September Issue 2009
The Cult of Personality
Baitullah Mehsud achieved incredible success for a man described as a madrassa dropout. In fact, he seemed to have little going for him. He had neither proper formal education nor family wealth. He didn’t stem from a long line of tribal elders and he wasn’t a high-ranking warrior who created a fearsome name for himself on Afghan battlefields. He even lacked a dominating physical presence: he was short and chubby with small, puffy hands.
Many reporters who had met him, however, have talked about his charisma. But charm seemed to be just part of his recipe for success. Baitullah used ideology, allegiances and strategy in the right proportions.
Already leaning towards a strict code of Islam in the 1990s, Baitullah reinforced and sharpened his ideology after travelling to Afghanistan. Analysts claim he fought alongside the Mujahideen before the fall of Kabul, later joined the Taliban’s movement to help implement Shariah and eventually fought against the Northern Alliance after the US invasion in 2001. He became just one of many poor, loyal Taliban frontline soldiers.
His loyalty to the Islamic militant cause was exemplified after the Taliban were forced out of power in Afghanistan. “After the post-9/11 US bombing campaign began in Afghanistan, Baitullah, who was not then an important tribal leader, took fleeing Al-Qaeda members under his wing in Pakistan,” reports Newsweek. This one idea paints a picture of an obscure young Talib, probably not yet 30 years old, inviting foreign fighters into his neighbourhood, saying, “It’s okay, follow me. I know a place where we can hide.” Clearly, he wasn’t the type to run, concerned only about himself. Baitullah most likely was very calm, taking charge when things were at their worst. He understood that the US invasion wasn’t the end. And he conceivably had an eye on the future. This is all in line with a man who believed, “Only jihad can bring peace to the world.”
These actions proved to be the making of Baitullah the commander. Leading his comrades to safety and providing them shelter put him at the centre of things. It didn’t matter that Baitullah had no religious title. He was a motivated jihadist who caught the eye of the right people.
It’s been said that top Al-Qaeda leaders like Khalid Habib and Abu Laith al-Libbi responded to Baitullah’s smarts and dedication. As such, Baitullah received funds, arms and weapons via the bin Laden network. Expertise from Al-Qaeda helped Baitullah grow and run militant training camps too. His suicide-bomber camps, overseen by Qari Hussain, are talked about internationally and are accepted as a reality of Pakistan’s huge terror network. He was being groomed and supported by the most powerful terrorists in the world — and all around him in FATA, tribes were witnessing the rise of a new face. In 2004, after the death of Nek Mohammad, he became a key tribal leader in South Waziristan with the blessings of Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar.
The Pakistan government couldn’t ignore his influence. That is why it signed the first of two peace deals with him in February 2005. It’s unlikely that he ever planned on adhering to all the conditions of the deal: more specifically, sheltering foreign militants. At the signing ceremony, he put the onus on Islamabad: “This agreement will last unless the government violates it.” The army helped elevate him further by killing his biggest rival, Abdullah Mehsud, in a shootout. By 2007, Baitullah was not only supplying fighters to his colleagues in Afghanistan to combat the “infidel forces of America and Britain,” but by mid-year he had also declared war against the Pakistan government for its raid on Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. He took responsibility for an impressive ambush on an army convoy in which over 250 Pakistani troops were captured and by the end of the year helped establish the umbrella organisation Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for which he became its leader. Baitullah had risen to the top of the militant food chain in Pakistan, and he did it mostly by establishing allegiances: he was a uniter. And as long as the Pakistan government continued to “wage America’s war, attack it’s own people,” he found success: winning sympathy for his cause and fighting back, flexing his muscles.
Baitullah’s success forged his reputation. He was labelled terrible and dangerous. He became known as the most wanted Pakistani terrorist. He wasn’t seen as just a Pakistani Talib, he was seen as Al-Qaeda’s top man in Pakistan. The western media deemed him to be Pakistan’s Osama bin Laden with as many as 25,000 men under his command. As such, he got blamed for many things, including Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Up to 90% of all terror attacks over the last two years can be traced to Baitullah, claims Newsweek. The US government placed a $5 million bounty on his head in April. Given that Baitullah was categorised as “bad Taliban” by Islamabad, and not “good Taliban,” the Pakistan government’s own bounty was Rs 50 million (over $600,000).
During his rise, Baitullah did not demand the spotlight. He shunned cameras and photographs of himself. This only added to his mystique. However, since his death, dozens of photographs of him have appeared in the media, including video footage. And his behaviour over the last six months of his life portrayed a man having difficulty resisting the sexy pull of celebrity. He made dazzling threats: “Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world.” He even took responsibility for the April mass shooting in an immigration services centre in New York State in which 13 people were killed. His claim was false: the killer was a Vietnamese immigrant who had a long list of grievances against the police. But his bubbling bravado proved one thing: he wanted to reassert the growing theory that he had global reach. Perhaps making the 2008 Time 100 list for the world’s most influential people went to his head?
Still, the role of his winning personality in his rise shouldn’t be underplayed. He was polite and easy to talk to. Moreover, people could have easily seen him as weak. Besides his small stature, Baitullah apparently suffered from hypertension and diabetes — not the perfect image of strength. There were suggestions that his poor health required him to be put on intravenous drips regularly. But that’s not all he resorted to when ill. “He invited people to amuse him with jokes and funny remarks,” wrote Pakistani-based journalist Tahir Ali. What kind of jokes did this man like? Knock-knock jokes? George W. Bush gaffes? Whatever the case, he seems like a remarkable leader. One who wasn’t afraid to let his men see him in a weakened state. One who shared a camaraderie with his soldiers, laughing with them and allowing them to take the spotlight once in a while by sharing their best funnies: “Emir Sahib, did you ever hear the one about the maulvi, mufti and kafir who walked upto a tea stall?”
Unfortunately for Baitullah, his diabetes may have caused him to make a fatal error on August 5, when in the early morning darkness a US Predator drone shot a Hellfire missile into his father-in-law’s South Waziristan house. In a ridiculous AFP report, an American counterterrorism official, supposedly corroborated the story making the rounds that the TTP leader was under the weather that day: his diabetes often caused his leg to hurt and on that Wednesday he was up on the roof of the house getting a leg massage. Reaffirming the CIA’s belief of the infamous militant’s death and trying to provide a personal punchline to the story, the US official added, “No one is expecting him home for dinner tonight.”
Is that the type of joke that Baitullah would have appreciated?