The South Asia Channel

Who is Mullah Fazlullah?

Who is Mullah Fazlullah?

The Waziristan-based Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), picked Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Mullah FM Radio," as their new chief on Thursday. Once known for his two-year reign of terror in Pakistan’s tourist resort of Swat, Fazlullah is stepping into the shoes of Hakimullah Mehsud, another dreaded TTP chief who was killed in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan on November 2.

As the newly-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif struggles to launch peace talks with the TTP, a number of Pakistani analysts believe that any hope of reconciliation is now dead.

"The appointment of Fazlullah as head of the TTP means the chapter of talks is closed for the time being," said Sen. Haji Muhammad Adeel, a top leader for the secular Awami National Party. Talking to this writer on Thursday, hours after Fazlullah’s leadership was announced, Adeel said the Pakistani army would also be averse to talks since Fazlullah was behind the attack that killed Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Niazi, a top military officer, in September.

From Fazle Hayat to TTP chief

Fazle Hayat, as Fazlullah was originally known, was a common village boy who joined the religious seminary of a Malakand-based cleric, Sufi Muhammad, and later married one of Muhammad’s daughters. He was impressed when his mentor and father-in-law launched the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in the early nineties, but his first fighting experience began when Muhammad led a lashkar of thousands of volunteers from Malakand, as well as the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal districts, to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against NATO and U.S. forces in October 2001. 

Muhammad’s arrest by Pakistani security agencies in late 2001 upon his return from Afghanistan left a vacuum in Swat’s militant movement. But his son-in-law, who had himself spent about 17 months in a Pakistani jail, came forward to fill the void and started preaching at a small mosque in the Swati town of Mam Dheri, which he later renamed "Imam Dheri" to add a more Islamic touch.

Born in 1974 or 1975 to a simple farming family in Mam Dheri near Fizza Ghat area of Swat, Hayat changed his name to Fazlullah in the 1990s to bolster his credentials as an Islamic leader, even though he had failed to receive full credentials from any religious institution.

Once an employee at a ski lift in Fizza Ghat, he used to say that he was not a religious scholar, but that did not stop him from advocating for the imposition of shari’a law in Swat.

Though Fazlullah initially taught the Koran to children at his Mam Dheri mosque, his preaching tone changed from sermons to threats after he launched his unauthorized FM radio channel in 2004. People started supporting him with men and material as he earned the nickname "Maulana Radio." Though he addressed the people of Swat very generally at first, he soon gained supporters among the conservative Pashtuns of the area, as well as erstwhile supporters of the jailed Muhammad and Pakistanis working abroad in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, whose families back in the country relayed Fazlullah’s messages.

While encouraging his listeners to pray five times a day and avoid sins, Fazlullah also preached anti-Americanism, focusing on the U.S. forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. As his audience grew, he started discouraging parents from sending their girls to schools and spoke out against watching television or listening to music. In November 2005, after he criticized the "evil of television," some local Swatis responded by setting fire to thousands of TV sets.

According to Fazlullah himself, he burned television sets, video equipment, computers, and digital cameras worth 20 million rupees (approximately $32,000) because "these are the main sources of sin." He added: "Now we have no other option but to re-organize our movement and work for a society purged of all types of evils including music, dancing and drinking alcohol." In September 2007, Fazlullah’s supporters also tried to destroy the centuries-old statues of Buddha and prehistoric rock carvings in the Swat Valley on the grounds that they were un-Islamic.

Fazlullah’s fiery speeches carried an appeal for virtually everyone, from household women and laborers to landowners. They came forward in large numbers to donate goods such as wheat flour, cooking oil, and sugar, as well as cement and bricks for construction work. But despite the Swatis’ initial support for Fazlullah, his movement began to lose popularity. His armed brigades patrolled marketplaces across the valley, intimidating locals into keeping their daughters home from school and beheading local opponents. But the general population was unable to resist publicly, because by late 2007, Fazlullah had gained too much power.

Fighting and agreements

During his 2007-2009 reign in Swat, the Pakistani government signed two peace agreements with Fazlullah, both of which ended in a military operation and further escalation of violence.

The first peace agreement was signed on May 21, 2008, and the Swat Taliban said they would not challenge the writ of the state in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners and the implementation of the shari’a system. The agreement, however, only lasted for a little more than a month when Fazlullah demanded the government withdraw army troops from Swat. Soon after, the Taliban launched attacks on the army and police, and the government launched Operation Rah-e-Haq (Just Path) in June 2008.

In February 2009, the Fazlullah-led Taliban and the government of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province signed another peace agreement. Like the previous agreement, this one lasted for just a few months and the Pakistani government had to order a massive operation, Rah-e-Raast (Right Path), in May 2009.

After the operation, the Taliban vacated Swat and Fazlullah fled from the area, taking refuge across the border in Afghanistan. Several of his close associates were killed during the operation, while several others were captured — some of which, like his spokesman Muslim Khan, are still believed to be in the custody of the Pakistan
i security agencies.

Since 2009, the 39-year-old Fazlullah has been hiding in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan and orchestrating attacks in Pakistan from across the border. Prominent among those attacks are the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai in October 2012, and the bomb blast that killed Niazi.

While some in the Pakistani government still hope the Taliban will agree to carry forward the peace process, Adeel, whose party held extensive negotiations with Fazlullah in 2008 and 2009, says "the chapter is closed, at least for the coming few months, if not years, after the appointment of Fazlullah as the TTP head."

While Fazlullah is regarded as a hardliner, it took at least seven days and a lot of maneuvering for the Taliban shura council members to choose their new leader and operational head. Though his appointment was not unexpected, analysts and locals from Waziristan, the Taliban’s stronghold, believe his status as a non-Mehsud TTP leader and his living across the border in Afghanistan will neutralize his strategic skills, vast fighting experience and oratory, and that some Mehsud Taliban leader could challenge him and cause cracks in the umbrella organization in the future.

Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.