The South Asia Channel

Who is the Swat Taliban’s commander?

With rumors circulating about the Swat Taliban’s resurgence in the former tourist destination in Pakistan’s northwest, Pashtun journalist Daud Khan Khattak profiles the movement’s Swat Valley commander, Maulana Fazlullah (top right). The arrest of Sufi Muhammad, the founder of the Malakand-based militant movement Tehri-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM, or Movement for Implementation of Sharia of Muhammad), in late ...

Maulana Fazlullah: top R // AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty
Maulana Fazlullah: top R // AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty

With rumors circulating about the Swat Taliban’s resurgence in the former tourist destination in Pakistan’s northwest, Pashtun journalist Daud Khan Khattak profiles the movement’s Swat Valley commander, Maulana Fazlullah (top right).

The arrest of Sufi Muhammad, the founder of the Malakand-based militant movement Tehri-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM, or Movement for Implementation of Sharia of Muhammad), in late 2001 left a vacuum in Swat’s militant movement. Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law Fazle Hayat, who had fought with him in Afghanistan and spent about 17 months in jail in Pakistan upon his return,[i] stepped into 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.[ii] Born in 1975 to a simple farming family in Mam Dheri near Fizza Ghat,[iii] Fazle Hayat changed his name in the 1990s to Fazlullah in order to bolster his credentials as an Islamic leader, even though he had failed to receive full credentials from any religious institution.[iv] Fazlullah, once an employee at a resort in Fizza Ghat, used to say he was not a religious scholar, but that did not stop him from advocating for the imposition of sharia in Swat.[v]

Though Fazlullah initially taught the Quran to children at his Mam Dheri mosque, his preaching changed in tone from sermons to threats after he launched his unauthorized FM radio channel in 2004.[vi] People started supporting him with men and material as he earned the nickname "Maulana Radio." Though Fazlullah at first addressed the people of Swat very generally, he soon gained supporters among the conservative Pashtuns of the area as well as erstwhile supporters of the jailed Sufi Muhammad, in addition to Pakistanis working abroad in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, whose families back in the country relayed Fazlullah’s messages. Such was his influence that women of the valley even donated their earrings and bangle bracelets. While encouraging his listeners to pray five times a day and avoid sinning, Fazlullah also preached anti-Americanism, focusing on 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. He also criticized landlords who refused to make donations to his madrassa, according to local sources. Pakistan analyst Imtiaz Ali assessed, "A generation has grown up under the shadow of TNSM and its strict version of Islam, providing Fazlullah with a ready pool of fighters."[vii] In 2007, after Fazlullah criticized the "evils of television," some local Swatis responded by setting fire to thousands of TV sets.[viii]

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.[ix] Fazlullah also promised social justice for the people of Swat, along with paradise in the life after death. Swatis, who were fed up with the inefficient Pakistani judicial system and recalled the days of their wali, saw a ray of hope for revival in Fazlullah’s speeches. Fazlullah, and Sufi Muhammad before him, exploited this mentality among the Swatis — who according to analyst Mukhtar Khan were "more used to personal rule than democracy or any other form of governance"–by developing a "cult of personality around themselves."[x] For example, Fazlullah collected about 35 million rupees (around $600,000) from supporters to build a two-story madrassa complex; it was later destroyed by Pakistani security forces in the spring of 2009.[xi]

A warning sign was Fazlullah’s campaign to oppose polio vaccinations across Pakistan, which he called "a conspiracy of the Jews and Christians to stunt the population growth of Muslims."[xii] 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.[xiii] (The Afghan Taliban, despite international protests, blew up two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001.) According to Fazlullah himself, he burned TV sets, video equipment, computers, and digital cameras worth 20 million rupees because "these are the main sources of sin." He also said, in essence, "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."[xiv]   

Like Sufi Muhammad before him, Fazlullah called for social parity, quick justice, the provision of civic facilities, more jobs for Swatis, and the redistribution of property.[xv] The promise of land distribution attracted many followers for Fazlullah’s movement in Swat, which started capturing the orchards, farms, and other land of the khans, or local leaders and landowners, who had abandoned the areas from late 2007 to late 2008 after Fazlullah’s men carried out several targeted killings against them.

Most of the Swatis who supported Fazlullah did so only morally, but some took up arms after being inspired by his FM radio sermons, and many of these recruits were disenchanted, poor, illiterate, and unemployed youth.[xvi] The Swat Taliban leader also appealed to the religious sentiments of the people by saying that alien forces were present in Afghanistan and that this was war between kufr (infidels) and Islam. Fazlullah also used his brother’s death in a drone strike in Damadola, Bajaur, in early January 2006 to gain supporters, and he likewise exploited the inflamed passions following the deadly storming of Islamabad’s Red Mosque by security forces in the summer of 2007.[xvii] In spite of Swatis’ initial support for Fazlullah, however, his movement began to lose popularity: Fazlullah’s 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.

Many Taliban recruits were criminals who pursued their livelihood by joining the movement. Other joined to settle personal scores with opponents of the Swat Taliban. The Taliban welcomed the criminals to increase its power against the Pakistani security forces as well as some local khans, who had their own armed groups in Swat. The arrangement was mutually reinforcing. The Taliban needed support from the strong criminal gangs to terrorize people and raise money, while the criminals needed a cover to save their skins and continue their activities.[xviii] 

Fazlullah’s fighters in Swat totaled fewer than 5,000 at their peak. His second-in-command was Shah Dauran, another cleric and erstwhile criminal who sold food items to children in the markets of Mingora, the main town in Swat, before joining Fazlullah and helping run his FM broadcasts.[xix] Shah Dauran reportedly died of kidney failure in Bajaur in late 2009, and since the Taliban’s organizational structure in the Swat Valley has been more or less shattered, no one has stepped forward to replace him.[xx] Another key man in the Swat Taliban was Muslim Khan, the movement’s spokesman, who is now in the custody of Pakistani security forces. Fazlullah went underground following the Pakistani military operations in Swat in 2009 and was believed to be hiding with Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the deputy leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Bajaur.[xxi] Muhammad was reportedly killed in a March 2010 Pakistani army airstrike, but he is now believed to be alive.[xxii]

Daud Khan Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working with Radio Mashal, a project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. Khattak has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has also written for Christian Science Monitor and London’s Sunday Times. This is excerpted from a longer New America Foundation research paper on militancy in the Swat Valley, part of the "Battle for Pakistan" series.


[i] Rahimullah Yousufzai, Nov 6, 2007, http://www.valleyswat.net/ 

[ii] Khurshid Khan, "Exclusive: An interview with Maulana Fazlullah," Swat April 21, 2007, http://www.valleyswat.net

[iii] Afzal Khan, "Revolt in Pakistan’s NWFP: A Profile of Maulana Fazlullah of Swat," Jamestown Terrorism Focus, November 20, 2007, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4555

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Mukhtar A. Khan, "A Profile of Militant Groups in Bajaur Tribal Agency," Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, March 3, 2009, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=34729&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=cce9e6a8f9 

[vi] Afzal Khan, "Revolt in Pakistan’s NWFP." 

[vii] Imtiaz Ali, "Pakistan’s Military Offensive in Swat May Be Start of Long Campaign," Jamestown Terrorism Focus, December 7, 2007, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4586

[viii] Griff Witte and Imtiaz Ali, "Musharraf’s Army Losing Ground in Insurgent Areas," Washington Post, November 13, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/12/AR2007111202043.html

[ix] Ziauddin Yousafza (Swat-based educator), interview, October 2009, Mingora.

[x] Mukhtar A. Khan, "The Return of Shari’a Law to Pakistan’s Swat Region," Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, March 3, 2009,  http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=34576&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=081b812552

[xi] Musa Khankhel and Mushtaq Yusufzai, "30 FC Men Die in Swat Blast," The News International, October 26, 2007, http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=10817

[xii] Ashfaq Yusufzai, "Impotence Fears Hit Polio Drive," BBC, January 25, 2007,  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6299325.stm

[xiii] "Pakistan Militants Try to Blow Up Buddha Statue," Associated Press, September 12, 2007, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-09-12-pakistan-buddha_N.htm

[xiv] Fazlullah, interview with Freemuse radio, February 2008, http://www.freemuse.org/sw24746.asp

[xv] Shaukat Sharar, Swat-based architect and head of the nongovernmental organization Disaster Response Network (DR-Net), interview, October 2009, Mingora.

[xvi] Shamim Shahid, "Baitullah rival shot dead," The Nation, June 24, 2009, http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/Politics/24-Jun-2009/Baitullah-rival-shot-dead

[xvii] In the video "Swat Volume III," released by the Taliban, many young boys mention the operation against  the Red Mosque and the adjacent Jamia Hafsa madrassa as the reason for their becoming suicide bombers, to avenge the killing of young girls and boys.

[xviii] Malak Naveed Khan, inspector general of the NWFP Police, interview, October 2009, Peshawar.

[xix] Locals who claim they knew him before he joined the Taliban said he was a criminal, involved in petty theft, robbery, and land grabbing.

[xx] "Swat Taliban ‘commander’ dies of kidney failure," Dawn, December 27, 2009, http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/front-page/19-swat-taliban-commander-dies-of-kidney-failure-729-hh-05

[xxi] Abdul Hayee Kakar, BBC Urdu Service, in Peshawar http://www.bbc.co.uk/urdu/pakistan/2009/11/091117_fazlullah_afg_rh.shtml

[xxii] "Faqir Muhammad not killed in Bajaur attack: Taliban," GeoTV, August 15, 2008, http://www.geo.tv/8-15-2008/22728.htm

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