The AP confirmed the ascendance of a new leader with a statement from the Taliban’s leadership council. Mehsud, in particular was a difficult target to hit, with several previous reports of his death proving false and a $5 million bounty placed on his head. But the official word from the Taliban indicates he is quite dead this time, and has been replaced by a man named Mullah Fazlullah.
Fazlullah’s age isn’t accurately known, but he rose to fame in 2006 when he started broadcasting Islamist messages from a pirate radio station he called “Mullah Radio” in the Swat Valley region. Fazlullah’s broadcasts encouraged a return to Sharia criminal law, the closing of all girls’ schools and the complete cessation of female education.
In 2009, Pakistani military forces attempted to wrest Swat Valley from Taliban influence. Many homes were looted in the fighting, but a tentative peace was established; Fazlullah dodged the Pakistanis in a game of cat-and-mouse, taking him through the mountains on the border with Afghanistan. He is suspected to be directing operations in both countries using that same mountain range.
2012 saw Fazlullah step up his campaign against women’s education, particularly when he ordered an inspirational 14-year-old named Malala Yousafzai shot for publicly condemning his desire to close girls’ schools. She survived the attempt, and became an international symbol of defiance against Islamist hardliners in a way that remains similar to her namesake, Malala of Maiwand, who became a symbol of defiance against British Imperialism in the 19th century.
The Taliban’s previous leader had indicated a willingness to go to the negotiating table. Fazlullah is an extreme propagandist, who appears regularly on YouTube encouraging violence while carrying a U.S.-made M4 assault rifle, perhaps a wartime trophy. After Malala survived the assassination attempt, Fazlullah made additional threats against her and her family.
Fazlullah and his fellow Taliban hardliners believe they are the sole inheritors of Mohammed’s vision of society in Medina, a mystical egalitarian community that the Islamic Prophet allegedly created in Saudi Arabia. But that vision sometimes clashes with the tribal rules and laws that the Taliban leaders must follow, as their insurgents need shelter, sustenance, and supplies — which they would not get if they operated outside their tribal structure.
[Image of the old Taliban leader via YouTube]