CIA bomber calls for attacks on U.S. in video

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A01

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- When a missile from an unmanned U.S. aircraft in August killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of a violent crusade for radical Islam in Pakistan's tribal northwest, U.S. and Pakistani officials thought they had scored a major blow against the forces of jihad.

But Mehsud's death served as the apparent source of inspiration for the Jordanian suicide bomber and al-Qaeda double agent whose Dec. 30 attack at an American base in eastern Afghanistan killed seven CIA officers and contractors.

In a chilling videotape released posthumously Saturday by the Pakistani Taliban and broadcast on regional TV channels, bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, 32, called on Muslim holy warriors worldwide to avenge Mehsud's death by attacking U.S. targets.

"We will never forget the blood of our emir Baitullah Mehsud," Balawi said on the tape, using the title that means leader of the Muslim faithful. "We will always demand revenge for him inside America and outside."

The videotape confirmed the Pakistani Taliban's central role in the bombing and exposed its close links with al-Qaeda and with the Afghan Taliban. It suggested an unexpected degree of coordination, capability and shared ambition among the three movements that some experts here said may force the United States to reassess its regional and even global counterterrorism strategy.

The tape also indicated that Mehsud's successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, a man in his 20s who was shown on the tape with Balawi in an undisclosed location, has matured into a full-fledged terrorist operative in his own right.

"It was surprising, yes. The Taliban do not have the reach to recruit people outside Pakistan, and our intelligence people thought al-Qaeda would not have enough confidence in Hakimullah yet," said retired Brig. Mehmood Shah, a former security chief for northwestern Pakistan based in Peshawar. "This attack shows that he has definitely been working directly with them."

The CIA has declined to comment publicly on the bomber's identity or his connections and did not issue a formal assessment of the videotape.

"These terrorist groups are scorpions in a bottle," said one U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They're like a stew -- once it's made, it's hard to separate the ingredients."

'To kill Americans'

It was not clear how or why the Jordanian Balawi, an Arabic-speaking doctor whose family lives in Turkey, came to identify so strongly with Baitullah Mehsud, a reclusive tribal leader from a remote area of Pakistan.

A Taliban official reached by telephone Saturday in the conflicted tribal area of North Waziristan said Balawi had first come to the region eight months ago and approached "our Arab friends," meaning al-Qaeda operatives based in the Taliban sanctuary, who the official said were initially suspicious.

Later, the official said, Balawi met with local Taliban leaders and was taken to their trainer, Qari Hussain, to learn how to detonate a suicide bomb. He said the Jordanian was "desperate to kill Americans to take revenge for his Arab freedom fighters," as well as for Mehsud. "He was a great asset for us."

Experts on the Taliban and security issues in Pakistan said the U.S. assassination of Mehsud had helped raise the Pakistani's profile in the international Islamist terrorist movement and possibly inspired Balawi to focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan as a target area.

Mehsud, who had a reputation for ruthlessness, emerged from a tribal leadership struggle to lead a fanatical Islamist militant movement in northwestern Pakistan several years ago. In 2007, he formed an alliance of five pro-Taliban groups and was said to command about 5,000 fighters.

Pakistani and U.S. officials say Mehsud was behind several major terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi in December 2007 and the suicide bombing of a Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September 2008.

Growing al-Qaeda ties

Mehsud reportedly broke with some of his key aides over the use of suicide bombings and had one of them shot dead. At the same time, his growing reputation made him a hero among young militants, and he was accorded iconic status in some segments of the Pakistani media.

Still, Pakistani experts said, the United States was slow to grasp Mehsud's growing ties with al-Qaeda and its global ambitions. It was not until early 2009 that U.S. intelligence officials began launching drone attacks against Mehsud's tribal sanctuary in South Waziristan.

His death in such an attack, reportedly in his mid-30s, was not confirmed for several weeks, and it set off a violent and murky struggle within the Mehsud clan to replace him.

When Hakimullah Mehsud emerged as the militants' new leader, some Pakistani experts described him as even more ruthless than the elder Mehsud, but his apparent role in helping Balawi still came as a surprise. Experts in Pakistan said the Jordanian also received logistical help from the Haqqani network, an independent Afghan Taliban group with close ties to al-Qaeda that operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

"This was a sophisticated operation that took a lot of long-term planning and coordination," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and security analyst. "Look at these links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This is becoming globalized in a dangerous way, and it may mean that the Americans have to rethink their entire anti-terrorism policy."

Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington also contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company