PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Sometime in mid-December, as the winter winds howled across the snow-dusted hills of Pakistan's inhospitable border regions, 40 men representing Taliban groups all across Pakistan's northwest frontier came together to unify under a single banner and to choose a leader.
The banner was Tehrik-e- Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, with a fighting force estimated at up to 40,000. And the leader was Baitullah Mehsud, the man Pakistan accuses of assassinating former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The move is an attempt to present a united front against the Pakistani Army, which has been fighting insurgents along the border with Afghanistan. It is also the latest sign of the rise of Mehsud, considered the deadliest of the Taliban mullahs or clerics in northwest Pakistan.
Mehsud is based in the rugged, heavily treed mountains of South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's so-called tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, where Western intelligence says Al Qaeda is regrouping.
His organization has claimed responsibility, often backed up by videos, for killing and kidnapping hundreds of soldiers, beheading women, and burning schools that teach girls anything other than religion. He also says he has a steady supply of suicide bombers and strong ties to Al Qaeda.
"Al Qaeda has succeeded in building a base in the last two or three years mostly with help from Mehsud," said Ahmed Zaidan, a reporter for Al-Jazeera Television in Qatar who interviewed Mehsud three weeks ago. "They are moving freely in the tribal areas where it is difficult for the Pakistan Army to move."
During the interview, Mehsud said in halting Arabic that he had never met Osama bin Laden but knew Abu Musab al-Zarqawi well. Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in a US air raid two years ago.
Al Qaeda gives Mehsud money and logistical advice, according to one of his Taliban allies, Maulvi Muslim.
The Al Qaeda funds don't always come in cash. Rather, Afghan and Pakistani businessmen, usually in the United Arab Emirates, are given money to buy high-priced goods like cars. The goods are shipped to Pakistan and sold, often tripling Al Qaeda's investment. The businessmen, with sympathies to Al Qaeda, take a small cut while Al Qaeda spreads the wealth among its allies.
The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan share ideological goals but have separate structures, Muslim said. The spiritual head of both is Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban before being ousted by the US-led coalition in November 2001 and to whom Mehsud swore allegiance in 2001, according to Muslim.
Mehsud, thought to be in his 40s, is secretive and, like Mullah Omar, hates to be photographed. He is described as devoted to the Taliban and not well educated.
"They say he is free from all vices, walks around covering almost half his face all the time," said Mehmood Shah, a retired Pakistani brigadier who was the government's former point man for the tribal regions.
"He is very modest in his manners and polite."
President Pervez Musharraf has accused Mehsud's men of carrying out most of 19 suicide bombings in Pakistan over just three months. Newspapers quoted him as threatening Bhutto's life, but he denied it, and as well as the government's accusations that he was behind her Dec. 27 assassination.
Mehsud has been quoted as saying jihad is the only way to peace. His ascent reflects the failure of Pakistan's army with its US funding to win control of its tribal areas.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Mehsud was not prominent among the Pakistani militants who supported Afghanistan's Taliban, according to Shah, the former army officer.
"Mehsud was a small fry, but I could see in time he could be of some problem," Shah said. "The government policy of appeasement gave Mehsud a free hand to recruit and motivate," said Shah, who described Mehsud as "very cool and calculating."