August Issue 2007
Defiant in Death
As always, we have two different versions as to how Abdullah Mahsud, an important commander of the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, died in a house in Zhob town in Balochistan. The government claims he blew himself up with a hand grenade after being cornered by security forces. But Shaikh Mohammad Alam, brother of the JUI-F activist Shaikh Mohammad Ayub Mandokhel in whose home he was hiding, is insisting that Mahsud was shot dead by members of law-enforcement agencies before he could fire back or detonate any grenade or suicide jacket.
Irrespective of the mode of his death, Mahsud evoked strong hatred from his enemies and great admiration from the Taliban. He was seen by pro-government elements as a terrorist who deserved to die. However, for the Taliban and their supporters, he was a hero who remained defiant until his last breath.
If, indeed, he blew himself up, it was in accordance with his often-stated wish that he would rather die than surrender to the Pakistani authorities or the Americans. Some of his Taliban admirers said Mahsud, by taking his own life, opted to defy his foes instead of falling into their hands and suffering humiliation. And if he was shot dead by security forces, as is being claimed by the inmates of the house where he was besieged, it didn’t diminish his status among his followers who believe that security forces personnel were too scared to come close to him and preferred shooting at him from a distance. Stories of his bravery, real and imagined, are now doing the rounds among Taliban and jihadi circles.
His funeral testified to his popularity. Up to 12,000 mourners reportedly attended his Namaz-i-Janaza. The roads from Wana, Jandola and Makeen to Maula Khan Serai and Barwand, two villages close to Mahsud’s native village of Nano in South Waziristan, were choked with traffic as both Mahsud and Wazir tribesmen, as well as Afghans, came to catch a last glimpse of him and pray for him. Several hundred Taliban fighters fired in the air with all kinds of weapons to pay him their last respects. They also vowed to avenge his death.
Tall, well-built and handsome, the 32-year-old Mahsud was an interesting character. He studied up to the intermediate level in a Peshawar college before joining a madrassah to study religion. Several of his family members, including his own brother, served in the Pakistan Army as officers, but he chose to become a Talib and eventually fought against his country’s armed forces. He joined the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight against both the Northern Alliance and the invading US Army. He was among the several thousand Taliban fighters who surrendered to Uzbek warlord Abdul Rasheed Dostum, a stalwart of the Northern Alliance, after being cut off from their supply lines following the fall of Kabul in December 2001. Dostum handed him and dozens of Taliban fighters to the US, in violation of his promise to the Taliban commanders at their time of surrender. Mahsud spent 25 months at the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay before being released in 2003. The Americans let him go after concluding that the one-legged Mahsud posed no risk to the US. Mahsud later confessed that he identified himself as an Afghan instead of a Pakistani, while in American custody.
Mahsud’s fame preceded him when he returned to South Waziristan as a free man. He was hailed as a “blessed man” because he had returned home in one piece from Guantanamo Bay, the jail from where it was feared that prisoners never returned alive. His disability, on account of a landmine explosion that blew away one of his legs shortly before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in September 1996, had already established his reputation as a daredevil. He was no longer the unknown young tribesman who posed no threat to the US. Soon he began delivering speeches at mosques and madrassahs, arousing the Mahsud tribesmen to join the Taliban-led jihad against the US and, by association, the Pakistan Army, which was carrying out military operations to hunt down Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in South Waziristan.
Soon, Mahsud became so well known and strong that he began overshadowing Baitullah Mahsud, the “Ameer” (head) of the local Taliban in Mahsud tribal territory in South Waziristan. Emotional and unpredictable, Mahsud was reluctant to take orders from anyone. Baitullah, who in February 2007 was accused by President General Pervez Musharraf of sending fighters into Afghanistan to attack US-led coalition forces, couldn’t do much to rein in Mahsud, who eventually was named military commander of the local Taliban. By rank he was still subservient to Baitullah, but Mahsud started acting on his own. He began granting interviews to the media and became quite well known. By comparison, the reclusive Baitullah was virtually unknown. It was only after Baitullah signed a much-publicised peace agreement with the government in February 2005 that he became known.
So daring was Mahsud that he even drove to Jandola Fort, where the military was camping, to hold a secret meeting with the Corps Commander Peshawar, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain. The latter, for obvious reasons, denied the meeting because Mahsud had become Pakistan’s most wanted man after ordering the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers serving with a firm from China that was building the Gomal Zam Dam sited in South Waziristan and Tank. So incensed was President Musharraf following the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers, Wang Peng and Wang Ende, in October 2004, that he publicly stated that he would shoot Mahsud dead if he ever came across him.
In fact, this incident began the process of Mahsud’s undoing. Wang Peng was killed in a rescue mission mounted by Pakistan Army commandos on October 14, 2005, in which the five kidnappers sent by Mahsud were eliminated and Wang Ende was rescued. The incident prompted more than 100 Chinese engineers and workers to abandon the Gomal Zam Dam project and return home. The much-delayed project was further delayed and is still lying incomplete.
Abdullah Mahsud didn’t repent kidnapping the Chinese engineers. He used to defend his action by saying that this was his way of embarrassing President Musharraf’s government and forcing it to stop military operations in South Waziristan. “I am not against the Chinese people and I realise that China is Pakistan’s best friend. But desperate people do desperate things and that is the reason why I ordered the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers. I felt this act would hurt President Musharraf’s government the most,” he argued in an interview with this writer in 2004.
It certainly hurt and embarrassed the government, which doubled its efforts to catch Mahsud. He started avoiding the media and had to accept the command of Baitullah. He had become a marked man, spending time alternatively in South Waziristan and North Waziristan and sometimes crossing over to Afghanistan via Balochistan to fight alongside the Taliban. It was during one of his trips to Afghanistan, along with his brother Abdul Rahman Mahsud, that he was tracked down to the house in Zhob where he had stopped for an overnight stay. That was the end of the story for a man who was convinced that he was fighting a real jihad.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.