Articles by Amir Mir

The rise and fall of Fazlullah — the beast of Swat

The June 13, 2018: death of Pakistan’s most ruthless terrorist and the ameer of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, by a CIA-manned drone attack in the Kunar area of Afghanistan, has come as a major blow to the Pakistani Taliban conglomerate which is already facing factional infighting. The killing of Fazlullah alias Mullah Radio, who was notorious for his roving harassment and killing sprees across Pakistan, will not only seriously affect the operational effectiveness of the Taliban to attack the state of Pakistan but it will also intensify the intra-TTP power struggle which has already divided the jehadi conglomerate into several factions.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was the first one to have called the Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on June 15 to share the news of Fazlullah’s death. The fugitive TTP ameer was reportedly travelling along with five other commanders in the Kunar area of Afghanistan when their vehicle was struck by a US drone which immediately caught fire and burnt alive all five, leaving their bodies beyond recognition. Killed along with Fazlullah were his four key commanders including Abu Bakar, Imran Swati, Sajid Swati and Umar Swati – all coming from the Swat Valley of Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban took ten days to publicly acknowledge the killing of Fazlullah.

Mohammad Khurasani, the TTP spokesman, said in a statement emailed to the media on June 23, 2018: “Like his predecessors — Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud — Mullah Fazlullah too was killed in a US drone strike at11pm on the 27th of Ramazan (June 13). It is a matter of pride that all leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have been martyred by infidels”. Khurasani further announced that Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud has been appointed as the new TTP ameer and Mufti Mazahim, popularly known as Mufti Hazrat, has been named as the deputy ameer of Tehrik-e-Taliban. Mehsud, a cleric and a militant veteran, is thought to be close to the Afghan Taliban’s influential Haqqani network, which strongly supported his bid. On his part, the Pakistani military spokesman described Fazlullah’s death a positive development, adding, “it gives relief to scores of Pakistani families who fell victims to the TTP terror”.

Interestingly, Fazlullah is the third ameer of the TTP to have been killed in a US drone strike. The first one was the TTP founder Commander Baitullah Mehsud who had been droned to death in South Waziristan in 2009 while his successor Hakeemullah Mehsud lost his life in a hit in North Waziristan in 2013. Mullah Fazlullah is the first TTP ameer to have been targeted in Afghanistan, although several key Pakistani jehadi commanders have been killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan in recent years including Commander Said Khan Sajna (killed in Feb 2018 in Afghanistan), Omar Khalid Khurasani (killed in Oct 2017 in Afghanistan), Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai (killed in July 2017 in Afghanistan), Mangal Bagh (killed in July 2016 in Afghanistan) and Khalifa Omar Mansoor Naray (killed in July 2016 in Afghanistan).

The TTP leadership transition was apparently peaceful this time, unlike in 2013 when dozens of Taliban commanders were killed before Fazlullah was made the leader as he was not acceptable to most of the Taliban factions. Fazlullah became the TTP ameer on November 7, 2013 following the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud in a US drone attack. He in fact presided over the descent of the Taliban conglomerate into several factions, mainly because of his being the first ever non-Mehsud and non-Waziristani TTP ameer. Mullah Fazlullah was added to the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice wanted list on March 7, 2018 for orchestrating the killing of three US soldiers in a roadside blast in the Shahi Kot area of the Lower Dir in the Pak-Afghan tribal belt on February 3, 2010. The American soldiers, who were actually trainers, were accompanying the Pakistani security forces to the Maidan area in Lower Dir which was recaptured from the Pakistani Taliban after the 2009 Swat operation.

February 3, 2010, was supposed to be a day of celebration in the village of Shahi Koto in the Lower Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The modest school had been rebuilt with the American funding after the henchmen of Mullah Fazlullah who were opposed to female education, blew it up. Several Pakistani and American dignitaries were on their way to attend the opening ceremony of the school. Just before 11 a.m., as the armoured vehicle carrying five soldiers of the US Army Special Forces approached in a convoy of the Pakistani security vans, a powerful road side bomb was detonated. The blast not only killed three American soldiers but also took away the lives of three innocent school girl students. The killed US soldiers included Sgt. Mark Stets, Sgt. Matthew Sluss-Tiller and Sgt. David Hartman.

The killing of US soldiers had matchless significance as they were the first known casualties of the US troops on Pakistani soil. As Fazlullah claimed responsibility for the attack, he finally had to pay the price on June 13, 2018 when the CIA-run drone predators targeted him in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistani border. Though Taliban spokesman did not mention the names of those killed with Fazlullah, Pakistani agencies identified them as Mullah Omar alias Fateh Ustad, Mullah Imran, Mullah Sajid and Mullah Abu Bakar. They were buried the same night in the same area. Besides claiming the killing of three US soldiers, Mullah Fazlullah had ordered the failed assassination of Malala Yousafzai in 2012, who became a global symbol of the fight for girls’ rights to schooling, and later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mullah Fazlullah was also the brain behind the massacre of over 150 people, including 100-plus schoolchildren, at an Army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014. Although the Americans are trying to make the Pakistani authorities believe that Fazlullah was droned on Islamabad’s request, the fact remains that he was actually wanted by the American FBI just like Hakeemullah Mehsud. Hakeemullah was declared a most wanted fugitive by the FBI after being held responsible [on September 2, 2010] for a 2009 suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan which killed six senior CIA officials. Hakeemullah had appeared alongside the suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi in an early January 2010 video that claimed responsibility for the suicide attack targeting the CIA office in Afghanistan in retaliation for the death of TTP founder, Baitulluh Mehsud, in a US drone attack.

The same was the case with TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud who became a target of the US drones after he had threatened that “My militants would soon attack the Americans in their own country to teach them a lesson by targeting the White House”. Baitullah was killed in a predator attack barely four months after the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) had declared him the most wanted al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani terrorist and announced [on March 26, 2009] a five million USD bounty. Pakistani ministry of interior officially confirmed the death of Baitullah in the August 5, 2009 predator strike along with his second wife in Zangara village of Laddha subdivision in South Waziristan while he was getting a leg massage on the roof of his father-in-law’s house. Baitullah’s swift rise to notoriety landed him on 2008’s TIME Magazine’s list of “100 most influential people in the world” and madeNewsweek the same year to title him “more dangerous than Osama bin Laden”.

Tagged by critics as the beast of Swat, Fazlullah had ordered the beheading of several detained Pakistan Army jawans after being elevated as TTP ameer. His band of jehadi insurgents controlled the picturesque Swat Valley until a massive military operation routed them out in 2009, forcing them to cross over into Afghanistan. The son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Mohammed, the founder of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement to Enforce Islamic Shariah), Fazlullah and his fighters had masterminded dozens of dastardly cross border terrorist attacks in Pakistan during the past five years. While using Afghan territory as a launching pad, Fazlullah used to dispatch his fidayeen attackers to every nook and corner of Pakistan to target troops and civilians alike.

Fazlullah was tagged a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ by US State Department in January 2005 in the aftermath of the horrendous Army Public School carnage in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. The Pakistani authorities had sought help from Washington and Kabul after intercepting wireless and cell phone messages which established that Fazlullah himself directed the Peshawar Army school carnage which killed 150-plus innocent children. It was in December 2015 that Afghan President Dr Ashraf Ghani had first conceded that Fazlullah was hiding in Afghanistan. But the Afghan security agencies were of the view that Fazlullah was hiding in a difficult terrain of Afghanistan that was out of Kabul’s reach. Therefore, the American drones had to be used to get rid of the most wanted jehadi monster from Swat. A previous US drone strike on March 8, 2018 had killed Abdullah, the son of Fazlullah, along with 19 other militants, in the Kunar area of Afghanistan.

Who was Mullah Fazlullah?

The rise of Fazal Hyat from a manual chairlift operator on the Swat River to a fiery jehadi orator [often called Mullah Radio] and his subsequent ascend to prominence as Pakistan’s most wanted and equally brutal terrorist had been like a roller-coaster ride.

Fazlullah became a house hold name in the Swat valley due to the fierce resistance his privately raised army gave to Pakistan army when it had launched a military operation in the picturesque valley in October 2007 to eliminate the vast jehadi infrastructure of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for Enforcement of Islamic Laws) and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Before joining hands with Baitullah Mehsud following the July 2007 Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad to become the Taliban ameer in Swat, Fazlullah had been the ameer of the Swat chapter of the TNSM. Fazlullah was the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the detained founder of TNSM, which is an al-Qaeda linked militant Wahabi organization.

A resident of Mamdheray area in Swat, Fazlullah was born on March 1, 1975 at the house of Biladar Khan, a Pukhtun from the Babukarkhel clan of the Yusufzai tribe of the Swat district. He passed his secondary school certificate from the village school and then took admission at Government Degree College Saidu Sharif, Swat from where he passed his intermediate exam. Till then, he was known as Fazal Hayat who finally became a daily wage earner – an operator of a manual chairlift on the River Swat. Having worked there for a few years, Fazle Hyat left Swat and went to Maidan town in Lower Dir district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa to join the Jamia Mazahir-ul-Uloom – a religious seminary run by Maulana Sufi Mohammad.

Sufi first renamed his student as Maulvi Fazlullah and then chose him to be his son-in-law. Fazlullah returned to the Mamdheray area after completing his religious education and began imparting religious education at a mosque-cum-madrassah. However, the fact remains that he was not a mufti (Islamic scholar), had no madrassah certificate and had only received early religious education from his father-in-law with whom Fazlullah had not been on good terms after having married the widow of his brother who was killed in a 2006 American drone attack. While tracking Fazlullah’s rise to prominence, one comes to know that like thousands of others TNSM activists, Fazlullah too travelled to Afghanistan in November 2001 [after the US invaded Afghanistan] along with his father-in-law, Sufi Mohammad, to fight alongside the Taliban there.

Upon their return home, Fazlullah was taken into custody by the Pakistani security forces along with Maulana Sufi Mohammad and his other comrades and sent to the central prison in Dera Ismail Khan. While Sufi was sentenced for ten years, Fazlullah proved lucky – he was released after 17 months in prison despite charges of inciting youngsters to illegally cross Pak-Afghan border to wage jehad against the US-led Allied Forces. In the absence of Sufi Mohammad, Fazlullah came forward and emerged as a popular Wahabi militant leader through his activities in the Swat district, mainly using his clout as Sufi’s son-in-law.

While his father in law was behind bars, Fazlullah made his native village Mamdheray the TNSM headquarters and got it shifted from Kumbar, Dir to Mamdheray. The next step was the reorganisation of the TNSM. Fazlullah appointed two Shuras to assist him in the decision making process. One was the Ulema Shura with several senior Swati clerics who used to advise him about religious policies of the group. The other Shura, called the executive body, was the highest policy making organ of TNSM, having many ex-servicemen, including retired commissioned officers of the army, as its members. He further created his private army and named it as “Shaheen Commando Force” which was meant to establish his authority in Swat. His private army was quick to establish a parallel administration in the valley by dispensing summary justice besides regulating traffic and patrolling villages and towns.

Fazlullah then decided to enforce his own version of Islam in the valley by using his FM Radio, commonly known as ‘Mullah Radio’ in a big way. Being a fiery orator, Fazlullah attracted local people through his sermons and soon earned the support of women who urged their men folk to grow beards and donate money to his seminary. The essence of his sizzling speeches had been none other than the TNSM motto: “Shariah ya Shahadat (Islamic laws or martyrdom)”. He used to warn parents through his FM channel against sending their girls to schools unless they observe full purdah (veil). Barbers in the area were under clear instructions not to shave beards, while shops were proscribed from selling CDs and music cassettes. He also ordered his followers not to administer polio drops to their children, saying the polio drop was part of an US-Zionist plot to render them sterile.

For Friday prayers, a vast strip of land had been leveled near the TNSM’s Mamdheray headquarters to accommodate a large number of people from almost all villages of Swat. After the Friday prayers, Fazlullah, who was fond of riding a black steed, used to make a riding show (with himself on a black horse) in the same ground, so that the people could have a glimpse of him. His rantings were typical of those subscribing to the intellectual tradition of Taliban. Fazlullah had a fighting strength of 5000, besides a 1000-member Shaheen Commando Force that used to patrol the streets of Swat with guns placed on their vehicles. The situation took an ominous turn in July 2007 when Fazlullah joined hands with the TTP [led by Baitullah Mehsud at that time] and was made the ameer of the Swat chapter.

Between 2007 and 2009, Fazlullah literally engineered the Taliban takeover of Swat and neighboring districts and brutally ruled over a cowed civilian population. As his private army invaded the Buner district of the KP [despite having signed a peace agreement with the KP government] and advanced to just 60 miles from the federal capital, the Pakistan army decided to intervene in October 2009 by launching “Operation Rah-e-Haq”. While Maulana Sufi Mohammad was arrested and still being tried on sedition charges, Fazlullah fled to Afghanistan. His selection in November 2013 as the TTP ameer (despite his being a non-Mehsud and non-Waziristani) could not have been possible without the backing of the Afghan Taliban ameer Mullah Omar.

Who is Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud?

As far as the newly appointed Taliban ameer Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud is concerned, he had been the chief justice of Pakistani Taliban in the past who had authored a book last year, detailing the assassination plot of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. The book titled ‘Inqilab Mehsud South Waziristan: From British Raj To American Imperialism’ was released on November 30, 2017. Mufti Noor Wali had claimed in the book that the attack that killed Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007 was carried out by the TTP. “Two suicide bombers Bilal aka Saeed and Ikramullah were tasked to carry out the attack on Benazir on December 27, 2007. The first suicide bomber Bilal aka Saeed first fired at Benazir Bhutto from his pistol and the bullet hit her neck. Then he detonated his explosive jacket and blew himself up in the middle of the procession. The second suicide bomber Ikramullah escaped from the blast site and is still alive”, write Mufti Noor Wali in his book.

The 40-year-old Noor Wali Mehsud is a cherished Islamic scholar or Mufti as well as a trained militant commander who had been deputy to not only Commander Baitullah Mehsud but also to Khalid Mehsud alias Said Khan Sajna. Noor Wali then became head of the Taliban militants belonging to the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. It was Mullah Fazlullah who appointed him his second-in-command and the deputy ameer of the Pakistani Taliban. Commander Noor Wali fought against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 1990 along with Afghan Mujahideen fighters. With his appointment as the Taliban ameer, the leadership of TTP has returned to Mehsud tribe in its home base South Waziristan as Fazlullah was a non-Mehsud coming from Swat.

Mufti Noor Wali is commonly known in TTP circles by his nickname Ghar Starga and is regarded as a very ruthless jehadi. Born on June 26, 1978 in Gorgoray area in Tiarza tehsil of South Waziristan, Noor Wali hails from Machikhel Zafarkhel sub-clan of Mehsud tribe. Noor Wali had received his early education from Madrassa Siddiqia Ospas in South Waziristan. He had specialized in Islamic Fiqah or jurisprudence from Jamia Yaseen-ul-Quran, Karachi before going to Faisalabad where he studied at Jamia Haleemia, and Jamia Farooq-e-Azam. Noor Wali also studied at Jamia Nusratul Uloom in Gujranwala, Punjab and then went to Jamai Ahsanul Uloom and Jamia Yaseenul Quran in Karachi in the late 1990s. Noor Wali returned to his native Gorgoray village in South Waziristan after completion of religious education and taught religious books at a local religious seminary – Madrassa Imdadul Uloom for two years.

Noor Wali later went to Afghanistan; joined the Afghan Taliban and fought alongside them against the Northern Alliance for almost two months before returning to Pakistan. Noor Wali later completed his remaining religious education on the insistence of his late father Haji Gul Shah Khan. He once again went to Afghanistan after the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, in the convoy of Maulana Mirajuddin to fight against the invading forces. But saddened by the sudden fall of the Afghan Taliban rule in Afghanistan, he decided to join the TTP when it was founded in December 2007 under the leadership of Commander Baitullah Mehsud.

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