Perhaps the Pakistani military’s most impressive accomplishment in the past two years was its major offensive into the Swat Valley that succeeded in driving out Islamist militants who had established control over one of the country’s favorite tourist destinations—strategically located less than 150 miles from Islamabad. In the months-long process of scattering the gunmen, the military became confident that it had all but decapitated the valley’s radical leadership.
As a crowning achievement last July, it announced that Maulana Fazlullah, the militants’ extremist leader, had been gravely wounded. There were unconfirmed reports that he had had both legs amputated, and was on the verge of death. Since then, rumor had it that he was still alive and had escaped to Afghanistan. Another report this past May said he had been killed leading a Taliban assault on an Afghan border post. Now there is no doubt: Fazlullah, who was known as “Radio Mullah” for his firebrand, hate-filled speeches on his illegal FM radio station in the valley, is very much alive and determined to pursue his “jihad” in Swat.
In a 40-minute video obtained by NEWSWEEK, the 31-year-old, bushy-bearded extremist appears healthy, walks in verdant, pine-covered mountains, fires his Kalashnikov, and addresses some 20 young men who are described as being suicide bombers, or “fedayeen.” “I am asking my fedayeen to target the military, its supporters, and their leadership,” he says. “Your flesh and bones will be bullets that pierce through the heads of the infidels in this noble cause.” The provider of the video says it was recorded in recent days.
Chillingly, Fazlullah dismisses as justified any collateral damage his suicide bombers may cause. “Even if innocent people are killed while hitting these targets, it is allowed as Islam gives you permission to do it," he says. In the professionally produced video that displays the “Al Fatah” logo, meaning victory in Arabic, Fazlullah boasts that he has a stable of 300 suicide bombers that he is ready to unleash in Pakistan.
The video is likely to disturb the 2 million–plus Swat residents who fear that Fazlullah and his brutal and radical ways could return to haunt them once again. Just as worrying is the fact that Fazlullah is shown sitting with one of his high-level commanders and several lieutenants, proof that at least part of his command structure is intact. To add to the potential threat to locals, he even denounced the valley’s long-running music festival as “promoting vulgarity and obscenity.” That has always been one of his favorite themes: demanding that the people follow strict, joyless, Taliban-style lives. By early 2009, Fazlullah had largely seized control of Swat through a series of peace deals with the government, a brutal campaign of assassinating police and local political leaders, and of burning girls’ schools. In his FM radio broadcasts he lambasted music, dancing, TV, DVDs, and barber shops, and ordered his gunmen to burn any places where such “immorality” existed.
Fazlullah, who is closely aligned with other Pakistani Taliban leaders such as Hakimullah Mehsud, arguably would still be in control of the valley except that he and his allies became too ambitious. Rather than being content with consolidating power in Swat, he dispatched his armed followers to seize neighboring districts, advancing perilously close to Islamabad in March 2009. The Army, which had supported peace deals with Fazlullah in the past, finally woke up to the threat under heavy international pressure and counterattacked. Some 2 million Swatis fled their homes during the fighting as the Army systematically eliminated the militants’ presence in the valley, sometimes through extra-judicial killings, human-rights activists charge. In his video, Fazlullah tries to turn the tables on the military. “The Army committed the worst terrorism by killing innocent people in Swat,” he says, calling his retreat “tactical and part of our strategy.”
After viewing the footage, regional experts believe that Fazlullah staged the video in a Taliban-controlled area of northeastern Afghanistan. That still puts him a long way away from Swat. But distance is scant consolation to the valley’s residents who now know he is alive and threatening to renew his demented jihad. “God has given us the power that we shall not be afraid of our enemy,” Fazlullah gruesomely concludes. “Let’s see how things will change when we launch a hundred suicide bombings.”