Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Inside the Mind of A Taliban Leader

A life devoted to violence
By Rahimullah Yusufzai: The News, July 25, 2007

PESHAWAR: Abdullah Mahsud was once the most wanted man in Pakistan and President General Pervez Musharraf had publicly declared that he would personally shoot him dead if he ever came across him.

On Monday, Abdullah Mahsud reportedly blew himself up with explosives instead of surrendering to security forces who had laid siege to JUI-F leader Shaikh Mohammad Ayubís house where he was holed up in Zhob in Balochistan and were closing in on him. One version is that he used a hand grenade to take his life. Another pointed to the use of a suicide jacket which he was wearing to trigger an explosion that would end his life.

Abdullah Mahsud had reportedly spent several months in Afghanistanís Helmand province and was on his way back to his native South Waziristan. He had stopped over in Zhob before entering the neighbouring South Waziristan tribal agency.

The 32-year-old Abdullah Mahsud had earned President Musharrafís ire and that of a large number of Pakistanis when he ordered the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers, Wang Peng and Wang Ende, in October 2004. The former was killed in a rescue mission by Pakistan Army commandos on October 14, 2005 in which the five kidnappers were eliminated and Mr Ende was rescued. The incident prompted more than 100 Chinese engineers and workers to abandon the Gomal Zam Dam project where Mr Peng and Mr Ende were also working and return home. The much-delayed project, sited partly in South Waziristan tribal agency and Tank district, was further delayed and is still incomplete.

Abdullah Mahsud, enigmatic and unpredictable at times, didnít repent kidnapping of the Chinese engineers. He used to defend his action by arguing that this was his way of embarrassing President Musharrafís government and forcing it to stop military operations in South Waziristan. ìI am not against the Chinese people and I realize that China is Pakistanís best friend. But desperate people do desperate things and that is the reason that I ordered the kidnapping of the Chinese engineers. I felt this act would hurt President Musharrafís government the most,î he argued in an interview with this writer in 2004.†

One was witness to his kind-heartedness when on the request of this writer and other journalists, he agreed to release Pakistan Army soldier Mohammad Shaban and policeman Asmatullah Gandapur barely half-an-hour before the military operation that would kill the five kidnappers and one of the Chinese engineers.

Abdullah Mahsud was born in Nano village in Sarwakai Tehsil in South Waziristan. His real name was Noor Alam but he preferred being known as Abdullah. He belonged to the Mahsud tribe and some of his family members, including his brother Maj Asghar and brother-in-law Col Yaqoob Mahsud, had served in the Pakistan Army.

He received both religious and college education. He studied at the Government Commerce College in Peshawar before attending a seminary, where he befriended Afghan Taliban and later joined their movement in Afghanistan. He spoke Pashto, Dari, Urdu and some English.

As a young man, he fought on the side of the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. He lost his leg in a landmine explosion a few days before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in September 1996. The disabled Abdullah Mahsud later got an artificial leg but it didnít dampen his enthusiasm as a fighter.

He surrendered along with several thousand Taliban fighters to the forces of Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, in December 2001 in the northern Kunduz province following the US invasion of Afghanistan. Despite his promise to the Taliban commanders not to deliver them to the US, Dostum handed several of them to the American military authorities. Abdullah Mahsud too was turned over to the Americans, who subsequently transferred him to the specially-built US prison at the Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

He was released in March 2004 after spending 25 months at Guantanamo Bay. Until then, he wasnít well-known even in his native South Waziristan. But the stint in an American jail and his artificial leg soon made him a household name in the area. His long hair and daredevil nature made him a colourful and interesting character. Stories were told as to how Abdullah Mahsud rides a camel or horse to visit his fighters in his mountainous abode. He started making speeches in mosques and madrassas preaching Jihad and exhorting the young people to fight against the US and its allies.

Abdullah Mahsud soon became a hero to anti-US fighters active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was one of the comrades of another tribal militantsí commander Nek Mohammad, who was killed in a US missile strike in a village near Wana in June 2004.

In his 2004 interview with this scribe, Abdullah Mahsud said he led his fighters by example by taking risks and surviving in tough conditions. Criticizing the US policies toward Muslims, he said the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was a provocation for the followers of Islam and must be avenged. He said he didnít want to fight the Pakistan Army but was constrained to do so as it was being used to implement the US policies.

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