American intelligence believes former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was murdered in an operation masterminded by a tribal leader linked to al-Qaida.
Baitullah Mehsud who also has strong ties to the Taliban, heads a network in South Waziristan, a lawless border region next to Afghanistan. He has been blamed for an organised campaign of assassinations of Pakistani officials and suicide bombings in the country.
The CIA concluded that Mehsud was behind Ms Bhutto’s assassination shortly after it occurred, according to an intelligence official.
The official, who did not want to be named, said Mehsud, believed to be in his early 30s, is a “committed jihadist” who recruits and trains suicide operatives for the Taliban and al-Qaida.
His network carries out suicide attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, primarily along the border. The attacks have stretched from Nuristan province in north-east Afghanistan to Helmand province in the south.
He has bragged of having 3,000 would-be suicide bombers. His suicide squads have taken credit for attacks against the military and police in north-western Pakistan, as well as bombings at a hotel in the capital of Islamabad that killed a security guard and at the Islamabad international airport.
Mehsud’s men kidnapped nearly 250 Pakistani soldiers in August and held them until November, when he negotiated the release of two dozen jailed tribesmen, a group that included extremists and would-be suicide bombers.
Mehsud’s forces are believed to be behind an attack this week on a Pakistani army fort near the Afghan border that left at least 22 soldiers dead or missing. The insurgents later abandoned the fort.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has blamed Mehsud’s movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban, for 19 suicide attacks that killed more than 450 people over the last three months.
Mehsud, whose tribe of the same name is the most violent in South Waziristan province, signed a peace pact with Pakistan’s army in February 2005. In it, he promised to deny shelter to foreign al Qaida fighters in exchange for an end to military operations in the region and compensation for tribesmen killed by the military.
Al-Qaida has since re-established its headquarters in the sanctuary of the tribal area, and suicide bombers and Taliban fighters are believed to cross into Afghanistan regularly to attack civilians and US and Afghan forces.
Mehsud fought in the late 1990s for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, according to US intelligence.
The Musharraf government blamed Mehsud for Ms Bhutto’s death in December, but some members of her political party and her family questioned that. There have been complaints that the government failed to provide her adequate security and vague allegations that elements within the government might have been involved in the assassination.
In December, the Pakistani government released the transcript of a purported conversation in which an al-Qaida operative reported to Mehsud that his men carried out the attack.