What Happened to Mehsud’s Dirty Bomb?

As I alluded the other day, the story the NYT told about the targeting of Baitullah Mehsud differs in key respects from the story Joby Warrick told in his book, The Triple Agent. And since the discrepancy involves yet another unsubstantiated nuclear claim, and since Mehsud’s targeting led directly to the double agent Humam Khalil al-Balawi’s successful attack on Khost, the difference is worth mapping carefully.

First, the stories provide different explanations for how Mehsud came to be targeted. As I noted here, Warrick explained that we started targeting Mehsud after NSA intercepted a discussion about nukes.

In May [2009] one such phrase, plucked from routine phone intercepts, sent a translator bolting from his chair at the National Security Agency’s listening station at Fort Meade, Maryland. The words were highlighted in a report that was rushed to a supervisor’s office, then to the executive floor of CIA headquarters, and finally to the desk of Leon Panetta, now in his third month as CIA director.

Nuclear devices.

Panetta read the report and read it again. In a wiretap in the tribal province known as South Waziristan, two Taliban commanders had been overheard talking about Baitullah Mehsud, the short, thuggish Pashtun who had recently assumed command of Paksitan’s largest alliance of Taliban groups. It was an animated discussion about an acquisition of great importance, one that would ensure Mehsud’s defeat of Pakistan’s central government and elevate his standing among the world’s jihadists. One of the men used the Pashto term itami, meaning “atomic” or “nuclear.” Mehsud had itami devices, he said. (62-63)

Shortly thereafter, the government intercepted Mehsud’s shura council debating whether Islam permitted the use of Mehsud’s devices. Ultimately, the CIA concluded Mehsud had acquired a dirty bomb and started targeting him (including killing a close associate in hopes Mehsud would show up at his funeral; the Administration targeted the funeral but didn’t get Mehsud).

The NYT provides a much vaguer story.

The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.

The description is not inconsistent with Warrick’s description, which describes the US originally hesitating to target Mehsud and the Paksitanis rejoicing once we did.

U.S. officials had long viewed the Mehsud clan as a local problem for the Pakistanis and were reluctant to agitate yet another militant faction that might cross into Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops.

The dirty bomb threat changed everything. Now the Obama administration was privately talking about targeting Mehsud, and Pakistani officials, for once, were wholeheartedly embracing the idea of a U.S. missile strike on their soil. (71)

Perhaps it was the dirty bomb that convinced the US Mehsud threatened US troops, as described by the NYT. Mind you, it’s unclear whether an as-yet unconfirmed dirty bomb in the hand of a guy targeting Pakistan (the Pakistanis blamed him for Benazir Bhutto’s death) really presented a threat to US troops.  Perhaps it represented–like the insurgents in Yemen–a sufficient threat to our allied government we considered it a threat?

In any case, the NYT doesn’t mention the dirty bomb. Maybe that’s because no one ever found it.

By the time the campaign [against the Pakistani Taliban] ended, the Pakistanis were sitting on a mountain of small arms and enough explosives to supply a madrassa full of suicide bombers. But they found no trace of a dirty bomb. The radiation detectors never sounded at all.

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