The iron fist of Mullah Fazlullah

New Tehreek-e-Taliban chief fought army to standstill, killed those who crossed him, and ordered attacks on schools.

Fazlullah is the first TTP chief not to hail from the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan's tribal areas [Al Jazeera]

Mullah Fazlullah, the new Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader, is a ruthless fighter who is vehemently anti-state and unamenable to peace talks.

Fazlullah was elected as TTP commander by a consultative council of the group on November 7, almost a week after Hakimullah Mehsud, the group’s former leader, was killed by a US drone in the tribal area of North Waziristan.

He is the first commander of the group not to come from the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan’s tribal areas, hailing instead from the northwestern valley of Swat, where he waged a bloody war against the Pakistani state from 2007 to 2009.

As chief of the local chapter of the TTP in Swat, Fazlullah drove civil and military authorities out of the area in 2007, before finally signing a peace agreement with the government in 2009.

The agreement, dubbed the “Nizam-e-Adl” (system of justice), granted the TTP virtual control over Swat and implemented their interpretation of Sharia law, in exchange for the cessation of hostilities.

It soon disintegrated, however, when Fazlullah’s men attempted to expand their sphere of control to neighbouring Buner district.

As a result, Pakistani forces moved into Swat for the second time in two years, resulting in hundreds of deaths and millions of civilians displaced. Fazlullah was finally driven out of the valley by September 2009, with several of his top commanders captured.

But while the government and civilians rebuilt lives in the valley, Fazlullah continued to conduct operations in Swat remotely, from neighbouring Dir district and, as many locals tell Al Jazeera, the Afghan border provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

From his base, Fazlullah ordered the targeted killings of elders who led peace committees against the Taliban, as well as rights activists. Among the dozens of people the Taliban killed or attempted to kill during this time was Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl activist who rose to global prominence following the attempt on her life.

Early history

Born in 1974 in the village of Kuza Bandai, Fazlullah spent his teenage years selling wooden shuttering and doing odd jobs selling items off pushcarts.

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He then enrolled in an Islamic school, or madrassa, run by Sufi Mohammed, a prominent anti-government cleric and leader of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM). The TNSM had for years been agitating against the government to have Sharia law imposed in the Swat valley.

Fazlullah went on to join TNSM chief Mohammed when he led a group of fighters from Swat into Afghanistan to fight US forces following the invasion of that country in 2001. He also married Mohammed’s daughter.

By 2004, having returned from the Afghan war, Fazlullah started a local radio station in the valley, hosting a one-hour programme that, to begin with, focused on women’s role in Islam and society.

The show spread his ideas regarding a strict intepretation of Sharia law in all spheres of life. He also took a stance against polio vaccinations for children, dubbing them a “Jewish” or “Western” conspiracy to sterilise Muslims.

‘Sharia or martyrdom’

His status as Mohammed’s son-in-law, a veteran of the Afghan war and his radio show all gained him increased prominence, and the man known locally as “Mullah Radio” was soon rivalling his father-in-law in leading the call for Sharia law in the valley.

His rise culiminated in him leading Eid prayers in the valley’s Kabal ground in 2007, an occasion that saw thousands fall in line behind him as he raised the cry of “Sharia or martyrdom!”

With such support, Fazlullah opened a madrassa of his own at Imam Dehri, imparting both religious knowledge and paramilitary training to those who enrolled, with a view to carrying out “jihad” against both the US and Pakistan.

By late 2007, Fazlullah’s chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban had established control over large parts of the valley, weathering a military operation that resulted in the Nizam-e-Adl peace deal.

His group had already established a parallel court system, and he outlawed the operation of businesses such as CD shops, which his group believed to be against Islam. They also carried out attacks against dozens of girls schools, based on the assertion that women should only receive an Islamic education.

During his time in control, Fazlullah ruled over Swat with an iron fist, publically executing both those who would stood against him and those who his group deemed to have violated Sharia law.

Blow to peace talks

Having been targeted in two military operations and engaged in a failed peace deal with Pakistan’s government in the past, it is unclear if Fazlullah will accept an offer of a return to peace talks in his new capacity as overall TTP chief.

Following his election, Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesperson for the TTP, told Al Jazeera that Fazlullah was picked because he was a hardliner who had refused to surrender to Pakistani forces.

The Reuters news agency quoted Shahid as saying: “There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistan government.

“All governments play double games with us. In the name of peace talks, they deceived us and killed our people. We are 100 percent sure that Pakistan fully supports the United States in its drone strikes.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies