ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A video of the CIA bomber in Afghanistan sitting beside the Pakistani Taliban leader created the impression that the group may have played a key role in the second biggest attack in agency history.
But analysts say Hakimullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, could have only provide organisational support at most for the operation, which was likely masterminded by al Qaeda.
Until the video raised questions about the capabilities of the TTP, Mehsud was known mainly as a particularly brutal Taliban leader determined to topple Pakistan’s pro-American government, not infiltrate CIA stations outside the country.
The TTP has carried out sophisticated attacks against Pakistani security force facilities, and has benefited from ties with al Qaeda, but there has been no evidence to suggest it has joined the big league of international militant groups.
At most, analysts say, the video illustrates that the TTP can provide logistical support to militants like the Jordanian double agent who probably moved through its territory to get to the U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan where he blew himself up.
“They totally operate in Pakistan and I think they got lucky that this guy approached them,” said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.
The double agent, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, blew himself up on Dec. 30 inside Forward Operating Base Chapman, a well-fortified U.S. compound in Khost province in southeast Afghanistan, killing seven CIA employees and a Jordanian officer.
In the video, which could not be immediately verified, al-Balawi sits cross-legged in a green camouflage jacket explaining how the United States and its Arab ally Jordan had offered him millions of dollars to spy on militant groups.
Instead, he says, he handed over U.S. and Jordanian state secrets to Muslim comrades.
Mehsud sits quietly, barely moving as Balawi says the attack was in revenge for the killing of Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud — in a U.S. drone aircraft attack last year — and calls for attacks in and outside the United States.
Why would a Jordanian blow himself up to avenge the death of a Pakistani Taliban leader? The answer lies in the murky militant alliances that often lead back to al Qaeda, which experts say provides leadership and guidance.
Balawi needed organisational support. The TTP was the logical choice, analysts say. It is the most well-known militant group in Pakistan and apparently easiest to contact.
Although the TTP probably vetted al-Balawi extensively, getting past al Qaeda after having said you worked with the CIA would have been far more difficult, if not impossible.
In return for organisational support, analysts say, Balawi probably agreed to appear in the video, and tie one of the most dramatic hits ever against CIA to the death of Baitullah Mehsud, raising the profile of the TTP, even though few doubt that al Qaeda chose the CIA as the target and ran the operation.
The video raised the media-savvy Hakimullah’s stature in militant circles and sent a message of defiance to the Pakistan’s military, which destroyed his bases in South Waziristan.
It’s not clear where and when the video was made.
“Hakimullah is definitely exploiting it. The TTP is trying to get mileage out of it,” said Bokhari.
Pakistan is under relentless U.S. pressure to crush all militant groups on its northwest border with Afghanistan, even Afghan Taliban fighters it sees as strategic allies.
Analysts predict that the video tape will only encourage the United States to step up drone attacks in the region, even though that could strain relations with Pakistan and inflame anti-American sentiment in the U.S. ally.
“From the American point of view there are a lot of bad guys in the Pakistani northwest that need to be whacked. This video doesn’t really change anything,” said Bokhari.
One of the burning questions the CIA is likely to ask is whether the al Qaeda-linked Afghan Haqqani network based in northwest Pakistan was involved. To get to the U.S. base, Balawi would have needed to get through the Haqqani group’s turf.
If Washington determines that Haqqani gave a green light, it will put even more pressure on Pakistan to crush the network, something Islamabad has long resisted for strategic reasons.
“It will increase pressure on Pakistan because it will be seen that there will be close coordination between these groups,” said Zahid Hussein, an expert on militant groups.
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
Editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani