Last week, Mullah Fazlullah — aka Mullah FM radio — is yet another top gun of the designated terrorist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to fall prey to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike. His death has yet to be formally confirmed by the TTP but numerous other sources — including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — have announced it.
Like Mullah Fazlullah, almost all top leaders of the TTP, a group that emerged from Pakistan’s Waziristan region along the Afghan border in mid-2007, have been killed by UAVs, popularly known as drones — notwithstanding the numerous anti-TTP operations conducted by Pakistani security forces since 2004.
Taliban commander Nek Muhammad was the first targeted by missile from a UAV in 2004. His killing was followed by that of the TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud (August 2009), trainer of Taliban suicide bombers Qari Hussain (October 2010), al-Qaeda affiliate Ilays Kashmiri (June 2011), Haqqani group ally Mullah Nazeer (January 2013), Wali Rahman Mahsud (May 2013), the dreaded Hakimullah Mahsud (November 2013), and Khan Said Sajna (February 2018).
Who Was Mullah Fazlullah?
Like all other TTP leaders, Fazlullah was born in a lower middle-class family in Mam Dheri area of Swat district in northwestern Pakistan. His birth name was Fazle Hayat and stayed the same until he joined a religious seminary and became Fazlullah.
Since names and nomenclature are hugely important in Taliban propaganda, Fazlullah used to call his native village Mam Dheri, where he was teaching Quran at a local seminary, Imam Dheri. In a sign of his influence, a majority of locals now call the place Imam Dheri.
Fazlullah was once a chairlift employee at Fizza Ghat on the banks of the Swat River before joining a religious seminary. He started amassing power once he got an FM radio station. It is still a mystery why the Pakistani authorities failed to block Fazlullah’s radio transmissions while he was spitting venom against women, girls’ education, and music.
His power and support base increased over time and his armed volunteers started raiding music shops and stopping women from visiting markets in the city of Mingora, the commercial center of Swat, in 2006–2007. Numerous operations by the Pakistani security forces failed to stop his activities, finally leading to a massive operation in May 2009. The Taliban were expelled from Swat but Mullah Fazlullah miraculously escaped to take refuge across the border in Afghanistan.
He was appointed head of the TTP after the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone strike in November 2013.
Apart from claiming responsibility for targeting (now) Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in Mingora, the center of Swat, in October 2012, Fazlullah’s TTP also brazenly owned the killing of 150 people, mostly school children, in an attack on a military-run school in the city of Peshawar in December 2014.
However, it was the killing of a senior Pakistani general that made Fazlullah the sworn enemy of the Pakistani army. Major-General Sanaullah Niazi’s vehicle was blown up with an improvised explosive device (IED) in the Upper Dir district as he was returning from a visit to posts on the border with Afghanistan in September 2013.
Who May Succeed Fazlullah?
While the TTP has yet to formally confirm its leader’s death, reports are being circulated in media outlets and in social media forums that a new commander by the name of Abdur Rahman Fateh has been appointed as Fazlullah’s successor. Like Fazlullah, Fateh is also a non-tribal and belongs to the district of Swat.
However, even if these rumors are proven to be true, it is unlikely that majority of the TTP mid-ranking commanders and the fighters will accept the new appointment. And there is a strong reason.
The Taliban from Mehsud tribe in Waziristan believe they deserve the TTP leadership the most because it is their region providing most of the human resources to TTP. Furthermore, Waziristan was the de facto emirate of the TTP, with Baitullah Mehsud and then Hakimullah Mehsud as its unchallenged chiefs.
When Fazlullah stepped into the shoes of Hakimullah Mehsud, it was not an easy task for him to win the confidence of the majority of the Mehsud commanders — not only because of his non-tribal background, but also because he did not enjoy the charisma of Hakimullah Mehsud or Baitullah Mehsud.
Therefore the once tightly knit TTP started to fall apart as someone hiding across the border was appointed to lead the group. It was hard for many Taliban leaders and fighters to digest the new appointment.
Furthermore, Mullah Fazlullah’s reputation was based on his religious credentials more than his battle-hardened experience. He was a demagogue who would deliver fiery sermons to influence and incite ordinary people, but not a fighter with field experience like previous Taliban chiefs from the Mehsud tribe.
Mullah Fazlullah’s speeches from his illegal FM radio in Swat in 2006-2007 earned him the nickname of “Mullah FM” as well as a vast support base that helped him briefly capture the city of Mingora in 2009.
Reports about Abdur Rahman Fateh circulating in the media are unconfirmed and likely untrue. The appointment of another non-tribal chief could very possibly shatter the TTP.
So Who Could Be the New Chief?
The next man to lead the dwindling TTP most probably will be picked from the Mehsud Taliban, whose area enjoys the reputation of the birthplace and once de facto emirate of the group. Mufti Noor Wali alias Abu Mansoor Asim is believed to be the man in waiting.
Apart from being a Mehsud tribesman, Mufti Noor Wali is a religious scholar, a prolific writer, and a veteran of “jihad” who fought alongside the Taliban first against the Northern Alliance and then against NATO/ISAF forces.
After the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul, Noor Wali returned to his native town of Tiarza in Waziristan. He also served as a teacher at a religious seminary in Gorgoray area for two years. He received his religious education from seminaries in Faisalabad and Gujranwala in Punjab province and Karachi in Sindh.
Mufti Noor Wali joined the Mehsud Taliban in 2003 and fought against the Pakistani security forces when then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf deployed regular Pakistani troops inside Waziristan for the first time since the country’s independence. He led the ambush of Pakistani troops at Tayar Manza in March 2004.
Due to his religious credentials, he was once assigned the job of judge. Following the rules of the TTP’s self-styled justice, he once even awarded a three-day jail punishment to the group’s chief Baitullah Mehsud, locals say.
Besides looking after the Taliban operations in Karachi, Noor Wali is also heading the publication department of the TTP and authored a 688-page book, The Mehsud Revolution, in 2017.
New Leadership and Implications
The TTP’s most serious blow was the killing of its founder Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009. However, the ruthlessness and charisma of Hakimullah Mehsud not only glued the group together but further increased its strength and lethality.
It was after the selection of Mullah Fazlullah as its chief that cracks began to emerge in the once tightly kint militant community. Khan Said alias Sajna, a Mehsud Taliban leader, felt sidelined. Another TTP leader Shehryar Mehsud had already parted ways. Maulvi Faqir Muhammad from Bajaur, who is now in detention in Afghanistan, declared his own group while former TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid (now dead) declared allegiance to the Islamic State group. Abdul Wali, alias Umar Khalid Khorasani, who was heading the TTP Mohmand chapter under Hakimullah Mehsud, formed his own group in the name of Jamat ul Ahrar (JuA).
Thus, the appointment of another non-tribal and non-Mehsud TTP chief, could break the terrorist group, which is already suffering from dissent and internal feuds.
The increasing contacts among Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States – and Fazlullah’s killing could be its first fruit – may further debilitate the TTP and make it more difficult for its top leadership to survive. Appointment of a strong and widely acceptable leader could delay the TTP’s fall, but that may not avert its decay provided the coordination between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States continues to grow.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.