Baitullah Mehsud: One of the World's Most Influential Men, Dead Or Alive

06/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For a while in 2008, international intelligence agencies thought Baitullah Mehsud was dead. Like his cousin-in-arms, Osama bin Laden, Mehsud suffers from chronic ailments, including diabetes, kidney problems and hypertension. Kidney collapse and lack of medical care was said to be the cause of death.

But it seems that Baitullah Mehsud is not dead. (Though who really knows what is really going on in those smoke-and-mirror western border regions?) He remains one of the powerful men in Pakistan and indeed, the world. Time magazine this week named him number 4 in their "100 Most Influential".

Baitullah Mehsud is the leader of the Pakistan Taliban (if you can call that range of Talib groups throughout the north and west of the country a cohesive group). He achieved his position through his Teamsters-like ability to organize, a solid network from his time over the border (where he was mentored by Afghan Taliban head Mullah Omar) and the tribal allegiances that are at his beck and call.

Baitullah Mehsud is thought to be behind the December 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing and the March Lahore police academy bombing. In between these impressive acts of violence and ruthlessness, Mehsud has waged a war of fear and dread on vast swathes of the north-west populace, demanding payment from citizens (he calls it "tax") for protection and solving minor and major disputes with summary justice.

A brief article such as this cannot do credit to the twists and turns and Machiavellian nature of the Talib movement in Pakistan. There are so many factions, views on Sharia law, breakaway groups, imposters, allegiances and much infighting and intrigue involved. But at the centre of it all is mastermind Baitullah Mehsud - who has overseen the Talibanization of Pakistan and the incidences of random suicide bombings over the last four years.

Here's some personal statistics. Baitullah Mehsud is about 35 years old and is thought to have had little formal education outside the madrassah. People who have met him say he is short - around 5'2" (156cm). He was born in the North West Frontier, and is from the Pashtun tribe of his name - Mehsud. His first wife gave him four daughters so he reportedly married again, hoping for male offspring.

Like Mullah Omar, Baitullah Mehsud has a religious aversion to having his voice taped or his photograph taken, (although one grainy photo shows a man - if it really is him - who looks like a roadie for the Grateful Dead circa 1969).

He did grant an interview to the BBC in 2007 where he said that the way to world peace was through jihad, and that it is the duty of every Muslim to join jihad. In March, he told Agence-France Press "Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world."

His elusiveness hasn't prevented him negotiating with Islamabad, though it could be argued that the negotiations were more like the government ceding to threats and standover tactics. In early 2005 under a 'negotiated peace', the Pakistan army withdrew from Mehsud-held areas of Waziristan, leaving only a small paramilitary presence. In return, Baitullah Mehsud agreed not to give safe haven to foreign militants or disrupt government operations. The agreement did not last long (although Baitullah Mehsud blamed its collapse on the Pakistan government and then took 200 soldiers hostage for three months).

Last month the State Department slapped a $5 million reward on Baitullah Mehsud. Islamabad says that the US has spectacularly failed to bomb Mehsud out of his haven despite the US being provided with the best intelligence on his whereabouts.

Million dollar rewards, aerial bombing, intelligence, political will. Up until now, Baitullah has defied them all.

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