Mullah Fazlullah was no doubt disappointed when the four-man hit team he dispatched after the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai failed to kill her.
But the heroic survival and recovery of this 14-year-old education activist after being shot in the head and neck so captivated the world as to make his crime all the more infamous.
And that notoriety surely was a big factor in Fazlullah ascending to supreme leader of the Pakistani Taliban this week, his predecessor having been killed by a drone strike.
How better to defy the U.S. than to crown the guy who tried to kill the girl who became the West’s darling?
Better yet, the autobiography she survived to write, I Am Malala, has an entire chapter devoted to Fazlullah titled, “Radio Mullah,” the nickname he acquired when staring out as a pirate Islamist radio personality, whose many female fans included her own mother. The book recounts how he went on to institute a reign of terror, ordering countless deaths, including that of a woman shot for dancing, and of a man killed along with his father because he refused to wear his shalwar above his ankles in the Taliban way.
Fazlullah eventually ordered the death of Malala herself. And that bugled hit now proves to have been a great career move for a 30-something jihadi who has proven to be not just a homicidal psychopath but a terrific self-promoter.
Perhaps the guy who is now one of America’s top terrorist targets took some twisted cue from the Pepsi billboard that stood beside the pulley chairlift that he operated over the Swat River in his pre-jihadi days back in the early 1990s.
After all, Pepsi became a world-leading brand not on its actual virtues, but by associating it with a better, happier life. It was all about image and promotion, about becoming known. And known is clearly what Fazlullah wanted to be.
Granted, Fazlullah got an edge in the jihad business by marrying the daughter of the local boss. He caught another break when his father-in-law was one of the Islamists rounded up and imprisoned in 2002.
Fazlullah was named the new local boss, but he was still an overweight schlub who dragged his right foot when he walked as a result of childhood polio.
What really made him was the pirate radio show he began broadcasting via portable transmitters mounted on trucks and even motorbikes in a valley where there was little TV and the majority of people were illiterate.
“Soon everybody seemed to be talking about the radio station,” Malala writes in her book. “It became known as Mullah FM and Fazlullah as the Radio Mullah.”
Malala was shot as she rode in the back of an open truck. “Let this be a lesson,” Fazlullah’s spokesman said afterward. “She was young, but she was promoting Western culture.”
She reports that “in the beginning, Fazlullah was very wise. He introduced himself as an Islamic reformer and an interpreter of the Quran… He used his station to encourage people to adopt good habits and abandon practices he said were bad.”
Malala adds that “sometimes his voice was reasonable, like when adults are trying to persuade you to do something you don’t want to do,” but at other times “it was scary and full of fire.”
“Often he would weep as he spoke of his love for Islam,” she notes. “Lots of women were so moved by what Fazlullah said that they gave him gold and money… particularly in poor villages or households where the husband was working abroad. Tables were set up for the women to hand over their wedding bangles and necklaces and women used up to do so or sent their son… Some gave their life savings, believing this would make God happy.”
His fans came to include Malala’s mother, even though the only radio in the house was broken,
“My mother’s friends all listened and told her what they heard,” Malala says. “My mother is very devout, and to start with she liked Fazlullah.”
Off-air, Fazlullah struck a romantic figure by appearing astride a horse, sometimes a pure white, more often a pure black to match his turban, the effects of childhood polio no longer noticeable. Malala would hear her mother’s friends go on and on about him.
“They praised Fazlullah and talked about his long hair, the way he rode a horse and behaved like the Prophet,” Malala writes. “Women would tell him their dreams and he would pray for them.”
Then came the big earthquake of 2005. The government was slow to respond and the militants briefly put down their guns to help rescue and rebuild. Mullah FM told listeners that they had brought the disaster on themselves with such wickedness as dancing and listening to music and watching movies.”
Malala writes, “Sinful acts like these had caused the earthquake, Fazlullah thundered, and if people didn’t stop they would again invite the wrath of God.”
TVs and DVDs and CDs were piled in the street and set afire. Even children’s board games were proscribed.
“We heard stories that the Taliban would hear children laughing and burst into the room and smash the boards,” Malala writes.
But of course Mullah FM was permissible. And it remained especially popular in the remote areas that were hardest hit by the earthquake and received the least government assistance.
“In some mosques, they set up speakers connected to radios so his broadcasts would he heard by everyone in the village and in the fields,” Malala writes. “The most popular part of his show came very evening, when he would read out people’s names. He would say, ‘Mr. So-and-so was smoking chars [hashish] but has stopped because it’s sinful,’ or, ‘Mr. X has kept his beard and I congratulate him,’ or ‘Mr. Y has closed down his CD shop’ He told them they would get their reward in the hereafter. People liked to hear their names on the radio; they also liked to hear which of their neighbors were sinful.”
Fazlullah made clear in his broadcast what he considered to be a woman’s place. Malala recalls, “Sometimes, he’d say, ‘Men, go outside now, I am talking to the women.’ Then, he’d say, ‘Women are meant to fulfill their responsibilities in the home. Only in emergencies can they go outside, but they must wear their veil.’”
Women who violated this edict were liable to be flogged. Other sinners were beheaded or hung or shot. More than 400 schools for girls were bombed or burned even as villagers were recruited to help build a massive mosque for Fazlullah on the banks of the river where he had been a pull-chair operator.
A stage was erected next to the edifice and hundreds would gather to watch floggings, crying out “Allahu Akbar!”
“Sometimes Fazlullah appeared galloping in on a black horse,” Malala writes.
When Ramadan fasting began, the militants bombed the gas and electricity lines to keep people from cooking. FM Mullah announced a change in the usual sacrifice of goats and sheep on the Eid holiday.
“Fazlullah said, ‘Oh this Eid, two-legged animals will be sacrificed,’” Malala writes. “We soon saw what he meant.”
The terror continued against everyone from beauty-parlor operators and barber shops that shaved beards and others deemed wajib-ul-qatl, or worthy of death. The Pakistani military finally intervened. A bloody conflict ended in a cease-fire that ceded to the militants the right to institute Sharia law in the Swat area.
The mullah with the dragging foot denounced efforts to vaccinate children against disease as “a conspiracy of the Jews and Christians to stunt the population growth of Muslims” by rendering them impotent.
“To cure a disease before its onset is not in accordance with Sharia laws,” he added in a rare interview with a small group of journalists.
He was asked why people followed him and he said they were “fed up” with a corrupt system.
“They are coming to us seeking peace of mind,” he said.
He was also asked why he rode a horse. He said his grandfathers had been “cavalry men,” but “above all it is a Sunnah of the Holy Prophet,” meaning it was a traditional Muslim practice.
“What effect does your FM channel have on the people?” he was then asked.
“We strongly preach about women’s rights given in Quran and Sunnah,” he replied.
He had pledged in the cease-fire agreement to allow females to attend schools, but he soon went back on that and just as quickly broke the truce. A 2010 video shows him addressing a group of suicide-bombers-in-waiting, praising their desire for martyrdom.
“Jihad as long as we are alive!” he said.
When a military advance raised the possibility that he himself might become a martyr, he sought refuge across the border in Afghanistan. His followers continued to slip back in to Pakistan to terrorize and kill, but he was no longer Mullah Radio, star of the airwaves riding about Prophet-like atop a steed. The women were now learning that the wedding jewelry they had given him in his glamour days was too often used to finance an attack.
“Don’t cry, that is the sound of your earrings and nose studs,” Malala quotes a husband back from working abroad telling his wife when she is terrified by a bomb going off in their village. “Now listen to the sound of your lockets and bangles.”
In October of last year, Fazlullah dispatched a four-man team to track and kill Malala, who had gained some prominence with a diary about life under the Taliban. She was shot as she rode in the back of an open truck.
“Let this be a lesson,” Fazlullah’s spokesman said afterward. “She was young, but she was promoting Western culture.”
Malala survived and went on to win hearts the world over. Fazlullah may have taken this as a setback until a drone killed the supreme leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was said by some to have been at least considering peace talks. The organization responded to his death by naming the notorious Fazlullah to replace him.
“There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistan government,” a Taliban spokesman said.
And what Fazlullah says goes.
In his world of terror and murder, he is in a sick and twisted way as big as Pepsi.