ISLAMABAD — Six days after a U.S. drone strike killed the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, the terrorist organization named Mullah Fazlullah as its leader, a controversial choice that is bound to produce a bloody upsurge in militant attacks across Pakistan but that also is likely to irreversibly fracture the group.
The appointment of Fazlullah, who uses only one name, came after extended consultations among faction leaders of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan in North Waziristan, the last of Pakistan’s seven northwest tribal areas to be territorially dominated by militant insurgents. The group is commonly referred to as the TTP, an acronym derived from its Urdu-language name, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Fazlullah’s appointment was announced at a press conference by Asmatullah Shaheen Bhitani, the interim head of the TTP, at an undisclosed location in North Waziristan, and on temporary websites and social media pages by the group’s spokesman, who goes by the alias Shahidullah Shahid.
Fazlullah is notorious as the “butcher of Swat” for his leadership of a chapter of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan that twice defeated Pakistani security forces and occupied, from 2007 to 2009, the picturesque districts of Swat and Malakand in northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
During his reign of terror, Fazlullah regularly ordered the public executions of residents deemed to have violated his interpretation of Islamic law or to have colluded against him with the Pakistani authorities. Victims had their throats slit, and their decapitated corpses were hung from posts in the center of Mingora, the regional capital, which was previously among Pakistan’s most popular summer tourism resorts.
The proximity of those areas to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, a six-hour drive away, at the time prompted fears in Washington and other Western capitals that the militants could overwhelm the government and seize the country’s nuclear weapons.
Fazlullah and his militant fighters were finally ejected from Swat in the spring of 2009 and were pursued by commandos of Pakistan’s special services group into the adjacent tribal area of Bajaur and, later, into the neighboring eastern Afghan province of Nurestan.
Fazlullah earned international notoriety for ordering the November 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl from Swat who had campaigned against the TTP’s bombing of schools. She narrowly survived after being airlifted to the United Kingdom for specialist medical treatment. She has since been feted across the world for her bravery, narrowly missing out on the Nobel Peace Prize.
In September, Fazlullah ordered the killing of a Pakistani army general, Sanaullah Niazi, who’d commanded forces in Swat. Niazi was the highest-ranked officer to have died since militant groups united in 2007 to form the TTP and announced a nationwide insurgency.
True to form, the first act of Fazlullah in his capacity as the new TTP chief was to reject peace talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won a May general election, in part, on his promise to “give peace a chance” by seeking a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban insurgents.
However, Pakistani military officials and Taliban commanders based in the tribal areas said Fazlullah was not nearly as strong as the TTP had sought to portray. A six-day delay in Fazlullah’s appointment masked internal opposition from the two largest Taliban chapters in Pakistan, they said.
The officials and commanders spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying identification would provoke lethal reprisals from the TTP.
The Mehsud tribe-led faction based in South Waziristan is the largest in the TTP. It had provided the TTP’s two previous chiefs, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, both of whom were killed in drone attacks. It had promoted the candidacy of its leader, Khan Said Mehsud. That move was backed by the second largest faction, the Haqqani Network, an Afghanistan-focused group based in North Waziristan that has mediated previous truces between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.
Security analysts based in Islamabad said the appointment of Fazlullah would infuriate Pakistan’s powerful military, which had warned Sharif after Niazi’s murder that any peace with the Taliban would not extend to Fazlullah. That is likely to mean that the Haqqanis’ support for the appointment will turn out to be short-lived, because of the group’s close ties with the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
“The Haqqani Network, in particular, cannot stand by Fazlullah because it would threaten their relationship with the military, without which they could not retain their bases in the tribal areas,” said security analyst Mohammed Imran. “It’s a matter of survival for the Haqqanis.”
For now, Imran said, the Haqqanis will endorse the appointment, “but when the military moves in, they will either get out of the way or support the military in the guise of a pro-government tribal militia.”
The potential of a split would strengthen the military’s hand in any prospective battle with the Taliban. The Haqqani Network has twice before faced a similar dilemma, and in each case ended up on the side of the military.
In 2006, its fighters turned on foreign al Qaida militants in South Waziristan, killing an estimated 400 of them to avoid punitive military action against the Wazir tribe, which supports the network.
Faced with the prospect of a massive Pakistan military assault on the TTP headquarters in South Waziristan in 2009, the network’s Wazir tribal proxies signed a peace agreement that kept the network out of the fighting and forced the greatly weakened TTP to relocate to North Waziristan.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.