x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Pakistani Taliban puts itself in the frame over failed Times Square bomb

Threats by the chief of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in a video have made officials wonder whether they relate to the bombing attempt in New York.

Hakimullah Mehsud appears in a new video from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, promising attacks in America.
Hakimullah Mehsud appears in a new video from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, promising attacks in America.

ISLAMABAD // As Pakistani and American investigators explore the possible links between last week's failed bombing in New York and the Pakistani Taliban, the spotlight is once again on the leader of the militant group, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was believed dead but has now appeared in a new video.

Mr Mehsud, who became the leader of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in August last year, was believed to have been killed in January after succumbing to wounds from a US drone strike. Although the Taliban had denied his death, Mr Mehsud disappeared, leading to speculation that his reign of terror, like that of his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, had come to an end. But on Monday, Mr Mehsud appeared in a video, produced by the Taliban's media wing, and in his characteristic bombastic style warned of suicide attacks inside the United States.

"The time is very near when our fedayeen will attack the American states in their major cities," he said in the video. "Our fedayeen [freedom fighters] have penetrated the terrorist America. We will give extremely painful blows to the fanatic America." US officials had stepped up their efforts to kill Mr Mehsud after he appeared in a video alongside Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi - the Jordanian who killed himself and seven CIA agents in a suicide bombing last year - that claimed responsibility for the attack.

While the Pakistani interior minister, Rehman Malik, had confirmed the killing of Mr Mehsud in January's strike, Pakistani military and US officials remained tight-lipped over the certainty of such reports. Recently, rumours began to filter out of the tribal region of Waziristan in the north-west that Mr Mehsud was alive, although he had been wounded in the missile strike. Khalid Khawaja, a retired Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) official who was abducted in March by militants along with another former ISI official and a documentary filmmaker, Assad Qureshi, had also met Mr Mehsud this year in an effort to stop suicide attacks inside Pakistan, according to Osama Khalid, the son of Mr Khawaja.

Khawaja was killed by his abductors last Friday and his bullet-ridden body was found near Mir Ali in North Waziristan. The claims Mr Mehsud made in Monday's video were initially thought of merely as boasts, no different than similar claims made by the Taliban over the years. But officials are now wondering whether what Mr Mehsud threatened relates to the failed car bombing in Times Square last week allegedly by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, who has reportedly said he received explosives training in Waziristan.

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the bomb in a video message by Qari Hussain, another militant Taliban commander, on Sunday, although US and Pakistani intelligence agencies have yet to ascertain whether the claim is true. Several people have been detained in Karachi and Faisalabad in recent days. The group had also claimed responsibility for a shooting in New York in April 2009, although no connection was traced.

The shoddiness of the bomb in a vehicle parked in Times Square has also raised questions about the sophistication of the alleged training Mr Shahzad received from the militants. Mr Shahzad is well-educated and comes from a prominent and wealthy family in north-western Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province. His father is a retired air vice marshal in the Pakistan Air Force. The family has gone into hiding to avoid the media.

By contrast, Mr Mehsud is a hardened militant and hails from South Waziristan, the rugged tribal region straddling the border with Afghanistan that had served as a base for the TTP until the Pakistani army cleared the area in an operation last year. Over the past several years, the TTP has demonstrated its ability to strike civilian and military targets across major urban centres of the country with a spate of lethal suicide attacks. But last year's military operation in South Waziristan is thought to have forced the militants to flee to other tribal regions, especially North Waziristan.

That hard-to-access area is a safe haven for militants of all stripes, including al Qa'eda, the Haqqani network - accused by the US of launching attacks inside Afghanistan - and the TTP. The Pakistani army this year balked at US prodding to take military action there, but there have been recent indications that military planners are contemplating such an operation. Reports in US media suggest that American officials have already decided to step up drone strikes inside the tribal areas. Even though such strikes have proven to be effective, they remain unpopular among Pakistanis, who resent American influence in the country.

The return of Mr Mehsud is likely to embolden the TTP and other militants. Pakistani and US officials, however, stress that Mr Mehsud's influence has been reduced as other commanders increased their clout during the months of his apparent absence. But that could be an attempt to hide the embarrassment over false claims about his death. In any case, the true impact of Mr Mehsud's return to the insurgency that has plagued Pakistan in recent years will only be gauged in the coming months.