- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

BAJAUR TRIBAL AGENCY, Pakistan | A senior Pakistani Taliban commander has warned that suicide bombers are waiting in every “nook and cranny” of Pakistan and also have crossed the border to attack U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

In a 70-minute interview conducted near the Afghan border in late August, however, the commander - Maulvi Umar - denied that his group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

“We don´t force anybody to do suicide attacks. They automatically come to us and request a chance to sacrifice their lives for Allah,” Umar said. “We teach our children. They study the Koran, understand it and memorize it, and when they become totally ready, then they are recruited for jihad.”

Umar answers directly to Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP leader based in South Waziristan, who claims to control Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the scenic Swat Valley, hotbeds of Taliban activity and havens for al Qaeda. Apart from Mehsud, Umar is the only Pakistani Taliban authorized to speak with the news media. He also is the top Taliban commander in Bajaur.

Umar “is definitely on the radar screen,” said Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. “If we could get intelligence on where this person is, we would certainly take him out.”

Umar said the Pakistani Taliban, like their Afghan brethren, share the ideology of Osama bin Laden and both groups are waging war against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

“However, Afghan Taliban are only active in Afghanistan, but we are active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said. “Here [in Pakistan], we have adapted a defensive strategy. However, in Afghanistan we have resorted to aggression against the NATO forces.”

President Bush calls TTP and other militant groups a “mortal threat to Pakistan’s future.”

Umar is often quoted by Western news agencies, such as Associated Press, making brief statements from his satellite telephone to confirm or deny responsibility for suicide attacks inside Pakistan.

For example, Umar told AP that TTP was responsible for a massive suicide blast at a police checkpoint outside Peshawar on Saturday that killed at least 35 people.

Pakistani officials say at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in suicide attacks in the past year.

Umar rarely gives face-to-face interviews, even to Pakistanis. The last such interview in May ended in tragedy when a senior reporter for the cable news channel Express TV and the Daily Express newspaper was killed by unknown an gunman while leaving the tribal areas.

Umar spoke at length about the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto, who returned from eight years of self-imposed exile on Oct. 18. While en route from the airport in Karachi to address a rally of supporters, a suicide strike on her motorcade killed at least 150 supporters, but Mrs. Bhutto was unhurt.

Umar said Mehsud had spoken directly with Mrs. Bhutto by telephone after the Karachi attack and assured her that she was safe from fighters in his organization. It was not clear, however, whether his group had any role in the Karachi blast.

“Baitullah Mehsud told me that he had talked to the late PPP chairperson and assured her that there was no conflict between them and he would not take any action against her,” Umar said.

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