Meet the New Head of the Pakistani Taliban

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Maulana Fazlullah, the hardline Pakistani Taliban cleric who masterminded the plot to shoot education activist Malala Yousafzai, was chosen today to lead the Pakistani Taliban. The move comes in the wake of last week’s drone strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the group’s former leader.

The selection of Fazlullah, nicknamed the “Radio Mullah” for sermons and tirades broadcast by his pirate radio station, was “a surprise choice that bodes poorly for proposed peace talks” with the Pakistani government, wrote Declan Walsh in The New York Times.

In 2007, FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero traveled to Pakistan’s Swat valley, becoming the first Western correspondent to interview the publicity-shy cleric. At the time, Fazlullah had not yet begun his violent uprising, but he told Montero he hoped to wipe out the darkness of Western ideas and influence. 

Fazlullah refused to allow Montero or anyone else to photograph him, but Montero managed to obtain a brief video of Fazlullah shot secretly inside a madrassa, a religious school that he was using as a base at the time. (Warning: This video contains graphic footage.)

Montero later recalled his meeting with Fazlullah:

I first went to Swat in May 2007. Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric in the valley, had begun to become a problem for the Pakistani government. All the newspapers were writing about him. Editorials were coming out in the press about him because he was preaching a very extremist version of Islam. He was telling parents over a pirated radio station that they should not send their girls to school. He was telling people in his town that they should not be vaccinated against polio because the vaccination was a conspiracy concocted by the West to make young men impotent — outlandish things like this. I realized he was becoming a new face of the Pakistani Taliban — an extremist, an incredibly ignorant and dogmatic thinker, but nonetheless someone with a huge following. He had a following of about 15,000 people at that time.

After I met with Fazlullah, I continued to follow his story as he became more and more of an extremist. He started taking over towns in Swat Valley. He started arresting people and flogging them in public. He started setting up his own checkpoints and created a parallel system of government in his area. It was clear that he was becoming a headache that the government was going to have to deal with. [The situation] was going to explode.

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