Inside the militant commander’s journey from chairlift operator to head of the Pakistani Taliban
The brutal and ruthless era Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Mullah Fazlullah came to an end on June 14 when he—much like his predecessors Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud—was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
During his brutal rise to power, Fazlullah, commonly known by his more colorful Mullah Radio moniker, was implicated in the killings of thousands of civilians and security officials. Yet, there are two incidents that still resonate, not just in Pakistan but across the world: the attempted killing of girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai, the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, and the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that left over 150 people, mostly students, dead. But while Fazlullah’s name eventually grew to be synonymous with terror, it wasn’t always this way.
Fazlullah, born in 1975, claimed to be a member of the Yousafzai tribe, but said he did not personally believe in caste or creed. “He was a very shy person,” says Usman Olasyar, head of the Swasto Art and Culture Association, who studied with the militant at Swat’s Jahanzeb College in the early 1990s. “We knew him as Fazal Hayyat back then,” he says, adding that the TTP chief wasn’t exactly known for his extracurricular activities. He was no debater, poet or activist. “He was usually with the same group of students, all members of the People’s Students Federation. I’m not sure if he was actually a member of that group though,” he added, referring to the student wing of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
After flunking out of the degree college, he enrolled in eventual father-in-law Sufi Mohammad’s madrassa, the Jamia Mazahir-ul-Uloom, in Lower Dir district. While studying at the madrassa, Fazlullah was among those who traveled with Sufi Mohammad to Afghanistan following the invasion by U.S.-led forces events of September 11, 2001. Upon his return, not having completed any degree, he initially became a chairlift operator at Fizza Ghat on the banks of the Swat River but soon left that job to teach Islam at a madrassa in his village, leading prayers and giving sermons. A fierce proponent of the Pashto language, he would sing religious hymns in his native tongue and avoided giving interviews in Urdu. “He once jokingly told me Pashtuns can’t speak Urdu well and it sounds like we’re putting a trouser on a camel,” says Niaz Ahmed, a journalist based in Swat who had several interactions with Fazlullah.
The militant commander’s entry into the public sphere started very innocently. “Initially, he was just a preacher. He never talked about jihad or politics. He would merely offer sermons twice a day, in the mornings and evenings,” says Ahmed, adding that the first time he had heard the militant leader’s proselytizing was on his pirated FM Radio station in September 2005.
At the time, the head of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi—a militant group advocating the enforcement of shariah rule in Pakistan—Sufi Mohammad was in jail for crossing into Afghanistan with thousands of his followers to help the Taliban fight U.S.-led forces following the events of September 11, 2001. While Fazlullah had also traveled to Afghanistan, he was released after a few months unlike Mohammad, who stayed in prison until 2008.
Sensing a leadership gap, and observing Fazlullah’s rising public profile, the militant group tapped him to lead them. Having already spread his ideology through his radio show, Fazlullah was a well-known personality in Swat by 2006. People would donate to his causes and praised his personal involvement in causes he championed. “In one of his radio speeches, he said he wanted to build a madrassa and asked for help in accomplishing this. A local woman gifted him land for this, prompting him to praise her on his radio show,” says journalist Ahmed. When construction started, Fazlullah joined the laborers, spade in hand
Fazlullah was particularly interested in attracting women supporters. His morning sermons were broadcast after the men had left for work, with listeners being told it was sawab (reward). During these women-focused shows, he would discuss prayer habits, women’s rights, pardah (veil), divorce, dowry. Many residents of Swat admit that it was the women listeners who would encourage their men to become “better Muslims” at Fazlullah’s urging, even convincing them to grow shariah-compliant beards.
The evening segment, meanwhile, was more focused on local “news.” It was used to inform locals about how many of Fazlullah’s listeners had destroyed theirs TVs, given up smoking, naswar (snuff), hashish, alcohol, and how many women had started wearing burqas. “My dear fellow Muslims. Today, three men have promised to sport beards. Please pray for them,” is an example of the type of bulletins covered by the evening show, says Ahmed. “This snowballed into a religious movement, with more and more men being compelled to adhere to Fazlullah’s exhortations and listen to his shows.”
Local journalists say Fazlullah had an undeniable charisma that convinced people he was acting in their best interests. According to Ahmed, Fazlullah would personally apologize to reporters for any excessive force used by his followers and even compensate them for damages to their equipment—even though the men were often operating on Fazlullah’s own direction. He even convinced people TVs and dish antennas were ‘haram’ by telling them they would never find success so long as “Jews are inside your homes,” referring to their television sets. This prompted a wave of locals destroying their own property because they wanted to be “better Muslims.” His growing popularity earned him the Mullah Radio moniker—and propelled him toward terror and extremism.
A clear example of his early attempts at sowing discord was a declaration that “music is haram.” To rid Swat of this “evil,” he promised to compensate anyone who chose to quit any business that dealt with CDs or DVDs. In a veiled threat on his evening show, he urged his listeners to “help them in ridding themselves of this illegal business.” The extremist mindset had already begun to take root and within days CDs and DVDs of all stripes were thrown in the trash and dozens of music shops torched across Swat. No one claimed responsibility, but locals knew whose teachings the arsonists were following.
As his fame grew, Fazlullah expanded the madrassa in his hometown of Imam Dheray into a huge complex, attracting people from across the region for Islamic teaching and especially Friday prayers. With more and more people pledging their support to him, Fazlullah sought to make himself appear more pious: he would ride on a horse with a sword slung on his back and mingle with the worshippers gathered at his madrassa. This was an attempt to show people he followed the teachings of Islam’s Prophet, who was said to ride on a horse with a sword slung on his back during his journeys. He also started living in a small mud hut.
This was when Fazlullah started advancing his version of Islam. He ordered barbers to stop shaving customers. He also started advocating violence to achieve shariah law, prompting security forces to try to arrest him. Swati women pelted police vehicles with rocks when they came to detain Fazlullah, foiling one such attempt. The worst was yet to come. Following the 2007 siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Fazlullah’s forces formed an alliance with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and started attacking security forces and police. That year saw the first suicide attack staged in Swat.
As the government increased its efforts to capture Fazlullah, he went on the run and was unable to broadcast from his radio station on a regular basis. To make up for this, he would sometimes address supporters via a wireless set. Ali Manan, a grocery shop owner on the outskirts of Mingora, says the militant commander would use those broadcasts to teach listeners how to become suicide bombers.
“You need to learn just few things. To have the spirit of Islam/faith, little bit of explosives and the ability to run fast,” Manan quotes him as saying on one morning in 2008. Despite military gains against his group—which resulted in them being ousted from almost all of Swat by 2009—his words continued to attract followers, eventually culminating in the 2012 attack on Malala Yousafzai at his behest, his ascension to the leadership of the TTP in 2013 and the massacre at the Army Public School in 2014.
While Fazlullah was no longer in power in Swat, fear of his supporters and terror attacks persisted. With his death finally confirmed, after several near misses and rumors of his demise, fear of him and his cohorts has dissipated. People in Swat, over which he virtually ruled from 2007-2009, no longer even discuss him.
“There were no funeral prayers, no condolence gatherings, nor any other traditional memorials held for Fazlullah in the entire valley,” says journalist Ahmed. “He couldn’t even attend in the funeral of his mother, and also lost his son in a drone strike in Afghanistan.” The man who had sought to transform Swat—and eventually Pakistan—into a state ruled by terror died in exile.