In a surprise choice that bodes poorly for proposed peace talks, the Pakistani Taliban on Thursday appointed as their new leader the hard-line commander responsible for last year’s attack on Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani education activist.
The Taliban’s governing council chose Mullah Fazlullah, the head of a militant faction in the northwestern Swat Valley, after six days of deliberations, Taliban officials said.
Fazlullah, who uses only one name, is best-known for ordering public beatings, executions and beheadings, and delivering thunderous radio broadcasts — in which he denounced polio vaccinations, among other topics — that earned him the nickname “Mullah Radio” in some circles.
The appointment of Fazlullah came after extended consultations among faction leaders of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan in North Waziristan, the last of Pakistan’s seven northwest tribal areas to be territorially dominated by militant insurgents. The group is commonly referred to as the TTP, an abbreviation derived from its Urdu-language name, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
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Fazlullah’s appointment was announced at a news conference in North Waziristan, and on temporary websites and social-media pages by the group’s spokesman, who goes by the alias Shahidullah Shahid.
Fazlullah acquired another nickname, the “butcher of Swat,” for his leadership of a TTP chapter that twice defeated Pakistani security forces and occupied, from 2007 to 2009, the picturesque districts of Swat and Malakand in northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
During his reign of terror, Fazlullah regularly ordered the public executions of residents deemed to have violated his interpretation of Islamic law or to have colluded against him with the Pakistani authorities.
Victims’ throats were slit, and their decapitated corpses were hung from posts in the center of Mingora, the regional capital, which was previously among Pakistan’s most popular summer tourism resorts.
Celebratory gunfire erupted on the streets of North Waziristan, the tribal district that is Pakistan’s main militant hub, after the Fazlullah announcement was made.
Dim hope for talks
Government officials criticized the United States’ killing of the previous Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone strike last Friday, claiming that Mehsud had been on the verge of starting peace talks with the government. But few believed those talks had much chance of success.
Fazlullah, who reneged on a major peace deal with the authorities in 2009, offers dimmer hopes for talks. On Thursday, the TTP spokesman, Shahid, said there would be “no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations.”
Shahid warned that the Taliban were planning retaliatory attacks against the federal government in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. He said Sharif had “bargained and sold out Hakimullah to the Americans.”
Fazlullah has been a cherished enemy of the Pakistan military since he escaped the army’s toughest anti-Taliban offensive in recent years. Thousands of soldiers swept Swat in 2009 after the failure of a peace deal with the provincial government, killing or capturing many militants. But Fazlullah slipped through the dragnet and fled into Afghanistan.
Since then he is believed to have been hiding in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in eastern Afghanistan, using the remote mountains as a base to mount attacks inside Pakistan, including the attempted killing of Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in October 2012.
Fazlullah claimed a major military target in September, when his fighters killed a two-star army general in Dir district, near the Afghan border, in September.
Fazlullah was not the favored candidate to succeed Mehsud because he does not hail from the Mehsud tribe, which has dominated the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban for years.
The ranks of the Mehsud leadership, however, have been thinned by the CIA drone campaign. U.S. strikes in North and South Waziristan killed both Hakimullah Mehsud and his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who died in 2009.
A former security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Fazlullah had been chosen to avert a rift between rival Mehsud factions inside the Taliban.
The Taliban also appointed Khalid Haqqani, a little-known commander from a rural district near Peshawar, as the deputy commander, effectively signaling a shift in the Taliban leadership from the tribal belt to neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
Fazlullah, believed to be in his late 30s, started his adult life as the operator of a chair lift that spanned the river Swat. He rose to prominence in 2007 by riding into Swat on a white horse and setting up a pirate radio station that broadcast jihadist propaganda. Soon afterward, his armed fighters displaced the civil government.
In Swat, a picturesque area once frequented by honeymooning couples, the Taliban instituted an authoritarian and often cruel rule that mandated public floggings, executions and the closure of girls schools.
The provincial and federal governments’ struggled to respond to Fazlullah’s swagger, signing two peace deals with his father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad, in a bid to re-establish peace in the valley. But those compromises quickly foundered — there was outrage across Pakistan over a video that showed Taliban fighters flogging a teenage girl in Swat — and by summer 2009, the army had moved in.
The Taliban’s most infamous operation of recent years was the attack on Yousafzai, then 15, who was shot in the head by a Taliban fighter as she returned from school. At the time, Fazlullah’s spokesman said she had been shot for her outspoken advocacy and vowed to shoot her again if she returned to Swat.
Yousafzai was flown for emergency treatment to Britain, where she fully recovered from her injuries.
Material from McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.