In February 1998, a little known terrorist declared war against the U.S. The threat he made generated hardly a blip on the media’s radar screen. But on 9/11, America learned who Osama bin Laden was and that his declaration of war had been no idle threat. It is against this backdrop we must now examine a new threat made against the U.S.
Although this was not his first time generating headlines, Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud got 15 minutes of additional fame last week with a remark he made. In a telephone interview with the AP, he promised, “Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world.”
Judging Mehsud’s threat requires assessing both his credibility and capability to do so.
As to credibility, the 35-year-old terrorist, believed to be hiding in the lawless tribal areas in northwest Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, has earned it. Since emerging as a militant leader in 2004, his terrorist activities warrant that we listen to what he threatens to do. Some counter-terrorism experts, in fact, fear Mehsud seeks to exceed the exploits of Osama bin Laden. He has been involved in a series of brazen and violent attacks, including the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, accomplished “with support from al-Qaeda’s terrorist network.” This finding by the CIA led, in January 2008, according to the February 20, 2009 issue of the New York Times, to Mehsud being placed on “a classified list of militant leaders whom the CIA and American commandos were authorized to capture or kill.”
In August 2008, President Bush authorized expanding attacks against terrorist militants in Pakistan using Predator UAVs. Accordingly, Mehsud found himself being targeted along with nineteen other Taliban/al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Since then, almost half have fallen prey to Predator. Mehsud undoubtedly feels even more pressure after the U.S. recently placed a $5 million bounty on his head.
Asked about the bounty, the terrorist mastermind downplayed his concern, saying he would be happy to die to “embrace martyrdom.” But it would be surprising if the machismo demonstrated to the media continues outside of the media’s range. He clearly understands Predator’s lethality. He knows with Predator’s stealth, he will never know or see when or what is coming. This has to be taking its toll on Mehsud. He may sense the Predator noose tightening as the first US strike outside those areas normally targeted in Pakistan — North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Bajaur — occurred December 22, 2008 against a Taliban safehouse in Bannu. Another such attack took place in the Arakzai Tribal Area, a region controlled by his cousin — on April 1, just one day after Mehsud made his threat against Washington, D.C.
Mehsud used his AP interview to take credit for three terrorist attacks last month, including a March 30 assault on the Lahore Police Academy, which claimed the lives of seven policemen and two civilians. He specifically said the devastating Lahore attack was in retaliation for the Predator attacks in Pakistan. He lost no time too taking credit for the April 3 massacre in Binghamton, New York, that claimed 13 victims, most of whom were immigrants attending class. But it is doubtful the Binghamton killer — believed to be a jobless Vietnamese immigrant — was a soldier in Mehsud’s terrorist army. More likely, Mehsud sought to use this event to try to give credibility to his threat against Washington. He may well continue to take credit for future high profile acts of violence occurring in the U.S. just to flame concerns about his capability to deliver on his threats. But, Mehsud’s credibility as a terrorist has lost some luster as a number of his previous threats against the West have gone unfulfilled.
The capability of Mehsud to deliver a devastating attack on Washington, D.C. is, however, a separate concern. With Pakistan’s status as a member of the international nuclear community, access any terrorist group might have to its nuclear arsenal is of concern — and not one easily dismissed. In fact, there is a suggestion the U.S. may already have dodged a Pakistani nuclear bullet in the aftermath of 9/11. While proving such an attack was actually prevented is difficult to do, certain events in the days before and after 9/11 suggest one may have been planned.
Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood is recognized as a key figure in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Mahmood’s world view is illustrated by a book he wrote in 1987 entitled Doomsday and Life after Death — The Ultimate Fate of the Universe as Seen through the Holy Koran. Mahmood concluded, fourteen years before 9/11, terrorism would soon take center stage in world history. Not only that, he predicted an act of terrorism involving a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) would occur by 2002, claiming the lives of millions of people.
With Mahmood’s assistance, Pakistan would gain a nuclear weapons capability by 1998. As a man possessing the knowledge to make WMDs but who considered himself a Muslim first, Mahmood believes his country’s nuclear weapons are not Pakistan’s property alone but property of the “Ummah” — the whole Muslim world.
The month prior to 9/11, Mahmood spent three weeks in Kabul, holding meetings with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, with whom Medsuh is now aligned, and Osama bin Laden. The month after 9/11, Mahmood was arrested and interrogated about those meetings. His assertions their discussions involved “agricultural business” were not supported by several polygraph exams administered to him. Nonetheless, Mahmood was released.
As the U.S. waged war in Afghanistan in 2001, Omar’s last announcement before the Taliban defeat was that nobody could even begin to realize the devastation that soon would incinerate the U.S., suggesting a WMD attack was in the works. Later, instructions on how to create a radiological bomb were found in an Afghan terrorist safe house. Further investigation into Mahmood’s activities revealed significant links with al-Qaeda as well as his deep-rooted admiration for the Taliban. Thus, indications are Mahmood may well have been involved in planning, along with either al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders, a devastating WMD attack on the U.S. If so, the plotters’ plans may well have been disrupted by their failure to anticipate the U.S. would invade and so quickly secure (at least initially) Afghanistan.
But, such events should tell us access to WMD weapons or technology exists within Pakistan in the hands of people wanting to do harm to the U.S. This is a point not lost upon Baitullah Mehsud, who seeks to make his doomsday threat a reality.