ISLAMABAD — The son of a poor potato farmer who once worked as a fitness instructor has grown into one of the most powerful militant leaders along the Pakistan-Afghan border, his rise fueled by alliances with al-Qaida and fellow Pakistani militants.
A day after Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud threatened to attack the White House, a U.S. drone fired two missiles at the alleged hide-out of one of his commanders Wednesday in a remote area of northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, killing 14 people, intelligence and local officials said.
Mehsud is now seen as posing one of the greatest threats to President Barack Obama's push to stem Pakistan's slide toward instability and turn around the war in Afghanistan, analysts and officials said.
For years, the U.S. had considered him a lesser threat than some of the other Pakistani Taliban, their Afghan counterparts and al-Qaida, because most of his attacks were focused inside Pakistan, not against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials said the U.S. has changed its view in recent months as Mehsud's power has grown and concerns mounted that increasing violence in Pakistan could destabilize the nuclear-armed ally.
"Mehsud poses a very real threat to stability and security in Pakistan and Afghanistan," said Eric Rosenbach, a terrorism expert at Harvard's Kennedy School.
The FBI said it was not aware of any imminent or specific threat to Washington, and Mehsud has not carried out any attacks outside the region. Even so, Pakistani officials said the U.S. has stepped up strikes targeting the Pakistani Taliban leader and his supporters in recent weeks.
The State Department authorized a reward of up to $5 million for Mehsud on March 25, the same day a suspected U.S. missile strike killed eight militants near his hometown in South Waziristan.
Mehsud, who is in his 30s, has so far escaped unscathed and has said he will step up attacks in Pakistan if the U.S. does not stop missile strikes along the Afghan border. He said Tuesday that his group carried out a deadly attack on a police academy in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore in retaliation for the drone strikes. That attack Monday left at least 12 people dead, including seven policemen.
Mehsud claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack and threatened Washington in a flurry of phone calls to various media outlets, but he usually relies on his spokesmen to handle the press, possibly for fear of being tracked.
Mehsud rarely travels outside his territory in South Waziristan, a vast area made inhospitable by rugged mountains. His tribesmen, foot soldiers and guards blanket the area making assaults or ambushes almost certain to fail.
But, until recently, Mehsud had been virtually ignored as a target of U.S. drone missiles that have struck the tribal regions with increasing regularity.
Pakistan has publicly criticized the U.S. missile attacks, saying they violate the country's sovereignty and kill innocent civilians.
Privately, the Pakistani government tried to convince the U.S. for months to target Mehsud, meeting resistance from American officials who felt other militants in the border region were more of a threat, said a former senior Pakistani government official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
That perception has changed in the past few months, as Mehsud has strengthened his ties to al-Qaida and consolidated his power among fellow Pakistani militants, Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
"I think they have now endorsed our view of him as a threat," Abbas said. "In the past, they weren't willing to consider him part of the threat."
Abbas said Mehsud draws his strength from a reservoir of suicide bombers trained in his territory and recruited by his allies, the majority of which are said to come from the violent Lashkar-e-Janghvi group based in Pakistan's Punjab province where Sunday's attack was carried out. Mehsud has bragged of having 3,000 would-be suicide bombers at his disposal.
Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani military officer and former frontier official, said Mehsud's strength significantly increased over the last six-to-eight months when al-Qaida started dealing directly with him rather than through the Afghan militant leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Mehsud signed a peace deal with Pakistan's army in September 2006 in which he promised to deny shelter to foreign al-Qaida fighters in exchange for an end to military operations in the region and compensation for tribesman killed by the military. The deal eventually collapsed and U.S. officials complained Mehsud used the respite to regroup, rearm and allow al-Qaida to re-establish its presence.
"A realist knows that you sometimes need to talk to bad guys to advance your interests," Rosenbach said. "But Mehsud has repeatedly violated past agreements with the Pakistani government and proven that he's not a reliable negotiating partner."
U.S. intelligence has said al-Qaida has set up its operational headquarters in Mehsud's South Waziristan stronghold and the neighboring North Waziristan tribal area, both on the border with Afghanistan. Obama said last week that al-Qaida was plotting attacks against the U.S. and other countries from its sanctuaries in Pakistan near the Afghan border.
"When he (Mehsud) talks of attacking the United States and London he is talking for al-Qaida," Shah said.
Mehsud has no record of attacking targets abroad, although he is suspected of being behind a 10-man cell arrested in Barcelona in January 2008 for plotting suicide attacks in Spain. Pakistan's former government and the CIA have named him as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He has denied a role.
Mehsud further consolidated his power in February when he signed an agreement with his rivals in the area, Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan. The alliance made it easier for al-Qaida to operate in the area because Nazir had previously allied with the Pakistani government to fight Uzbeks partnered with the international terrorist group.
The Feb. 22 communique, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, announced the creation of the Shura-e-Ittehad-ul-Mujahedeen, or Council of United Holy Warriors, and said "we must all unite" against Obama and the U.S.
The communique also declared war on Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and their supporters, saying "we have agreed for the salvation of our religion to destroy all the infidels."
"Now Mehsud is more dangerous," said Mohammed Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militant groups at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. "Everyone now considers him the most influential Pakistani militant leader."
Associated Press writer Hussain Afzal in Parachinar and Carley Petesch in New York contributed to this report.