Hindu Vivek Kendra
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The one that got away

The one that got away

Publication: The Guardian
Date: November 24, 2004
URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,7792,1358654,00.html

Declan Walsh on the young militant from the tribal regions who has become the scourge of the Pakistani government

The smart money in south Asia's parlour game of choice - Where is Osama? - places the al-Qaida leader deep inside the tribal badlands that straddle Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

But now a fresh target has sprung up in the same unruly area: a hotheaded, one-legged young fighter with a penchant for self- publicity.

Abdullah Mahsud, a 29-year-old militant commander, has shot overnight from minor irritant to sworn enemy of Pakistan's powerful politico-military establishment.

Over the past fortnight thousands of crack troops have piled into his mountainous home area, backed by a barrage of artillery and fire-spitting helicopter gunships. They are hunting for militants in general and Mahsud in particular.

The drive is personal for President Pervez Musharraf, who said he would happily pull the trigger on the bushy-haired militant himself, given the chance

A botched kidnapping weeks ago sparked the bloody storm of wrath. Mahsud's men captured two Chinese engineers working on a nearby dam and demanded the release of fellow tribesmen captured during military operations in the South Waziristan district.

But the operation quickly plunged into chaos. Government troops cornered the hostage takers in a mud house in a mountain village. Mahsud, directing them by radio from a nearby location, ordered them to refuse all compromise.

On the sixth day of the standoff, steeled by promises of martyrdom, the kidnappers stormed from the house. Government hitmen cut all five down in a hail of gunfire. Unfortunately they also killed one of the Chinese hostages, Wang Peng.

The unfolding drama brought Mahsud to national prominence, partly thanks to his flair for the media. As the tension mounted he gathered a group of local journalists at his stronghold in Spinkai Raghzai.

Barking orders to the hostage takers, he allowed the reporters to speak directly to the terrified Chinese engineers. In a unique photo opportunity, he removed his artificial leg - the real one was blown off by a landmine in Afghanistan - and plumped down on the hillside.

As the crisis mounted, Mahsud became increasingly agitated. He ordered his officers to cover themselves in explosive and rush outside with the hostages. Warm tears rolled down his cheeks as he sent them on their death mission, the veteran reporter Rahimullah Yusufzai said afterwards.

"If you are martyred, pray for me to Allah because martyrs' prayers are never refused," he urged. Moments later the journalists heard the crackle of gunfire burst over the radio, then silence.

"There is no answer," said Mahsud as he prepared to flee. "It is probably all over."

Mahsud hails from a sub-clan of the same name, famed for its fiery resistance to British colonists under the Raj. A former commerce student at a government school in the northern frontier town of Peshawar, he fell under the spell of fundamentalists, who persuaded him to join the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid 90s.

Now he has achieved national notoriety in Pakistan. The hunt to capture him is partly inspired by President Musharraf's close ally, the United States, which wants Pakistan to flush all militants, particularly ones with al-Qaida links, from the restive tribal areas.

But, embarrassingly, the US had Mahsud locked into its most highly protected detention facility until just six months ago. After being captured alongside other Taliban fighters in 2001, Mahsud was transferred to Guantánamo Bay, where he was detained for 25 months until last March.

Then, identifying himself as an Afghan fighter, he was flown to Kabul and released. Shortly afterwards he slipped home across the border, apparently to kick-start a fresh insurgency.

On November 8, the Pakistan army overran Nano, Mahsud's home village, in a blaze of violence. They found his stout-walled house, much like any other in the mountainous hinterland, with firewood stacked neatly outside for the coming winter.

Yet inside, troops found 82mm mortars, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and, curiously, packets of condoms. There were also videos inciting sectarian violence against Shia Muslims.

But no sign of the militant himself, who had vanished deep into the mountains. The army said it killed 40 of his followers. "Our troops will remain here as long as it takes to wipe out the last terrorist," said field commander Major-General Niaz Khattak.

The hunt is part of a broader anti-militant drive in the rugged tribal areas.

Under pressure from his American allies, President Musharraf launched a drive against al-Qaida hideouts in South Waziristan, where hundreds of Uzbek, Chechen and Arab militants were being sheltered by conservative local Muslims.

The offensive, pitting gunships and rockets against militants in mud huts, has been bloodily successful. Since March at least 300 militants, about 100 of them foreigners, have been killed.

In Nano a white board marked with Cyrillic script suggested the presence of Uzbek fighters, described by Maj-Gen Khattak as "the lowest tier of al-Qaida".

But Musharraf has paid a high price. Officially, 170 soldiers have died; the real toll is probably higher. And the operation has seriously inflamed tensions in the tribal areas - where a gun under the bed is the main rule of law - and brought hotheads like Mahsud to prominence.

Since the kidnapping, Mahsud has raised the stakes further. He claimed responsibility for a bomb that ripped through the lobby of Islamabad's luxury Marriott hotel earlier this month, seriously injuring at least one employee.

But as yet no sign of the fiery young militant, who promises he has only more trouble in store for President Musharraf and his US allies.

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