The Pakistani Taliban has been on the lookout for a new leader since the group's former head, Hakimullah Mehsud, was abruptly killed in a U.S. drone strike last week. Well, the Taliban has now found him: Mullah Fazlullah, the fiery mastermind behind last year's attack on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, was announced as the group's new chief this morning.
It's a somewhat surprising choice, given that the Pakistani Taliban's last two leaders came from the Mehsud tribe of Waziristan, a region in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Fazlullah, by contrast, has apparently been hiding out for the last few years in eastern Afghanistan, though he originally hails from Khyber-Pakhtunhwa Province, a site of frequent terrorist attacks.
But it's a choice that says exactly how Tehrik-i-Taliban, as the group is officially known, intends to respond to Mehsud's assassination: That's to say, brutally. Even within the Pakistani Taliban — a loose collection of more than 40 militant groups — Fazlullah is considered a hardliner.
Already, the new leader has made it perfectly clear that tentative peace talks with the Pakistan government are no longer on the table. From Reuters:
"There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistan government," Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location in neighbouring Afghanistan. "All governments play double games with us. In the name of peace talks, they deceived us and killed our people. We are one hundred percent sure that Pakistan fully supports the United States in its drone strikes." [Reuters]
Indeed, the Pakistani heartland is bracing for a retaliatory attack from the Taliban. From the New York Times:
Mr. Shahid warned that the Taliban was planning retaliatory attacks against the federal government in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. He said Mr. Sharif had "bargained and sold out Hakimullah to the Americans." [New York Times]
So who exactly is Fazlullah? He has a colorful resume, to say the least:
- He started his career as the operator of a chair lift spanning the river of Pakistan's only ski resort, in the Swat Valley. The tourist haven used to be known as "little Switzerland" — until Fazlullah and his comrades swept in and imposed Sharia law, that is. Schools were razed, music shops were burnt down, and barbers were forbidden to cut the beards of their customers.
- In 2007, Fazlullah turned to broadcasting, earning himself the nickname "Mullah Radio." He gave fiery pirated broadcasts daily, during which he would announce the names of Swat men ordered to be beheaded for breaking Islamic law. He could often be seen riding around the valley on a white horse.
- A military operation in Swat in 2009 forced Fazlullah over the border into Afghanistan, but he continued to orchestrate his attacks from there, including…
- His most infamous attack, against schoolgirl Malala in 2012. Angered by the Pakistani teenage girl's outspoken support for female education, Fazlullah sent masked gunman to shoot her in the head. Luckily, she survived.
Given his hardline credentials, nascent hopes for peace between the Pakistani government and the Taliban look set to be crushed. As one senior government official in Peshawar told the New York Times: "This changes the entire equation."