Taliban Insurgent Mehsud Makes His Move

Baitullah Mehsud, the brazen jihadist operating along the violent, lawless border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has a curious gift for escape. On several occasions over the past couple of years, security forces in Pakistan have launched operations to kill or capture him, and each time he has vanished without incident. Based in South Waziristan, where he heads a group known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Mehsud has made a name for himself since late 2007 as one of the militants' most ambitious leaders. Increasingly emboldened, Mehsud claimed credit last week for a deadly paramilitary assault on a police academy near Lahore and threatened the White House, telling the Associated Press: "Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world." U.S. officials generally dismiss the threat—Mehsud is not believed to possess either the resources or the global reach to pull off such an attack—but his elusiveness suggests that he has friends in high places.

Two counterterrorism experts familiar with official U.S. government reporting, who each requested anonymity when discussing sensitive matters, said that officials in both Washington and Islamabad suspect Mehsud has contacts inside the ISI, Pakistan's inscrutable and sprawling intelligence agency. Mehsud's contacts, the theory goes, are tipping him off before Pakistani troops can pounce. According to a Pakistani source who follows the issue, high-level American officials have shared with their counterparts in Islamabad some intelligence indicating that renegade ISI elements helped Mehsud's group train for the December 2007 assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is now the country's president. (U.S. officials either declined to discuss that point or said they couldn't confirm it.) Given Mehsud's odious reputation and Pakistan's purported knowledge of his whereabouts, "it's a puzzle why they're ignoring and avoiding any strike against him," one tribal elder in the region, who asked for his name to be withheld for safety reasons, told NEWSWEEK.

MEHSUD definitely has one other well-connected ally in the region. "Baitullah is very much mixed up in Afghanistan and with Al Qaeda," said one Afghan Taliban commander, who also requested anonymity, adding that Mehsud was capable of shipping foreign fighters into Afghanistan "and even [farther] west." Several U.S. officials consider such threats to be mere chest-thumping, but they don't rule out the possibility that Mehsud could be cooperating with better-equipped jihadists, such as the remnants of Al Qaeda's high command. Frances Townsend, a top counterterrorism adviser to former president George W. Bush, notes that Mehsud has already demonstrated his ability to mount attacks inside Pakistani cities, well beyond his base of operations. "You have got to be careful about dismissing [his more expansive threats] out of hand," Townsend warned.