PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, had just consoled the father of a 16-year-old suicide bomber when he spoke of his religious compulsion to drive American forces out of Pashtun tribal lands.
“I know very well the military might of America, and that fighting with America is like banging my head against a wall,” said Mehsud, his dark eyes gleaming beneath a black turban.
“But my religion compels me to fight against the occupiers until the last drop of my blood,” he said, according to a witness among the scores of kinsmen and fighters who had assembled to commemorate the boy’s martyrdom for the cause.
That was in August, 2006, in the village of Khaisor in South Waziristan, just a few days after Shoaib, the son of a cleric, had rammed his truck into a convoy of Western troops in the Afghan village of Nawe Adda in Paktika province.
Two months ago, Mehsud was declared Emir of the Taliban in Pakistan. Yet in 2005 a Pakistani general had called him “a soldier of peace” for signing a peace deal that brought a short-lived lull in the conflict in South Waziristan.
Intelligence officials say he’s been behind a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistani cities since the army stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque in July to crush a militant movement.
But it was when Pakistani officials named him as the prime suspect in the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27 that Mehsud’s notoriety rocketed.
CIA Director Michael Hayden also said the evidence pointed toward the little big man — Mehsud is barely five foot tall — in South Waziristan.
In a recent interview with al Jazeera, Mehsud said he had met Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader killed in Iraq.
According to the Friday Times magazine, Mehsud is financed by al Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani businessmen in the United Emirates.
Despite this pedigree, Brigadier Mahmood Shah, former chief of security in the tribal areas, says he is unimpressive.
“He is not much of a man, inconsistent government policy has made him so important.”
But Shah says Mehsud possesses qualities that have allowed him to assemble a heavily armed following.
“He is very clever, he is very cool-minded, he is very calculating. He is not a jumpy character.”
Shah believes Mehsud has been able to exert fear over ordinary tribesmen who are sick of the conflict.
“I don’t think people respect him because they think that all their troubles are because of him.
That might underestimate Mehsud, whose fighters humiliated the Pakistani army last August by capturing some 250 soldiers in a supply convoy, and later exchanged them for the release of 25 of his own men.
A member of the Shahbikhel, a sub-tribe of the Mehsud, who with the Wazir represent the main tribes in Waziristan, the tribal region furthest from Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier.
There are seven regions within the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), but North and South Waziristan are the poorest and most violent.
Abdul Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar who comes from the same tribe, said he hadn’t seen his clansman for six years, but recalls a simple person, quite religious, but an avowed jihadi driven by desire to liberate Afghanistan, where he had fought.
“He’s a diabetic and he doesn’t sleep well because of the diabetes,” the lawyer said.
Many of the men in Baitullah Mehsud’s family are truck drivers, according to the lawyer.
Other members of the tribe describe a round faced man with a trim black beard in his mid-thirties, who left school at the age of 12, never made much money, is economical with words and strict in dealings with subordinates.
Mehsud, who was actually born near Bannu, a town at the gateway to North Waziristan, moved to the village of Shaga, and built a mud-walled home on the dusty land of his forefathers.
A government official with experience in Waziristan, who requested anonymity, said the authorities had built Mehsud’s reputation by blaming him for any attack they can’t solve.
“He’s enjoying it. He’s raising his status among his own fighters,” the official said dismissively.
“A typical Robin Hood.”
Additional reporting by Robert Birsel; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by David Fox