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U.S. charges Pakistani Taliban leader with killing Americans

By Spencer S. Hsu and William Branigin
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 3:14 PM

The U.S. government designated the Pakistani Taliban a terrorist group Wednesday and accused its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, of involvement in a December suicide bombing that killed seven Americans at a forward CIA post in eastern Afghanistan.

A criminal complaint, filed Aug. 20 by the Justice Department in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia and unsealed Wednesday, charges Mehsud with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens abroad and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, namely explosives, against them.

Mehsud was thought to have been killed by a U.S. drone strike in January, but he resurfaced in May in videos in which he vowed to attack U.S. cities.

As the Justice Department announced the charges, the State Department on Wednesday officially designated the Pakistani Taliban as a "foreign terrorist organization" and labeled Mehsud and another Taliban leader, Wali ur-Rehman, as "specially designated global terrorists."

The two-count criminal complaint against Mehsud cites a prerecorded video released after a Dec. 30, 2009, bombing by a Jordanian double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, of a U.S. military base near Khost, Afghanistan. In the video, Mehsud and Balawi appear together and claim responsibility for the impending attack, which killed seven CIA officers and contractors and injured six other U.S. citizens.

"Today's charges underscore our continuing commitment to seek justice for Americans who are murdered or victimized by overseas terrorist attacks," said David Kris, Assistant Attorney General for National Security.

In designating Mehsud and Rehman as global terrorists, the State Department offered a reward of up to $5 million each for information leading to their location.

Mehsud, self-proclaimed emir of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban is known, is based in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas. He has sought to expel Pakistani government troops from the region and battle U.S. coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The group also claimed responsibility for the May 1 failed bombing of Times Square in New York.

U.S. authorities said the TTP has claimed responsibility for, or is alleged to have had a role in, numerous other attacks, including the December 2007 assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and raids on NATO supply lines throughout Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas. The Justice Department said the group has often coordinated attacks with other terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Mehsud inherited the leadership of the TTP from his cousin, Baitullah Mehsud, the group's founder, who died in August 2009.

In the video cited in the criminal complaint, Mehsud explains that the motive for attacking the CIA base was revenge for the death of Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in the rugged South Waziristan region of Pakistan along the Afghan border.

The CIA base that was attacked in December 2009 was at the heart of a covert program overseeing strikes by the agency's missile-firing Predator drones, U.S. officials said. The bombing carried out by Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA to infiltrate al-Qaeda's inner circle, killed seven Americans and a Jordanian officer who had been assigned to work with him. Balawi gained access to the post, called Forward Operating Base Chapman, by offering new information about al-Qaeda's top leadership, then detonating explosives he had hidden under his clothing.

Hakimullah Mehsud is currently a fugitive believed to be residing in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as the lawless northwestern border region is officially known.

If apprehended and convicted of the charges unsealed Wednesday, Mehsud would face a maximum sentence of life in prison, the Justice Department said.

Since July, the United States has also designated for sanctions the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network and three financiers: Gul Agha Ishakzai, head of the Taliban's financial commission; Amir Abdullah, former treasurer to senior Afghan Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar; and Nasiruddin Haqqani, an emissary for the Haqqani network.

Last month, the U.S. government named as a terrorist organization Harkat-e-Jihad-e-Islami, an anti-India Pakistani group linked to al-Qaeda. Its leader, Mohammed Ilyas Kashmiri, was listed as a designated global terrorist.

Earlier, the government slapped terrorist designations on U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi and the group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates in Yemen.

Under the designations, the groups are subject to sanctions such as asset freezes, travel limits and arms embargoes.

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