With this singular résumé, it was no surprise that Mehsud was named head of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan when the group formed in December 2007. Since then, the man known as amir (leader) by his followers has expanded his campaign by launching a remarkably effective drive to erode state writ and disassemble traditional tribal structures, both of which constitute obstacles to Taliban rule. He has ordered the murder of more than 300 tribal elders, clearing the way for Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt to become something of a forward operating base for terrorists.
"He has a hand in virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan," Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said recently. Indeed, a United Nations report released in September 2007 blamed Mehsud for almost 80 percent of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials have accused him of assassinating the country's most popular politician and ex-prime minster, Benazir Bhutto -- a charge he has denied.
Mehsud's connections are extensive throughout Pakistan and the region. He has taken an oath of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is close to al Qaeda's top leadership in the Af-Pak border region and to Qari Tahir Yaldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He is also well-connected to the Punjabi militant groups that have long been operating in Indian-occupied Kashmir. And he maintains cordial ties with the Haqqani network, widely considered by Western officials to be one of the most dangerous groups of veteran jihadists in the region and the bridge between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban movements.
Despite Mehsud's infamy today, little is known about the man or his past. He seems to crave public attention but won't let his face be photographed; he is said to be charismatic in person but not a gifted public speaker. Currently in his late 30s, he was born in Bannu on the southern side of the border between North and South Waziristan. He belongs to the Shabikhel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Unlike most Taliban commanders and tribal elders in the region, he was neither well-educated nor wealthy; he attended a madrasa and school but never finished either. Yet he has been able to capitalize on his humble beginnings to win support. In recent attacks, he has targeted landowners, positioning the Taliban as something of a people's movement. To win respect among insurgents, he has played up a reputation for battlefield bravery and claims to have participated in the anti-Soviet jihad (which is disputed, as he would have been a young boy during most of it). Whatever the truth of his origins, it's clear Mehsud first solidified his position in the insurgency by playing a major role in repelling Pakistani military operations in Waziristan ongoing since 2005.
So, how to check a man who has become so entrenched in the region? A favorite tactic of the Pakistani military has been working with rival leaders. Since 2006, Pakistan has purportedly been trying to pit commanders such as Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur -- the top militant leaders from South and North Waziristan -- against Mehsud. But here, the government has met little success because Mehsud has in many cases dismantled the centuries-old tribal structures in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); there is no mechanism left to mobilize against him. This June, another Taliban commander, Qari Zainuddin, challenged Mehsud and was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. The murder was a stark message to others who might try the same.