Mullah Radio: The New Leader of the Pakistani Taliban

The elevation of the commander who ordered the shooting of Malala will be a major obstacle to any peace negotiations.

Religion Fellows 2013

By Omar Waraich

November 07, 2013

Also published by TIME

The Taliban commander who ordered last year’s attack on now-famous teenage schoolgirl and education advocate Malala Yousafzai has been chosen by the ruling council of the Pakistani Taliban as its new leader. Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio for his lengthy broadcasts across the Swat Valley during the Taliban’s rise in the area, will head the Pakistani militant franchise after his predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike last Friday.

Video grab taken on November 7, 2013, shows Asmatullah Shaheen, caretaker chief of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, announcing the new leader of TTP during a press conference in an undisclosed location in northwest Pakistan.

Thir Khan / AFP / Getty Images

Fazlullah, who is about 39, has a fearsome reputation. Between 2007 and 2009, he became the Pakistani Taliban’s most notable militant leader after his radical group, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement to Impose the Sharia of Mohammed), took over the Swat Valley, a picturesque corner of northwest Pakistan once famed as a tranquil honeymoon destination. The militants were eventually chased out by a Pakistani army offensive in May 2009.

Rising from humble origins — he used to operate a chairlift, near a large Pepsi ad, across the Swat river — Fazlullah began to win a following for his talk of “speedy justice.” Residents of the Swat Valley, disillusioned by corrupt police and courts, would form long queues to hear him preach. Some women found him charismatic, donating their gold to his fighters.

But the Taliban’s intolerance and brutality soon became apparent. During Fazlullah’s reign in the Swat Valley, DVD shop owners and barbershops were attacked for what the Taliban said were “un-Islamic” practices, Sufi mystics and dancing girls were killed and dumped in the city square, and girls were not allowed to go to school. It was during that time that Malala first attracted notice, for writing a diary under a nom de plume for the BBC’s Urdu service about life under the Taliban.

Fazlullah’s appointment will be an obstacle for those in the Pakistani government who want to negotiate with the Taliban. In 2009, the previous administration government tried to strike a deal with him, but he pushed  into new territory, triggering global alarm about the Taliban being just “55 miles away from Islamabad.” Recently, the Swat Taliban he controls claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Pakistani major-general.

In any case, the Pakistani Taliban say that they are not interested in a peace deal with the government. “There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistan government,” Shahidullah Shahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location across the border in Afghanistan.

There may also be fresh tensions with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Since being chased away from Swat, Fazlullah is said to have found shelter across the western border, on the east bank of the Kunar river. There, Pakistani military officials claim, he enjoys the protection of Afghan officials.

Fazlullah is the first leader of the Pakistani Taliban who doesn’t belong to the Mehsud tribe. It’s unclear what loyalty he commands among, what Pakistani authorities say, are up to 50 affiliate groups of the Taliban. What is certain is that the violence will persist.

Omar Waraich is reporting from Pakistan as a 2013 religion fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).