New Pakistan Taliban leader: bold moves, widespread influence

The power wielded by Maualana Fazlullah – who plotted the attack on Malala Yousafzai – was evident back in 2007, when the Monitor traveled into Pakistan's Swat Valley to document his rise.

B.K. Bangash/AP
People watch a news report on TV about newly selected leader of Pakistani Taliban leader Maualana Fazlullah at a coffee shop in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013.

The man who will be the Pakistani Taliban’s next leader is not one to shy away from recklessly bold statements – from riding defiantly by his enemies on a white horse to plotting last year’s assassination attempt on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai

On Thursday, the Pakistani Taliban announced that they have chosen Maualana Fazlullah to replace Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike last week. 

Mr. Fazlullah – a hard-line cleric whose power has been growing since 2007 – has been thought to be in hiding in Afghanistan after the Pakistani military ran his Swat Valley-based Taliban faction out of the region.

By some accounts, Fazlullah is a surprise choice, since the previous leaders of the Pakistani Taliban were both from the Mehsud family. But his influence within the Pakistani Taliban – a loose organization of militant groups that is affiliated with but distinct from the Afghanistan Taliban – has been evident for years. He now has strong ties to Afghan militants, too.

In 2007, Christian Science Monitor correspondent David Montero traveled to the Swat Valley to profile “the rise of a powerful cleric” who “exposes economic and political failures in a government-administered area.” That person? Maualana Fazlullah.

Mr. Montero documented Fazlullah’s first dramatic show of his power, two years before his forces took over the Swat Valley:

In this valley of orchards near Afghanistan, 90 police hid along the banks of a riverbed in March, preparing to arrest the powerful Pakistani cleric Maualana Fazlullah. Informants said the target, charged with terrorism, would soon appear with a modest contingent of followers. Instead, Mr. Fazlullah rode into sight on a white horse, surrounded by hundreds of people.

When the officers advanced, brandishing tear gas and batons, word flew through the town. Thousands more supporters turned out to further protect Fazlullah. The officers backed off in an incident that shocked the country, exposing as it did the state's powerlessness to apprehend a wanted terrorist.

The rise of Fazlullah “signals a dangerous tipping point,” Montero wrote at the time.

Allow him to persist, many observers say, and others will be emboldened to roll back the state's policies of moderation – small but symbolically important gains in women's empowerment, girls' education, and religious tolerance.

"My opinion is, if you take him out today, there will be a reaction," says Asfandiar Amir Zeb, a former mayor of the district of Swat. "Leave it for a month, there will be a bigger reaction. If you leave it for six months, you won't be able to catch him."

Fazlullah’s influence did indeed grow. His Taliban forces overtook the Swat Valley in 2007, but were defeated two years later by Pakistani Army forces. In 2012, Fazlullah helped orchestrate from afar the shooting of activist Malala Yousafzai, a resident of the Swat Valley, on her way to school – and his spokesman said she would be shot again if she returned.

Back in 2007, as Montero’s reporting shows, Fazlullah was sowing the seeds of his message against girls’ education:

Since he began preaching two years ago, Fazlullah has drawn more than 15,000 weekly to his Friday prayers. His vision of militant Islam reaches thousands more in the valley by way of his illegal radio station, which he used until recently to warn parents not to send their girls to school.

"Tell me, what wrong have I done? I am preaching religion, and religion is not terrorism," Fazlullah says in a brick room on the site of his new madrassah, surrounded by bearded aides.

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