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'Radio Mullah' -- The Pakistani Taliban's New Leader

  • Abubakar Siddique

Maulana Fazlullah, in a photo dated May 2010

Maulana Fazlullah, in a photo dated May 2010

The man considered to be the worst enemy of the Pakistani Army has been chosen as the new leader of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Maulana Fazlullah, the fugitive leader of the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan's Swat Valley, replaces Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike on November 1.

Fazlullah earned the nickname "Radio Mullah" for his rousing radio speeches in the Swat Valley when the TTP controlled the mountainous region of northwestern Pakistan from 2007 to 2009.

He is considered a fiery orator and the most hard-line figure among the top commanders of the Pakistani Taliban movement.

Retired Pakistani Army Brigadier General Mehmood Shah said that TTP followers consider Fazlullah to be one of the most colorful figures in the militant group's hierarchy.

"I have heard his speeches, which indicate that he is a charismatic figure who can incite people with his strong voice," Shah said. "His speeches reflect his personal charisma. I think his personality is that of a deceitful individual. He can change colors rapidly. I think this is both his weakness and his strength."

Shah met Fazlullah while serving as a security official in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

He said that Fazlullah's rise to prominence was facilitated by his father-in-law, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a hard-line cleric.

"He was a student of Sufi Muhammad and married his daughter. He studied in the [hard-line Salafi] madrasa of Panjpir in [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa]," Shah said. "I have heard that he broke up the marriage and the two men are no longer on good terms. Fazlullah basically hijacked Muhammad's movement and is moving it forward."

Muhammad led a rebellion against the Pakistani government in the 1990s. He demanded the imposition of Islamic Shari'a law in Swat and the surrounding Malakand region. But he was defeated by the Pakistani military.

Into Afghanistan

Shah said Fazlullah accompanied his father-in-law into Afghanistan in late 2001. Muhammad had taken some 10,000 men into Afghanistan after a U.S.-led military operation was launched to oust the hard-line Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks.

The two were arrested after returning to Pakistan when the Taliban regime fell.

As Muhammad languished in prison, Shah says, Fazlullah began to form his own support base by broadcasting fiery sermons on an illegal FM station from a small village mosque in Swat in 2005.

Over the next two years, Fazlullah established nearly complete control in Swat. Under his rule, men in Swat were forced to grow beards, and beheadings and public beatings were routinely carried out against alleged spies, soldiers, and offenders of Fazlullah's hard-line interpretation of Shari'a.

Fazlullah built his movement with the support of women who donated cash and jewelry in response to his radio sermons broadcast from his mosque in Swat's Imam Dehri village.

But once Fazlullah established control, women suffered greatly. He discouraged them from going outside, promoted forced marriages, and attempted to shut girls' schools.

After failing to make peace with Fazlullah in negotiations, the Pakistani military pushed him out of Swat in 2009. Until now, he was believed to have operated out of the northeastern Afghan province of Nuristan.

Ordered Malala Attack

It was Fazlullah who reportedly ordered the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old education activist who was shot by the Taliban in October 2012.

A video that emerged on YouTube in late September shows the bearded cleric celebrating the killing of senior Pakistani Army officer Major General Sanaullah Khan Niazi. He was struck by a roadside bomb close to the Afghan border on September 15.

Shah said Fazlullah's selection does not augur well for Islamabad's efforts to end the Taliban insurgency through talks.

"I think the government of Pakistan will be pushed to reconsider its push for talks with the Taliban," Shah said. "An earlier attempt to negotiate peace with Fazlullah failed because he deceived the government and forced it to launch a military operation."
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