By Imtiaz Ali and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 30, 2007
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Dec. 29 -- The man named by Pakistani officials as the chief organizer of Benazir Bhutto's assassination is a widely feared tribal commander at the vanguard of efforts by extremist groups to draw Pakistan deeper into their insurgent campaign.
Baitullah Mehsud, a pro-Taliban figure based in the lawless border region of South Waziristan, is believed to lead an army of thousands of followers who over the past year have been looking increasingly to the east in Pakistan for their targets, rather than west to Afghanistan.
If Mehsud was behind Bhutto's killing, it would be his most audacious attack to date. But he is believed to be responsible for many other high-profile attacks in Pakistan, including an operation this year in which his men held more than 150 army soldiers for weeks.
Pakistani officials said Friday that they had intercepted a phone call in which Mehsud congratulated his men for assassinating Bhutto. That allegation was disputed Saturday, as a purported spokesman for Mehsud denied any link between the insurgent leader and Bhutto's death.
"It's baseless," Maulvi Omar, who claims to be the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told local journalists in the Waziristan region. "Benazir's killing is a political issue."
Bhutto's supporters have said much the same, arguing that elements of the government are responsible for the attack and that pinning the blame on Mehsud is an attempt to provide cover for the true culprits.
But security experts in Pakistan's restive northwest said Mehsud had the motive and the means to order the strike.
"Baitullah Mehsud is capable of doing such things. He has a lot of trained suicide bombers who can carry out such attacks with precision," said Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier general and former head of security in the tribal areas.
Fazal Rahim Marwat, a professor at the University of Peshawar, said suspicion will inevitably fall on Mehsud because of his alleged ties to al-Qaeda. "The modus operandi in the Bhutto killing was pretty sophisticated, one with resemblance to al-Qaeda's strategies," Marwat said.
But Marwat also noted the long-standing connections between insurgent groups such as Mehsud's and the Pakistani military, which created the Taliban to wage war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, only to see the movement turn against Pakistan in recent years.
"One should not forget the anti-Bhutto factor in the all-powerful Pakistani military establishment, which has always nurtured right-wing parties and even militant groups in the country to outnumber and compete with liberal voices like that of Benazir Bhutto," he said.
A tribal fighter and close aide of Mehsud, who identified himself as Qalam Shah, said in an interview that he did not know of any involvement by Mehsud in Bhutto's death. But he expressed contempt for Bhutto.
"By all accounts, she was here in Pakistan to make a joint government with Perez Musharraf on the U.S.'s instructions, and to extend and serve the U.S. agenda in the region," Shah said. "Her speeches were clearly indicating her tilt toward the United States, and there was an increasing fear among mujaheddins that she may launch more vigorous military operations than Pervez Musharraf at the behest of the United States."
Bhutto had been outspoken about the need for Pakistan to confront Islamic extremism, warning in dire terms that groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda pose an existential threat to the nation.
For years, the ability and willingness of insurgents to strike within Pakistan appeared to be limited. But both seem to be growing, and the results have been devastating, with several hundred Pakistanis killed in attacks in the past six months. The pace and scale of the strikes picked up after the military raided the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, an operation that Bhutto supported.
An October attack on Bhutto's homecoming from exile -- which claimed at least 140 lives -- employed powerful explosives in two blasts. The attack, also blamed on Mehsud by some government officials, bore similarities to the strike that killed Bhutto on Thursday.
The military has allegedly made several unsuccessful efforts to kill or capture Mehsud. In 2005, the government cut a peace deal with Mehsud -- one that locals in South Waziristan say only made him stronger. Mehsud backed out of the deal after the Red Mosque raid.
"This deal with the government made Mehsud the uncrowned king of Waziristan," said Noor Mohammad Wazir, a resident of South Waziristan's main town. "Now he is running the whole show, and Pakistani troops are just spectators."
Witte reported from Karachi.