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By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/1/2010 2:25:27 PM ET 2010-09-01T18:25:27

The commander of the Pakistani Taliban — one of the U.S. government’s top targets in the war on terrorism — has been charged in federal court with dispatching the suicide bomber who attacked a CIA base in Afghanistan last December, killing seven Americans.

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The criminal complaint against Hakimullah Mehsud represents a new multi-pronged U.S. government effort to go after the Pakistani Taliban, officially known as Terhik-e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP — a group whose main goal remains the overthrow of the government of Pakistan.

The State Department on Wednesday formally designated the TTP as a terrorist organization and announced a $5 million reward for the capture of Mehsud as well as one of his deputies, Wali Ur Rehman.

The two-count criminal complaint, filed in U.S. federal court in the District of Columbia on Aug. 20 and unsealed Wednesday, charges Mehsud with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens abroad and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. citizens abroad.

Mehsud, who is believed to reside in northwest Pakistan, has for the past year been the target of repeated CIA drone attacks, several of which were erroneously reported to have killed him. A U.S. government official told NBC News today that those attacks will continue, not withstanding the fact that as with any individual formally charged with a federal crime, he now has certain legal rights, such as the presumption of innocence and right to an American lawyer.

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“Criminal charges are meant to deal with Hakimullah if he’s captured,” the official said in an email. “He can face justice in other ways, too. That hasn’t changed.”

The criminal charges stem from the devastating attack by a suicide bomber Dec. 30 on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed some of the agency’s top experts on al-Qaida. The suicide bomber was identified as Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and jihadist who had agreed to serve as an informant for the CIA and reportedly offered to help the agency identify the whereabouts of al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

In fact, al-Balawi, who had been a prominent blogger on al-Qaida websites, was serving as a triple agent. After arriving at the base by car for a pre-planned meeting, al-Balawi — dressed in traditional Afghan attire and carrying a crutch or cane — detonated a suicide device concealed beneath his clothing.

The criminal charges unsealed Wednesday rely in part on a video released by the TTP months after the attack. In that video (which is believed to have been made just a few days before the Khost attack, Balawi appears seated next to Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader, and they openly discuss their plans for a suicide attack against Americans.

After reciting verses from the Koran, Mehsud states: “The Muslim nation is in the chains of slavery. Young Muslim men are locked up in prisons. Muslim women, honorable Muslim sisters, who never even showed their faces at home, are in prisons in the United States … Those who dollow God’s commandments are called terrorists. Those who feel proud of their religion, faith and freedom are called terrorists and miscreants.”

Mehsud then introduces al-Balawi, putting his hand on his shoulder and describing him as a “holy warror” with a desire to be a “suicide bomber.”

Then both Mehsud and Balawi state: “And we arranged the attack to let the Americans understand that the belief of Allah, the iman [faith] that we hold, the taqwa [piety] that we strive for cannot be exchanged for all the wealth in the world.”

In the video, Hakimullah Mehsud then explains that the motive for the attack against the Americans is a revenge for the death of the former emir of the TTP, one of his fellow tribesmen, Baitullah Mehsud.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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