The Pakistani Taliban's Suicide Bomber Trainer: A Profile of Qari Hussain Mehsud
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released three videos immediately after the failed May 1 attack in Times Square, one of which was an audiotape claiming responsibility for the attack. A deputy TTP commander, Qari Hussain Mehsud, recorded the audiotape, bringing to the forefront an individual known as Ustad-e-Fidayeen—literally, the teacher of freedom fighters, but, as used among militant groups in Pakistan, the teacher of suicide bombers. Hussain’s connection to the bombing is significant for several reasons:
First, Hussain is the cousin of the current TTP commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, and the two have planned other deadly attacks that targeted both Pakistanis and Americans.
Second, Hussain has multiple connections to other militant groups, highlighting that any policy response must deal with all militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, not just those directly targeting American interests.
Third, Hussain is highly skilled in training others on suicide operations, and now that he is connected to a plot inside the US, his abilities are even more of a threat to the US.
Fourth, Hussain instructs individuals in schools located in South Waziristan, rather than in urban areas throughout Pakistan, revealing the importance of safe haven territory to militant groups. It is possible Hussain even trained Shahzad.
Qari Hussain Mehsud (typically referred to as Qari Hussain) built his ruthless image around one activity—the training and indoctrination of suicide bombers. As a senior commander in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hussain is in a position to organize and indoctrinate aspiring militants in suicide missions. He takes pride in recruiting individuals to carry out destructive operations that focus on what he views as enemy forces, including Pakistani and Western targets. Until recently, Hussain’s operations have primarily been confined to Pakistan, but a video originally released on May 1 claims Qari Hussain and the TTP are responsible for the attempted bombing in Times Square on that same day. (Details on the event can be found here) A Wall Street Journal report states that the Times Square suspect, Faisal Shahzad, trained at a Hussain-run camp in South Waziristan, where he was brought by a Jaish-e-Muhammad intermediary known as Mohammed Rehan. Although officials are still investigating TTP connections to the man who placed a vehicle laced with explosive materials in Times Square, if the ties are accurate, then the TTP and Hussain may have enhanced their international capabilities and shifted their targeting priorities.
The teacher of suicide bombers and deputy TTP commander, Qari Hussain, is a member of the Mehsud tribe. Other senior TTP members also hail from the tribe, including the top commander, Hakimullah Mehsud; the current spokesman, Azam Tariq; and the second-in-command and treasurer of the organization, Wali ur Rehman (who has recently been reported as operationally in charge of the organization, a status that may be unclear after reports that Hakimullah Mehsud remains alive and the fact that South Waziristan, Rehman’s home base, remains under Pakistani military control). Although the four senior members are members of the same tribe, they are divided by sub-tribal differences. Hussain, Tariq, and Hakimullah Mehsud come from the Balolzai branch of the tribe, but Wali ur Rehman belongs to the Manzai branch. While the Manzai sub-tribe, traditionally, has dominated the political scene in Mehsud tribal areas, the selection of Hakimullah as TTP chief turned the Balolzai branch into the central political force. The Mehsud tribe is located primarily in South Waziristan, and the tribe established its reputation as ruthless and territorial warriors through centuries of fighting foreign invaders and resisting governmental control—a reputation its members continue to uphold today through violence against Pakistan and America. Hussain was born in the village of Kotkai near Sara Rogha in South Waziristan, as was his cousin, Hakimullah. In a December 2009 interview, Hussain claimed to have been born on December 6, 1988, making him only twenty-one years old. Pakistani intelligence disputes that figure, however, and a reporter who claims to have met Hussain says the TTP leader looked to be in his forties.
Hussain has been linked with terror groups from an early age. He completed his early religious education at a local seminary near Kotkai and underwent formal religious training at the Jamia Farooqia madrassa in Karachi. Although Jamia Farooqia’s administrators deny that its madrassa is associated with militant organizations, many graduates from the madrassa are active leaders in such groups. Hussain, for example, claimed that he joined Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a breakaway faction of the anti-Shia terrorist organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), when he was “very young.” As a member of LeJ, Hussain was actively involved in the group’s anti-Shia activities. Following his time with LeJ, Hussain worked for a short period with Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant leader and commander of Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islam (HuJI), who focused on attacking Indian forces in Kashmir prior to relocating to Waziristan in 2005. Hussain then joined the TTP, during which time he transitioned from an unknown commander to a respected “suicide bomber commander” and a possible contender for the chief TTP position.
HUSSAIN AS SUICIDE BOMBER COMMANDER
The actions of Abu Musa'ab al Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, and Mullah Dadullah, the late Afghan Taliban commander, were an influential component in Hussain’s life. Dadullah and al Zarqawi both extensively used, and trained others in the use of, suicide bombers. Hussain said that it was the influence of those two leaders that prompted him to start “training suicide bombers and beheading [his] enemies.” Hussain’s suicide training camp originally was located in Spinkai Raghzai, a small town in the Mehsud tribal area near Jandola, South Waziristan. In January 2008 Pakistani forces destroyed the camp during Operation Zalzala, but Hussain reopened the camp following the departure of troops. In addition to establishing another suicide bomber training camp in Kotkai following his return home from Kashmir, Hussain may also have been affiliated with a suicide training camp in Sara Rogha. Pakistani Brigadier Mohammed Shafiq, whose forces captured Sara Rogha during military operations in South Waziristan in November of 2009, said “many of the suicide bombers involved in the recent attacks in Pakistani cities were trained [in the Sara Rogha camp].”
The camps under Hussain’s command were notorious for making men of all ages, but more commonly children, into suicide bombers. Major General Tariq Khan, who led Operation Zalzala, said the camp in Spinkai Ragzai was “like a factory that had been recruiting nine to twelve-year-old boys, and turning them into suicide bombers.” One source claims Hussain “called every child by his name and talked to him about life in the next world.” During one suicide operation organized by Hussain, a child placed a bomb in a wheelbarrow and walked toward British troops patrolling near Sangin, Afghanistan. Three British Marines and the child died from the blast. A video detailing the suicide training camp where the boy trained—which reports indicate Hussain operated—showed children watching video lectures on suicide bombings, in addition to training with several weapons, including machine guns. Hussain took pride in building relationships with individuals so that they would one day conduct a suicide attack under his command. Hussain, confident in his ability to recruit people, boldly stated to a reporter during an interview that “You [the reporter] are not a child. Just have a sitting for half-an-hour with me and I will persuade you to become a suicide bomber.”
It appears, at least from Hussain’s statements following attacks, that Qari primarily sends suicide bombers to targets associated with the Pakistani government—government buildings, policemen, military personnel, and so forth. On March 30, 2009, militants strapped with suicide vests attacked a police training academy in Lahore, killing eight policemen and two civilians. On November 13, 2009, a massive truck bomb detonated at a regional office of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Peshawar, killing at least ten people. Following the November attack, Hussain vowed further attacks against the security forces and law-enforcement agencies. A day later, Qari also claimed responsibility for a car bomb that exploded near a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar. The car bomb killed 11 people, including four children. Following the blast, Hussain said “I have a lot more volunteers to carry out more attacks” and announced the violence would continue. More recently, Hussain is believed to have trained Jordanian doctor Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi for al Balawi’s suicide mission on December 30, 2009. Al Balawi entered a CIA operating base in Khost, Afghanistan and detonated explosives strapped around his body after several CIA officers gathered around him, killing seven of the officers.
Qari Hussain’s title of deputy commander might suggest that the overall TTP commander, whether it was Beitullah Mehsud or Hakimullah Mehsud, maintained some higher degree of influence and hierarchical authority over Hussain, but this was not always the case. Hussain first worked for Beitullah Mehsud, the founder of the TTP, and such was his importance in the movement that one Taliban source—reportedly close to Beitullah’s inner circle—stated that Beitullah “is nothing without Qari Hussain” and that Beitullah’s strength in the TTP was a result of his alliance with Hussain. The same Talban source claimed militants traveling to and from Afghanistan usually discussed matters with Hussain before consulting with Beitullah. Another report indicates Hussain beheaded a captured Polish engineer against the wishes of Beitullah. Hussain wanted to trade the engineer—captured in September of 2008 from Punjab Province—for imprisoned LeJ militants, but Beitullah wanted the Pakistani government to release TTP militants. When Hussain heard that Beitullah had instructed his men to return the Polish captive to him, Hussain arranged for the beheading of the engineer in order to prevent Beitullah from releasing TTP militants. Following the death of Beitullah in an August 2009 drone strike, Hakimullah Mehsud became the top TTP commander. Hussain held influence with Hakimullah as well—prior to Hakimullah’s accession to chief of the TTP, Hussain reportedly used his connections to see Hakimullah was promoted to the position of commander of Orakzai, Kurram, and Khyber Agencies..
The lack of a rigid chain of command, however, does not imply Hussain and Hakimullah have a contentious relationship. Hussain’s rhetoric against the US and Pakistan mirrors that of Hakimullah’s, and the two commanders have shown signs of collaboration during recent TTP operations. Both Hakimullah and Hussain were involved, to some degree, with al Balawi before al Balawi’s departure to Khost. Following the blast in Khost, Hussain made statements attributing the attack to the TTP, while Mehsud released a video that discussed the rationale behind the attack and called for further attacks, both inside and outside of, the US. Even the audio released following the Times Square bombing attempt highlights the relationship between Hussain and Hakimullah. The three released videos—two from Hakimullah and one from Hussain— were posted by the same person on the same YouTube channel only one day after the bomb failed to detonate (the Hussain video was first posted by itself on a separate YouTube channel immediately following the first New York city news conference on the Times Square attack). The audio reflects a similar pattern to Hakimullah’s and Hussain’s statements following the Khost attack in December, indicating some level of relegation when the two partner on an operation. Hussain again tied the TTP to the current operation, but Hakimullah focused more on defining the TTP’s future objectives and targets.
JUSTIFICATION FOR SUICIDE BOMBINGS
Qari Hussain detailed his justification for recruiting suicide bombers throughout the course of an interview with a reporter from the Pakistani newspaper Jang. Qari’s grievances start with the United States and its allies. Hussain sees non-Muslim countries, especially US and western forces, as occupying Muslim territory, including Afghanistan. In addition, he sees the government of Pakistan and its military as allied with the United States and thus responsible for killing its own citizens. The Pakistani government, along with the US, allegedly has brought occupation and war to Pakistani society. Hussain has said that, “We are defending ourselves in a war initiated by the Pakistani security forces in our area on the US directives. We are taking revenge of this war by carrying out suicide and bomb attacks outside the tribal areas.”
Hussain has said that as long as Pakistan maintains its relationship with the US, he will continue to attack Pakistani security forces and government targets. Hussain cited a particular fatwa condoning suicide attacks to reinforce his justifications for killing other Muslims—both Pakistani military forces and civilians—in Pakistan. The fatwa on which he based his argument allowed Taliban fighters to kill non-Muslim forces in Afghanistan; however, because of the Pakistan-US alliance, Hussain believes it is acceptable to target Pakistani military forces and police as well.
THE DEATH OF QARI HUSSAIN?
Pakistani officials have pronounced Qari Hussain dead at least three times, and each time Hussain has reemerged. During Operation Zalzala in January of 2008, Hussain was reported dead when Pakistani military forces completely destroyed his house. A few months later, Hussain proved the rumors incorrect. In June 2009, a suspected US drone attack on a compound near Makeen, South Waziristan, was believed to have killed Hussain, but he later reappeared with Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali ur Rehman in October of the same year. Following the death of the CIA officers in Khost, US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas increased significantly. Two such drone attacks, one on January 14, 2010, that struck a compound in the Shaktoi region on the North Waziristan-South Waziristan border and another on January 17 that destroyed two vehicles traveling in the same area, killed a number of militants.  Initially after the two attacks, sources said that Hakimullah and Hussain may have been located in the vehicles or compound, but officials were reluctant to confirm the death of either officially. After several weeks of speculation, reports suggested that Hakimullah died. Hussain, however, disproved all reports of his death earlier than Hakimullah by claiming responsibility for twin suicide bombings on February 11, which killed 16 people and injured at least 22, in Bannu district. The bombings targeted police officers in the area, and Hussain said that “the suicide attack in Bannu is a reaction to the military operation in Bajaur, and to avenge the killing of the mujahidin of Bajaur. God willing, Taliban will avenge the killing of innocent people of Bajaur by launching terror attacks in each and every city of Pakistan.” Reports have only emerged in recent weeks that Hakimullah Mehsud survived the same series of attacks.
Hussain, along with Wali-ur-Rehman and Hakimullah, was a possible contender for the top position in the TTP following the death of Beitullah in 2009. He, however, appeared aloof from the internal struggle between Hakimullah and Wali-ur-Rehman for the chief position, which Hakimullah eventually claimed. While Hussain may not fully desire Hakimullah’s role in the near future, certain characteristics of Hussain will remain the same—as shown from recent strikes in Pakistan, Hussain will continue to organize and carry out suicide bombings across the country, regardless of US drone strikes or internal strife within the TTP.
Early in 2007, Hussain began experimenting with suicide attacks after adopting the methods of al Zarqawi and Mullah Dadullah. Suicide bombings were an uncommon phenomenon in Pakistan until 2007, but the number of suicide bombings in Pakistan has increased dramatically since then. Throughout 2008, 725 people were killed in 63 different terrorist attacks, most of which were suicide attacks. 2009 was worse: There were 87 suicide bombings alone, killing approximately 1,300 people. One can only speculate on the number of suicide bombers active in Pakistan since 2007 that Hussain trained, and, because he survived the barrage of US missiles in January, just how many bombers he will continue to instruct.
Hussain’s conflicted relationship with other TTP members—Wali ur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud in particular—could be taken as evidence that he trained and deployed Faisal Shahzad without consulting his colleagues. The method by which the three TTP videos were released and the cooperation between Hussain and Hakimullah on critical mission-oriented issues like the Khost bombing in the past, however, indicate that the larger organization likely concurred with the attacks. After all, releasing the Hakimullah Mehsud video threatening attacks against U.S. cities a day after the Times Square attack certainly seems to indicate that the TTP desires credit for the attack. This attack will likely motivate Hussain to conduct further suicide bombings in the hopes of achieving similar glory; improving morale, recruiting, and fundraising for the TTP; and increasing Hussain’s power within the TTP.
Hussain’s ties to non-TTP groups—such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—and his use of South Waziristan as a training center reveal two important points that policymakers in the US and Pakistan should take into account. First, the shifting and overlapping landscape of militant groups in Pakistan, as highlighted by Hussain’s biography, should convince policymakers that targeting individual groups or leaders through targeted strikes cannot be a policy response by itself, and any new policy must be accompanied by operational measures that seize and hold militant territory. Second, Hussain’s use of South Waziristan as a training base further emphasizes the importance of territory to militant groups—he moved to the area from Kashmir to conduct operations more freely, and he trained attackers, possibly even Shahzad, in his Waziristan safe haven. Denying territory to insurgent groups and focusing on multiple insurgent groups will be necessary parts of any response to Qari Hussain’s suicide bomber activities and the Times Square attack.