HOW true he was to his words. Almost prophetic he was when he told Dawn in an interview in Nov 2004 that he would rather die than surrender. “Over my dead body. I will rather die than give myself up,” so predicted Abdullah Mehsud, the top militant commander who blew himself up following a raid on his hideout in Zhob, Balochistan, on Tuesday.
It was somewhere in early 2004 when talk of a shadowy one-legged boy putting up appearances at mosques and jirgas preaching Jihad started doing the rounds in South Waziristan.
The intelligence agencies trying to make a sense of whatever was happening in Waziristan and even some in the civil and military establishment had mistaken Abdullah Mehsud for the one-legged dreaded and now dead Mullah Dadullah.
But so motivated he was that he never let his physical handicap come in the way of what he thought was the right course — to fight in the way of Allah.
He soon turned out to be a big spoiler for the government’s efforts to win over the tribes to its cause in the war of terror. He would come riding his horse, lead the argument with government emissaries and at times would leave them speechless. In the words of a senior military commander, who had met him in at a paramilitary fort in November that same year, Abdullah was hard to argue with.
A senior civil officer, serving in the volatile Waziristan, recalled how frustrated he was at Abdullah’s attempts to throw a spanner in his work to try and exert pressures on militants to surrender.
The 32-year-old Abdullah, whose parents had named him as Noor Alam, was no ordinary student of some religious seminary.
He belonged to an educated family from the Mianzay Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Most of his family members are in the Pakistan Army or are civil officers. One of his brothers is a major in the military, while the other is a lecturer.
Abdullah himself was studying commerce at a college in Peshawar. It was during this period that he befriended students from the Islami Jamiat Talaba, the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, according to his cousin, Alamzeb Mehsud.
Courtesy the JI which had close association with Gulbadin Hikmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, Abdullah had his first stint as a ‘mujahid’ in Afghanistan. That association would later endear him to the Taliban cause.
It was this association with the Taliban, when he lost his leg while stepping on a landmine, barely days before the hardline militia captured Kabul in September, 1996.
Committed to the Taliban cause, Abdullah remained associated with them till he was captured by forces loyal to Uzbek warlord, Gen. Rashid Dostum in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province in December, 2001.
Soon he found himself incarcerated along with hundreds others in Camp Delta in Cuban island of Guantanamo.
By Abdullah’s own accounts, he lied to the Americans about his identity and told them he was an Afghan by nationality. Little wonder, his name does not figure on the official list of Guantanamo detainees.
Still it took the Americans 25 months to determine that a handicapped man could be of little threat to national security and released him in March, 2004.
Abdullah was accorded a hero’s welcome in his native Nano village and he soon found himself surrounded by the same Jihadi friends from the Taliban era.
By August-September, 2004, Pakistan’s security apparatus had a fair assessment of who the militant was. But it was not until October, 2004, when Abdullah’s name shot to prominence following the abduction of two Chinese engineers working at a multi-million dollars multi-purpose water project in Gomal Zam.
Abdullah owned up to the abduction, demanding the government spoke to him. A stubborn Abdullah refused to listen to his military officer brother, family and tribal elders.
“He was extremist in his views”, recalled Alamzeb Mehsud, who was part of the tribal group that went to persuade Abdullah to release the Chinese.
The kidnapping ended on a tragic note two days later. One of the Chinese workers was killed; the other was rescued unharmed in a blitzkrieg commando action. But the Chinese were not amused. Abdullah was declared the most wanted militant.
But attacks on security forces would soon force the military to negotiate with one of Pakistan’s most wanted militants. On a chilly night of November 8, Corps Commander Lt-Gen Safdar Hussain had a four-hour-long meeting with the most wanted man at the paramilitary Jandola Fort.
“I took the risk because I was not afraid of death”, Abdullah had said, while recalling his meeting with the military commander at the fort. Gen Safdar’s assessment of his interlocutor was that of an emotional young man, who was convinced of what he was doing.
The military, however, would soon find itself facing the predicament of dealing with an enemy who had embarrassed them before their Chinese friends.
Two days later, an operation was launched against Abdullah in his Nano village. Abdullah escaped but his favourite horse was amongst the cache, the military recovered from his compound.
Attacks on security forces resumed and on December 16, 2004, a frustrated Gen Safdar posted a Rs5 million dead-or-alive reward against the Abdullah Mehsud.
But his Chinese abduction fiasco apparently had not gone well with the Taliban. Much to his disappointment, he was demoted to the No 2 position to become deputy to Baitullah Mehsud, a fellow tribesman from South Waziristan.
Demoralized and under instructions from the Taliban, Abdullah Mehsud left for Afghanistan. Pakistani intelligence, which kept a tab on his whereabouts, traced Mehsud to Musa Qilla in Afghanistan’s Helmand province fighting Nato and Afghan forces. But the government believes that he continued to operate a suicide bombing training camp in Dela in South Waziristan and was behind some of the suicide bombings in Pakistan. It was in Helmand when he developed a problem with his second leg and he was probably on his way back home when security forces caught up with him in Zhob.
All this while, Abdullah remained incommunicado as far as his family concerned. The last they had heard of him was that he had “embraced martyrdom” and had been buried in Helmand.
Such was the tumultuous life of a Mehsud militant, defiant till his death.