If Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban's most dangerous and powerful leader, was indeed killed by a U.S. Predator drone strike earlier this week, the biggest loser of all may be Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. For the past eight years, the group had depended on Mehsud, his close allies, and other sympathetic tribals to protect it in South Waziristan after its previous host, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was chased from Afghanistan by American bombs in late 2001. With Mehsud gone, Al Qaeda could be in trouble. "Mehsud's death means the tent sheltering Al Qaeda has collapsed," an Afghan Taliban intelligence officer who had met Mehsud many times tells NEWSWEEK. "Without a doubt he was Al Qaeda's No. 1 guy in Pakistan," adds Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier and a former chief of the Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA, Mehsud's base.
Mehsud, whom Shah describes as being a short, slightly overweight Type-A diabetic in his late 30s, proved to be an even better host for Al Qaeda than Omar. When Omar was clearly controlling the Taliban before September 11, 2001, he was believed to have been surprised by bin Laden's attack on New York and Washington. Mehsud, by contrast, didn't just let bin Laden operate in his domain; he cultivated a symbiotic relationship with Al Qaeda. Bin Laden provided Mehsud and his allies with funds, Al Qaeda's operational planners, and ideological and military experts (some of them veterans of the first Iraq War). Bin Laden's operatives quickly became key players in Mehsud's deadly insurgent operation on both sides of the border. In Afghanistan, they furnished fighters and suicide bombers to attack U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops. In Pakistan, gunmen and suicide bombers were sent to hit Pakistani security forces, military, police, and civilian targets. Mehsud got so caught up in Al Qaeda's rhetoric that the normally quiet commander threatened in a statement last March, which few took seriously, to extend his operations to include "an attack in Washington that would amaze everyone."
Al Qaeda's expertise was crucial to Mehsud's extensive network of tribal area training camps that teach raw recruits guerrilla tactics and form hundreds of young men, some barely teenagers, into suicide bombers. Thanks partly to Al Qaeda's assistance, Mehsud ran a "suicide-bomber-on-demand" operation, providing them to allies for use in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials estimate that 90 percent of the scores of suicide and terrorist attacks inside Pakistan over the past two years can be traced back to Mehsud's South Waziristan stronghold. They blame Mehsud for the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
While both Mehsud and bin Laden have fed off of each other, Al Qaeda has become much more dependent on Mehsud. The group had come to trust Mehsud completely. After the post 9/11 U.S. bombing campaign began in Afghanistan, Mehsud, who was not then an important tribal leader, took fleeing Al Qaeda members under his wing in Pakistan. Al Qaeda reciprocated by helping to build Mehsud up as a military force. Mehsud proved to be the perfect, levelheaded Al Qaeda ally. Rather than challenging other tribal leaders, he slowly built alliances and eventually forged a loose but important alliance of tribal commanders in 2007 throughout the tribal belt and beyond, cementing the deal at a secret meeting of 40 commanders who formed the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistan Taliban Movement.
Six months earlier, Mehsud and other commanders had declared war on the Pakistani state as a result of then-president Pervez Musharraf's commando operation against the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad. In the ill-advised attack, the mosque was badly damaged and more than 100 of its militant defenders were killed. Almost immediately, Mehsud's forces began carrying out suicide bombings and ambushes against the security forces, expanding the Taliban's theater from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Feeling threatened by Mehsud's increasingly bold attacks in Pakistani cities, Islamabad privately urged Washington to target Mehsud. The clever, calculating, and cautious Mehsud had kept a low profile inside the rugged, hilly badlands of his South Waziristan tribal homeland, shunning photographers, rarely meeting the local media or boasting over the phone of his many brutal attacks—unlike other Taliban commanders whose braggadocio had cost them their lives. Feeling heat, he had become even more secretive of late and was maintaining complete electronic silence, communicating with his lieutenants largely by hand-delivered, hand-written messages. But suddenly dropping his usual caution, he visited his second wife, whom he had only married last November, at the mud-brick compound of her father in a remote village of South Waziristan late last Tuesday night. At 1 a.m., a U.S. Predator drone's precision-guided Hellfire missile destroyed one of the house's rooms, killing Mehsud and his wife and injuring several others. One of his commanders, who declined to be named, confirmed that he was dead and described his death to NEWSWEEK in a phone call from his Waziristan base. He said Mehsud had made this rare visit to the house, which he knew was under surveillance, because he had been gravely ill with diabetes. (Mehsud reportedly died with an IV drip in his arm.) "There is reason to believe that reports of his death may be true," said a U.S. counterterrorism official.
His death is a major victory for the U.S.'s war on Islamic extremists, and seriously damages the Pakistani Taliban movement, which Mehsud headed and which had vowed to destabilize the Pakistani government, and to install a Taliban-style Islamic regime in its place. The Afghan Taliban, which had relied on Mehsud-trained and -recruited suicide bombers will also miss their ally. "Mehsud brought different tribal groups together under his banner of extremism . . . It wouldn't mean the end of the Pakistani Taliban, but it would be a true setback for them," said the counterterrorism official.
Mehsud's top commanders will meet in South Waziristan's Spin Raghzi area this week to choose a new tribal leader, according to one of the participants. Whomever they pick, Al Qaeda is in trouble: none of the other tribal leaders commands the clout, coupled with a commitment to the group, to offer it the blanket protection and support that Mehsud did. His most likely successor is his equally ruthless deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud, who is reportedly 10 years younger. Another potential candidate is Wali u Rahman, Mehsud's top financial aide and former schoolteacher who is not as close to Al Qaeda. Another top lieutenant, Qari Hussain (Hakimullah's cousin) could also be a contender; he is close to Al Qaeda and heads the Taliban's suicide-bombing operation.
In any case, Al Qaeda's fortunes will have sunk. If any of the new candidates decide that Afghan foreigners have worn out their welcome in Pakistan, they could have bin Laden's men scrambling for cover. For instance, Maulvi Nasir, another TTP commander in South Waziristan, has turned on Al Qaeda in the past, killing some 250 Al Qaeda–affiliated Uzbeks and expelling hundreds of others from his territory in 2007. His complaints about the outsiders could gain support if support for them appears to hinder the militants' other goals.
What's more, any disunity affords Islamabad the chance to launch a much-advertised military offensive into South Waziristan. Until now, the army had held off, being preoccupied by Mehsud-allied forces in the Swat Valley. But if cracks appear, the army could capitalize on the region's new vulnerability. "If you can knock out the problem's center of gravity, Mehsud, then you may not have to go against the other tribal forces that may fall into line," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistani Army spokesman, just before reports surfaced that Mehsud was dead.
Some 10 days ago, Mehsud met with some of his commanders and a troop of male Pashtun singers. He embraced them all and told them that this may be "our last meeting." One participant, an Afghan Taliban commander, told NEWSWEEK that Mehsud's comment frightened him. "South Waziristan is our heart," he said. "Losing it would kill us." It may not kill the Taliban, but it just might finish off Al Qaeda's South Waziristan operation.