Taliban Leader Once Held by U.S. Dies in Pakistan Raid

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 24 -- A top Taliban commander who became one of Pakistan's most wanted men after his release from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, died Tuesday as security forces raided his hideout, officials here said.

Abdullah Mehsud had earned a fearsome reputation by orchestrating repeated attacks and kidnappings. Intelligence agencies regarded him as a key figure in an insurgency that has recently been gathering intensity on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Pakistani officials said Mehsud blew himself up with a grenade early Tuesday rather than surrender as security forces closed in on his hideout in Zhob, a town in Baluchistan province about 30 miles from the Afghan border. The town is also near Waziristan, a tribal area where the Pakistani military has been clashing with extremist fighters.

Mehsud is one of seven former Guantanamo detainees publicly identified by U.S. Defense Department officials as having returned to the fight following their release. Defense officials have said that as many as 23 other freed men, whom they have not identified, have taken up arms again. Mehsud was among a small group the officials suspect took an influential role after leaving the facility.

"This is a big blow to the Pakistani Taliban," said Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "He was one of the most important commanders that the Taliban had in Waziristan."

Other security sources, however, said that Mehsud's effectiveness had been limited in recent years because he was being closely pursued by authorities, and that he was mistrusted by rival commanders.

"He was in close contact with Taliban commanders in southern Afghanistan, but strangely he had severed contacts with the leaders of his own tribe in Waziristan," one Pakistani intelligence official said.

Mehsud's death follows a rise in violence in Pakistan and growing U.S. pressure on the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to produce evidence that he is cracking down on militancy in an area where al-Qaeda is believed to be active.

A controversial cease-fire with tribal militants in North Waziristan collapsed last week, and since then, they have carried out a wave of deadly strikes that have claimed about 180 lives. In recent days, the army has been fighting back, and a military buildup in the region continued Tuesday.

Residents of North Waziristan reported heavy shelling in the area late Tuesday as last-ditch efforts to revive the deal apparently failed. Early Wednesday, eight people died and 35 were injured when rockets, allegedly launched by insurgents, slammed into a civilian area in the northwestern town of Bannu, police said.

Mehsud, who was believed to be about 31, fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s as it battled the group known as the Northern Alliance for supremacy in Afghanistan.

Mehsud was captured in northern Afghanistan in late 2001, after the U.S. invasion in October that year. Following 25 months in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, he was released in March 2004, according to the Defense Department. He apparently succeeded in concealing his identity while there. Following his release, the Defense Department said it had determined he had been associated with the Taliban since his teenage years and had been described as an "al-Qaeda-linked facilitator."

After his release, Mehsud reportedly bragged that he had convinced the Americans he was Afghan, not Pakistani.

Almost as soon as he got out, the one-legged fighter -- he lost the other to a land mine -- resumed waging war. In Afghanistan, he helped coordinate operations against U.S.-led forces, and in Pakistan he took on the national army. The baby-faced commander, who was reputed to have ties to al-Qaeda, gave frequent interviews to journalists in the Waziristan area. He was known for riding through the region's rough terrain on camel or horseback.

Pakistani officials put an $84,000 bounty on his head after his followers kidnapped two Chinese engineers in October 2004. One engineer died during a rescue operation; the other survived.

Retired Maj. Ikram Sehgal, now a security analyst, said Mehsud's boldness and his unwillingness to negotiate made him a popular leader among radical fighters. "This is a major development," Sehgal said. "Abdullah Mehsud was a youthful leader who was totally intransigent. So he was someone around whom a lot of people had gathered."

But another former high-ranking officer said those same qualities earned him enemies among fellow Taliban commanders and limited his influence. "He was an educated man. But at the same time he was also very emotional, impatient and unreliable," said retired Brig. Mehmood Shah, who recently left the government after years in jobs focusing on tribal area issues.

Analysts agreed that Mehsud's death would hurt the Taliban in the short term. But the group has a diffuse organizational structure and others are likely to move in quickly to replace him. A commander who outranked Abdullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, remains at large. The two are members of the same clan.

Pakistan's intelligence agencies used a tip to track Abdullah Mehsud's movements over the past several days, according to Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman. Early Tuesday, paramilitary forces surrounded a private residence in Zhob that belonged to a local leader of a hard-line religious party.

Maulan Habibur Rehman, Zhob's mayor, said the security forces cordoned off the area, raided the compound and used tear gas to force the occupants out. Three suspected Taliban members were captured during the operation.

Cheema said the raid had been "a solo operation" for which the United States provided no support.

The Pakistani government has been trying in recent days to distance itself from the United States, as American officials decline to rule out the possibility of carrying out counterterrorism operations on Pakistani soil. Such moves would be deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is on the rise.

Staff writer Josh White in Washington and special correspondents Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company