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Former Radio Preacher Now Leads Violent Pakistani Taliban

FILE - This undated image provided the SITE Intel Group, an American private terrorist threat analysis company, shows Mullah Fazlullah in Pakistan.
FILE - This undated image provided the SITE Intel Group, an American private terrorist threat analysis company, shows Mullah Fazlullah in Pakistan.

Mullah Fazlullah, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has seen his Islamist ideology change profoundly.

From a fiery village preacher, Fazlullah has morphed into heading a faction that has added one brutality after another to its list of attacks. The December 16 attack on a Peshawar school that left 132 children dead is just a recent reminder of how brutal the Taliban can be under Fazlullah.

In Swat, also home to Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, Fazlullah had modest beginnings as a village imam or prayer leader. He liked to be seen as a mullah, even if his credentials as someone trained in Islamic theology were uncertain.

By 2006, he had launched a fierce radio campaign from his hometown of Imam Dehri and had become a fiery preacher who called for implementation of Islamic Sharia in Swat. He came to be known locally as "Mullah Radio." He expanded his Islamic agenda and, like the Taliban in Afghanistan before him, he declared TV and movies as un-Islamic.

Although he is said to have been affected by polio himself, Fazlullah banned an anti-polio campaign in Swat. It was at that point that he began printing his brand of religion on locals. Mainstream media started writing editorials, and international organizations involved in anti-polio campaigns got alarmed.

Emboldened by his speeches and large following, Fazlullah launched a bloody insurgency against the government in 2007 in Swat, in retaliation for a government crackdown against a radical mosque in Islamabad.

Other militants

In his violent and deadly pursuit of implementing Sharia, Fazlullah was joined by a number of hard-core militants from Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammadi, an outlawed militant outfit led by his father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad. Muhammad is currently jailed in Pakistan, facing treason charges.

Fazlullah’s marriage to Muhammad’s daughter was said to be the result of a much-talked-about love affair, an unusual venture in a society where most marriages are arranged by parents.

Fazlullah always sports a black turban. Among his other personal traits is said to be a love for horses, which may have come to him from his father, who was a stable hand with former rulers of Swat. He entered a state-run college but dropped out.

From 2006 to 2009, spearheading the lethal campaign to implement Islamic Sharia, the Taliban enforced a rigorous interpretation of Islamic law, publicly beheading and flogging wrongdoers and burning schools. Fazlullah started Islamic punishments and his men carried out public flogging.

According to official figures, the Fazlullah terror outfit has killed more than 3,000 people, including 550 members of security forces. His campaign to target peace activists has claimed more than 300 lives, Pakistan security forces say.

His men were blamed for beheading 17 Pakistani soldiers in an attack on a checkpost in June 2012, and he appeared in a video posted online in September that year, claiming responsibility for a bomb blast that killed a major general, Sanaullah Niazi.

As a mark of joining the Taliban, Fazlullah named his band of militants as Swat Taliban.

Fazlullah held sway over Swat and the neighboring Buner district, 100 kilometers from the capital, Islamabad.

Relative peace since '09

In 2009, Pakistan's military fought Fazlullah’s men and ultimately declared victory. A relative peace has prevailed over Swat since then, but local residents say Swatis who cooperated with authorities against Fazlullah’s militants continue to be targeted sporadically in deadly attacks across the region.

Fazlullah was believed to have been within arm’s reach of authorities in Swat, but he went into hiding after the military’s advance, only to emerge in 2013 as chief of the Pakistani Taliban. Fazlullah succeeded Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone attack in Waziristan. He is the first non-tribal-region head of the Taliban, which added to fears that the Taliban threat had arrived in Pakistan’s mainland.

Pakistani authorities say Fazlullah is hiding in eastern Afghanistan, in Kunar or Nuristan province, a claim that Afghan authorities deny.