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Pakistani Taliban leader targeted by U.S. has long, ruthless record

By Tim Lister, CNN
The U.S. says Qari Hussain Mehsud planned a suicide bombing that killed over 50 people in Quetta in September.
The U.S. says Qari Hussain Mehsud planned a suicide bombing that killed over 50 people in Quetta in September.
  • Qari Hussain Mehsud's notoriety includes allegedly training children as suicide bombers
  • A tape released after the Times Square bomb attempt purportedly featured his voice
  • The Pakistani government is offering a $600,000 reward for his capture

(CNN) -- Pakistani Taliban leader Qari Hussain Mehsud, whose notoriety includes allegedly recruiting children as suicide bombers, is being targeted by the United States, the State Department announced Thursday.

"Widely considered to be the deadliest of all TTP's commanders, Hussain and the TTP (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan) have taken responsibility for many lethal suicide bombings throughout Pakistan," the State Department said in a news release on Qari Hussain. The released cited a string of such attacks, including a blast last September that killed at least 54 people at a rally in Quetta and a car bombing the same month that killed at least 17 people -- including four children -- in Lakki Marwat.

Even among militant groups known for brutal violence, Qari Hussain Mehsud has a notorious reputation. He is alleged to have recruited dozens of Pakistani children as suicide bombers (a form of attack in which he reportedly is an expert trainer) and has boasted of personally beheading enemies. After the abortive Times Square bombing in New York last year, his voice was purportedly on the audio tape that claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the TTP.

On several occasions, Pakistani officials have claimed that he has been killed. No evidence has ever been presented, and it seems that Qari Hussain is still somewhere in the rugged mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border -- most likely in North Waziristan.

He is well connected in jihadist circles. He is a cousin of the current leader of the TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud (himself a target of US drone attacks), and terrorism analysts believe he has good contacts with other groups active in the region. Not that those contacts have always been cordial -- Pakistani media reported in 2008 a feud over the fate of a Polish geologist who was being held by Qari Hussain's group. Rather than hand him over to another faction, they slit his throat.

Qari Hussein comes from the Mehsud tribe, which is prominent in Waziristan and includes several other leading figures in the Pakistan Taliban. But he also spent time as a boy in Karachi, attending a hard-line Sunni "madrassa" or religious school.

A Pakistani journalist, Tahir Ali, wrote last year of a meeting with Qari Hussain, who claimed to have been active in militant groups since boyhood. Ali quoted him as saying: "I was very young when I joined Lashkar i Jhangvi and actively took part in anti-Shia activities; I also remained for a short time with Ilyas Kashmiri group ... later on I focused on jihad in Waziristan."

Both Lashkar and the Ilyas Kashmiri group are militant anti-Shia groups involved in terrorism in Pakistan and Indian Kashmir. Ilyas Kashmiri has repeatedly threatened to export terror attacks to Europe.

According to Ali, he also claimed to be just 22 years of age. Others who have met him say that Qari Hussein appears to be in his early 40s.

In January 2008, the Pakistani army launched "Operation Zalzala" against a Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan. While many Taliban fighters were killed and his house was destroyed, Qari Hussain escaped. But Pakistani forces uncovered a "school" that he is said to have run for child suicide bombers, along with videos of classes.

Pakistani Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan described the school as "like a factory" which had been turning 9- to 12-year old boys into suicide bombers. The U.S. State Department's designation of Qari Hussain Hussain says he "has gained particular notoriety for his heavy recruitment of children."

Undaunted, Qari Hussain shifted his operations to North Waziristan and later released a 40-minute video in which teenagers and young men declared their intent to become suicide bombers. By this time, he was the commander of Fidayeen-e-Islam, a group within the Pakistani Taliban that specialized in suicide bombings.

These were aimed at the Pakistani state and military, and included attacks on federal and police offices in Lahore. But they were also aimed at Pakistan's Shia minority. A Shia procession in Lahore in September 2010 was attacked by a Taliban suicide bomber, who killed 33 people. The number of suicide attacks rose dramatically between 2007 and 2010, and most were blamed on or claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.

It was in May 2010 that the Pakistan Taliban was linked to its first attempted attack in the U.S.

Faisal Shahzad attempted to leave a car bomb in New York's Times Square. It failed to go off, but an audio tape released hours later purported to feature the voice of Qari Hussein in claiming that "the recent attack" was in response to American "interference and terrorism in Muslim countries, especially in Pakistan."

It's not known whether Qari Hussain met or trained Shahzad, but it seems likely that he was involved in the suicide bombing of the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, at the end of 2009.

Before the attack, the suicide bomber recorded a video with Hakimullah Mehsud, and as the Pakistani Taliban's expert trainer of suicide bombers, Qari Hussain likely helped him prepare for the mission. In its designation, the U.S. State Department says "Hussain is believed to have trained the Jordanian militant Humam Muhammad Abu Mulal al-Balawi" who carried out the Khost attack, killing seven U.S. citizens.

The Pakistani government has declared a reward of 50 million rupees ($600,000) for his capture, but Qari Hussain has evaded both capture and the much-expanded U.S. drone campaign.

The U.S. action against Qari Hussain blocks all property "subject to U.S. jurisdiction in which Hussain has an interest" and prohibits all transactions by U.S. persons with Hussain. Given his record so far, it is unlikely to have much impact on his role within the Pakistani Taliban.