliban first started. Clearly he took notes.

—With reporting by Rahimullah Yusufzai/Peshawar

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Was Al-Qaeda Behind Beirut Bombing?

Friday, Jan. 25, 2008

Firefighters extinguish burning cars at the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon Friday, Jan. 25, 2008.

As a top Lebanese police investigator into a spate of bomb attacks as well as the activities of al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country, Captain Wissam Eid had no shortage of potential enemies. One of those foes got to Eid Friday morning, killing him and at least three other people in a powerful car bomb explosion, nearly identical to the attacks he had been investigating.

“We got the message but we will carry on our mission in protecting Lebanon,” said Brigadier General Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon’s paramilitary Internal Security Forces, at the scene of the attack. The 31-year-old Eid ran the technical department of the ISF’s intelligence branch and was a communications specialist.

So who killed Eid? Neighboring Syria seeking to re-impose its grip on Lebanon? Al-Qaeda-related groups attempting to destabilize Lebanon? A combination of the two, perhaps?

The explosion below an overpass in an eastern suburb of Beirut turned Eid’s car into a tangled wreck of fire-blackened metal, destroyed or damaged at least 20 other vehicles, shattered glass in a nearby office building and sent a plume of dark smoke into the sky from burning vehicles. Soldiers sealed off the area as fire engines and ambulances raced to the scene of the blast.

Most Lebanese have become grimly accustomed to the sporadic bomb blasts blighting Lebanon since October 2004. But the rate of attacks has sharply increased in the past month, matching rising tensions in Lebanon as a prolonged political crisis between pro- and anti-Syrian factions shows every sign of worsening. The majority of bomb assassinations in the past three years have targeted anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, spurring many Lebanese to blame Damascus. These latest attacks have struck senior Lebanese security officials and foreign targets, and come amid heightened activity by al-Qaeda-related groups in Lebanon.

At the end of December, Osama bin Laden described the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon as “Crusaders” sent to Lebanon “to protect the Jews” of Israel. On January 7, another taped message was aired on a jihadist website purportedly from Shaker al-Absi, the fugitive leader of the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group, which waged a bloody three month battle against the Lebanese army last summer. In the 58-minute message, Absi threatened attacks against the Lebanese army. “The mill of war has started to grind … between the infidels and the believers,” he said.

The next day, suspected Sunni jihadists fired at least two rockets from south Lebanon into Israel, and hours later a roadside bomb exploded beside a U.N. vehicle, lightly wounding two Irish peacekeepers. On January 15, a vehicle driven by American embassy security personnel was damaged in a car bomb explosion. Three bystanders were killed — although the occupants of the embassy car survived — in what was the first attack against an official American target since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Furthermore, Western intelligence sources tell TIME that Al-Saadi Nahed, a Saudi extremist and veteran of the insurgency in Iraq, has been appointed “emir” for al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Nahed, who, according to intelligence sources, arrived in Lebanon earlier this month, has replaced Fahd al-Mughamis, who was arrested last June in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley along with other members of his cell while plotting to carry out bombings. Last month, an indictment against Mughamis stated that he was al-Qaeda’s coordinator for Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and that his cell had been trained by Esbat al-Ansar, a jihadist faction based in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.

“Bin Laden’s statement seems to have heralded an al-Qaeda resurgence here,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “There is a logical correlation between these recent [bomb] incidents and this latest one [Eid’s assassination] related to al-Qaeda activity.”

But other analysts and commentators suspect Syria is to blame, arguing that Eid’s murder fits the pattern of past professionally conducted car bomb assassinations in which Syrian involvement was strongly suspected. Writing in the anti-Syrian Al-Mustaqbal newspaper last week, columnist Fadi Shamieh said that recent attacks in Lebanon suggest a convergence of interests between Syria and some Sunni jihadists operating in Lebanon. “Even if there are no ideological links between these two sides, both are diligently working to create trouble as soon as possible which would serve the interest of the extremists … [and] the objectives of hostile intelligence service,” he wrote.

Omar Nashabe, security and judicial affairs correspondent of the Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, said that Eid’s involvement with investigations into past bombings had made him a potential target. “He told me that he felt he was under threat,” Nashabe told TIME. He added that while Eid could have been killed by Sunni jihadists, other suspects should not be ruled out. “He was helping in the investigation into Rafik Hariri’s death,” he said.

Hariri, a former Lebanese Prime Minister who opposed Syrian dominance of Lebanon, was killed in a massive truck bomb blast in February 2005. His death, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria, sparked protests that compelled Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon two months later. Since then, Syria’s critics in Lebanon accuse Damascus of seeking to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon through assassinations and intimidation. Syria denies any involvement in Hariri’s death and the subsequent assassinations.

Still, as with other killings in Lebanon over the past three years, the truth behind Eid’s death lies lost in the depths of Lebanon’s Gordian knot of intrigue, conspiracy, prejudice and deceit.