HUNT FOR BAITULLAH PROVOKES MORE REPRISALS
INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR: PAPER NO.353
The Pakistani authorities, including President Pervez Musharraf, continue to be convinced that the assassination of Mrs.Benazir Bhutto at Rawalpindi on December 27,2007, was masterminded by Baitullah Mehsud ( stated to be 32 years old), the Amir of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, who is the head of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Baitullah himself has strongly denied this and accused the Pakistani Army of spreading disinformation in order to divert attention away from the alleged involvement of military officers in the assassination. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir has not accepted the claim of the Government. It claims that before Benazir's assassination Baitullah had sent a message to her through an intermediary that he would pose no threat to her.
2. Despite this, the conviction of Musharraf and his officers regarding the alleged involvement of Baitullah remains strong. The authorities also insist that a telephone conversation regarding the assassination between Baitullah and one of his associates, who had allegedly co-ordinated the operation to kill Benazir, which they had claimed to have intercepted was authentic.
3. The authorities are concerned over reports that Baitullah is planning to organise other assassinations before the elections of February 18,2008. Amongst those allegedly figuring in his hit list are Musharraf himself, Gen.Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the Chief of the Army Staff, Mr.Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who was the Interior Minister at the time of the commando action in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July last, Mr.Amir Muqam, former Minister for Political Affairs, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) Pakistan, and Mr.Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister. Sherpao has already escaped two assassination attempts last year and Muqam escaped one attempt. The authorities have already cautioned these persons about the likely threats to their security and advised them to reduce their public exposure.
4. Another point of concern to the authorities is the increasing involvement of the Mehsud followers of Baitullah not only in acts of suicide terrorism in the tribal belt and outside, but also their repeatedly demonstrated capability to engage in conventional-style battles---not amounting to terrorism--- against the security forces. Even in the past since 2003, the Mehsuds have been undertaking such conventional-style guerilla operations, but mostly in the Mehsud area of South Waziristan. Recent evidence indicates that training in similar guerilla tactics has been imparted by the Mehsuds to the followers of Maulana FM Radio Fazlullah of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and to some Sunnis of the Shia-majority Kurram Agency. In addition to imparting the training to them, Baitullah has also been sending some of his well-trained and well-motivated followers to Swat and Kurram to participate in the fighting there. Some Sunnis from Kurram and Swat are also participating in the operations of Mehsud's force in South Waziristan. The Mehsuds have been among the major contributors of tribal soldiers to the Pakistan Army since 1947. A large reservoir of well-trained and experienced ex-servicemen is, therefore, easily available to Baitullah for recruitment.
5. To counter the enhanced threats from the followers of Baitullah, Kiyani has sent additional para-military forces to South Waziristan to mount a fresh hunt for Baitullah, with the help of helicopter gunships and artillery. A problem faced by the Army arises from the fact that nobody in the Government knows how he looks like. He is as mysterious a figure as Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Neo Taliban. He has rarely been photographed.He attended a function held in February 2005 in the Sararogha fort of South Waziristan at which a cease-fire agreement between the Government and his group was signed, but he came wearing a mask, which he never removed.
6. Baitullah has retaliated against the stepped-up hunt for him by the Army by intensifying attacks against the Army and the para-military forces deployed in South Waziristan. His reprisal attacks started even before the expiry on January 5,2008, of the ultimatum issued by him to the Government demanding the suspension of the military operations in Swat and South Waziristan, the closing-down of the security posts set up by the Army in South Waziristan in July last, coinciding with the commando action in the Lal Masjid, release of six of his followers, who are facing trial before an Anti-Terrorism Court, and the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi of the Lal Masjid, who was arrested by the Pakistani authorities during the commando raid when he tried to escape by wearing a burqa. His brother Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed by the commandoes of the Special Services Group (SSG). The Government has rejected these demands.
7. Disregarding the ultimatum, the para-military forces, on the orders of Kiyani, went into action against the Mehsud followers of Baitullah almost immediately after the Ministry of the Interior claimed to have intercepted a telephone conversation of Baitullah indicating his involvement in the assassination of Benazir. On January 3,2008, two unidentified aircraft----some alleged they were of the Pakistani Air Force, others claimed they came from Afghanistan--- bombed villages, where Baitullah had stayed in the past. In its hunt for Baitullah, the Army also sought the co-operation of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, which had helped it last year in driving out the Uzbeks of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) from South Waziristan. Baitullah's followers retaliated against the Ahmadzai Wazirs on January 7,2008, by killing nine Wazirs of a peace committee set up by the authorities. Maulvi Nazeer, the head of the Ahmadzai Wazirs, issued an order directing all Mehsuds living in villages and towns where the Wazirs are in a majority, to leave the villages. He also announced the setting-up of a 600-strong self-defence force to protect the Wazirs against future attacks by the Mehsuds.
8. The Pakistan Army retaliated against the Mehsuds by imposing an economic blocade of all Mehsud villages and by stopping the supply of food and other essential articles to them.On January 12,2008, there were reports that Uzbeks of the IMU, who were based in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan, had moved to South Waziristan in large numbers to help the Mehsuds counter the Army. On the night of January 15,2008, a 200-strong force of Mehsuds and Uzbeks surrounded the Saraogha fort inside which an outpost of the Frontier Corps manned by 42 officers and men was located. This outpost was engaged in the hunt for Baitullah. The attackers blew up a wall of the fort, entered it, over-ran the post and looted the arms and ammunition kept there. Seven members of the FC were killed in the exchange of fire. Fifteen others managed to escape and reach another post of the FC. The remaining 20 are believed to have either surrendered to the attacking jihadis or captured by them. While the Army has claimed that the FC personnel managed to kill 40 of the jihadis, the Mehsuds have denied this. They claimed that they suffered only two fatalities----one from South Waziristan and the second from Kurram. The jihadis may not retain control of the fort since they would be vulnerable to air strikes on the fort. (17-1-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )