The 33-year-old doctor and resident of Pakistan's Swat valley closed his clinic in the hilly town of Charbagh and went to offer prayers at the graves of his uncle and two relatives who were shot dead by Mullah Fazlullah’s militants. Their crime? The family had dissented against the Taliban's presence in Swat.
“It is God’s revenge. [Fazlullah] turned our valley into the valley of death with his atrocities,” says an emotional Ahmed.
The militant's death was claimed by the chief of Afghanistan's border security, following a clash between official forces and Fazlullah’s militia in Barg Matal district of Nuristan province, which borders the Bajaur tribal region of Pakistan.
Fazullah was a key Taliban leader who led thousands of fighters and administered a parallel state system in the lush valleys of Swat. He was dubbed the Radio Mullah for his fiery radio broadcasts . He set up a parallel court with militants as judges, modeled on the strict Afghan Taliban code, initially drawing local support that waned as he led a reign of terror. Under his two-year rule starting in 2007, girls’ education was banned, schools were bombed, veils imposed on women, and public executions and flogging were used. Tens of thousands of families fled the valley.
In the ensuing military operation, more than 3,000 people were killed including 1,000 security personnel. A year ago, he fled Pakistan’s military offensive in Swat and slipped into Afghanistan. Sources say he was in Nuristan province recently and he himself had telephoned a British broadcast station last year announcing his escape.
Engaged in Afghan fight
A day before his death, Afghan officials said that Fazlullah was leading around 300 Pakistani Taliban fighters against Afghanistan security forces in Nuristan. Sources say he was moving between Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
A Pakistani intelligence official, who asked not to be identified says, “We have to wait for authenticity of the claim. We have to see the body, footage, or picture of the corpse to reach to the conclusion that he is dead.”
If the claim of his death is true, it could demoralize Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan ("Pakistan Taliban" or TTP) for whom he was the public face, and its commanders in the tribal belt, especially those in North Waziristan as the threat of a massive Pakistan military operation also looms large.
It may also push Pakistan Taliban commanders such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin Haqqani into keeping a low profile and make them cautious about sending fighters to Afghanistan. They are accused of sending fighters to Afghanistan's southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika bordering North Waziristan.
Fazlullah’s experience in Swat had initially provided the TTP leadership with a pilot model. But he was flushed from there, and if his reported death by Afghan border forces proves true, it's an illustration that seeking refuge in Afghanistan is no longer a sure thing.
Within an hour of the announcement, powerful militant commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, head of the TTP in the Bajaur tribal belt, told local reporters that Fazlullah had not been killed. “He could be in Nuristan because the Taliban have been moving back and forth along the border,” Mr. Faqir said. “He may be in Nuristan but he is not engaged in any fighting there.”
An Afghan Taliban commander Qari Ziaur Rehamn said “It's just a propaganda. We carry out guerrilla attacks with the strength of 10-20 fighters and not in hundreds as claimed by the Afghans. Let them show any proof.”
But this has become a routine tactic. From Baitullah Mehsud to Hakimullah Mehsud to Fazlullah, Taliban commanders steadfastly deny reports of leaders' deaths in an apparent attempt to keep their ranks united and prevent panic among their fighters.
“The loss of a leader is like losing a thousand jihadis. The militant outfits thrive on leaders by creating their persona and once the leader is created then thousands of young fighters take oaths of allegiance,” says Swat-based writer and analyst Mohammad Shehzad. “So for [the TTP] it is a big blow as it has already lost Baitullah Mehsud for which the vacuum is not filled as yet. And for Afghan Taliban, its like losing a commander who provided their insurgency oxygen in the shape of young brain-washed jihadis.”
Fazlullah carried a government bounty worth fifty million rupees ($600,000 dollars).
He started as a woodcutter in his teens and then earned his livelihood as a chairlift operator at a ski resort in the Swat valley.
Influenced by the Islamic cleric Maulvi Sufi Mohammad, he joined the campaign to implement sharia (Islamic law) in the valley, joining the jihadis in the mid-1990s. While at Mr. Mohammed's Islamic school he fell in love with and married his teacher’s daughter.
After 9/11, he went along with thousands of tribesmen to fight against the US forces in Afghanistan and returned a hero. Understanding promotion, he used FM radio for his sermons and became known as the Radio Mullah and drew large crowds to his speeches.
“My heart belongs to Pakistan but my soul belongs to Afghanistan,” Fazlullah would say. “I am a jihadi and wish to die as a jihadi.”
Back in Swat valley, Hilal Ahmed might be relieved by Fazlullah's death, but his neighbor Saeed Khan still awaits visual confirmation. He says his brother Ahmed Khan was shot dead by Taliban militants in public. “I had bathed the bullet-ridden body of my brother and his two friends myself. I will only believe when I see the footage of the corpse of Fazlullah,"says Saeed Khan.