For more than a decade, Mullah Fazlullah remained the dreaded face of terror for millions in northwest Pakistan. They faced death, injury, humiliation, and displacement because of his violent campaign.
His reported death in a U.S. drone strike in eastern Afghanistan last week has prompted many of his prominent victims to question Islamabad’s counterterrorism gains given that most senior Taliban figures were reportedly killed in attacks by unmanned U.S. drone aircrafts.
Fazllullah, believed to be in his mid-40s, established a Taliban fiefdom in Swat Valley, a picturesque tourist haven in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan.
He earned the nickname “Mullah Radio” after successfully utilizing fiery sermons on an illegal FM station to transform himself from a rural chairlift operator into one of the most feared Taliban commanders. By 2007, he had established control over Swat, banned polio vaccination, and discouraged girls’ education.
Zahid Khan, a community leader in Swat, was one of Fazllullah’s early opponents. He told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that his repeated requests to local officials to shut down the Taliban leader’s radicalization campaign fell on deaf ears.
“He was a nasty criminal who ultimately met his fate, but we want to ask why our [intelligence] agencies and security forces were unable to deal with him,” he asks. “All senior [Pakistani] Taliban commanders have been killed in these [U.S.] drone strikes. Pakistani security forces cannot claim to have killed a single senior Taliban figure or present his dead body to the people.”
Khan now wants the Pakistani authorities to deliver justice to captured and surrendered Taliban figures such as former Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan and Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In December 2016, a military court sentenced Muslim Khan to death. His appeal is now pending in the Pakistani courts. Ehsan remains in government custody after surrendering in April 2017.
Ajwan Khan lost his son Asfan Khan in an attack on the Army Public School in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, in December 2014. Nearly 150 schoolchildren and teachers died in the attack, which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
“We are not satisfied with the killing of Fazlullah and want to ask where our protectors [security forces] was when all this was happening,” he told VOA’s Deewa Radio. “Our grievances are aimed at our protectors.”
Fazal Khan, an outspoken Peshawar-based lawyer, also lost his son Omar Khan in the Peshawar school attack.
He noted how Pakistani authorities released Fazlullah’s father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad, in January and are keeping Ehsan away from courts despite efforts to hold Ehsan accountable for publicly claiming responsibility for scores of atrocious Taliban attacks.
“We praise the United States for killing him [Fazlullah] because apparently he was our enemy, or our security institutions led us to believe that he was our enemy,” he told VOA’s Deewa Radio.
Since the TTP’s emergence as an umbrella organization encompassing various Pakistani Taliban factions in 2007, most of its senior leaders and those of its splinter groups have been killed in alleged U.S. drone strikes.
These include the movement’s founding leader, Baitullah Mehsud (2009), and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud (2013). Qari Hussain, believed to be the mastermind of the TTP’s suicide bombing operations, was reportedly killed in a drone strike in 2010. Wali-ur Rehman, another senior commander, was killed in a drone strike in 2013. Omar Mansur, the alleged mastermind of the Peshawar school massacre, was killed in an alleged U.S. drone strike in July 2016.
Pakistan’s powerful military, however, forcefully rejects assertions that it has failed in combating the Pakistani Taliban. “We defeated Al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and Jamat-ul Ahrar,” Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, declared in February. “Today, I can say with pride and conviction that there are no organized terrorist camps on our side of the border.”
In a June 15 statement, the military termed the killing of Fazlullah a positive development. “It gives relief to scores of Pakistani families who fell victims to TTP terror including the APS massacre,” the statement noted.
But some of the most prominent victims of Taliban violence in Pakistan say that the day they can truly feel relieved is still far off.
Ziauddin Yousafzai, the schoolteacher father of Nobel laureate education activist Malala Yousafzai, was once on Fazlullah’s hit list.
He told Radio Mashaal that the Taliban chief’s death reminded him of all the atrocities he had witnessed in Swat, which include the destruction of more than 400 schools and massacres of entire families.
“He was a symbol of terror, and his death will have some deterrence impact,” he said. “But the fundamental thing is that we need to abandon [Pakistani] state policies and narratives that have paved the way for the emergence and empowerment of blood-thirsty characters like Fazlullah.”
Yousafzai says new approaches aimed at transforming Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan from a theater of war into an arena for peaceful economic cooperation remains the only path to sustainable peace.
“Only then we can be adamant that this chapter [of terrorism] is closed forever and new people like Fazlullah will not emerge,” he said.