Maulana Fazlullah, who is now leading an extremist Islam-oriented insurgency in the valley of Swat in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, is the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, founder of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws), which he established in 1989 (see Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2005). In early 2002, TNSM was banned by the Pakistani government and Maulana Sufi Mohammad was sentenced to a prison term of seven years following a crackdown on jihadi organizations in the aftermath of 9/11 and President Musharraf’s collaboration with the U.S. global war on terrorism.
Fazlullah, born in 1975, was raised in a simple farmer’s family in Mam Dheray, a village near Kanju town on the banks of the river Swat. The village changed its name to Imam Dheray following Fazlullah’s campaign to give Islamic-sounding names to villages in his area.
Fazlullah would have remained just a farmer’s son but for his marriage with the daughter of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, whose TNSM gained notoriety for its violent campaign to introduce Sharia laws in the Malakand region of the NWFP between 1994 and 1996. Fazlullah completed his education at the government school in his village and passed his intermediate examination from the Government Degree College in the Swat capital of Saidu Sharif. Following this, Fazlullah became a student in Sufi Mohammad’s madrasah (religious school), the Jamia Mazahir-ul-Uloom, located in the village of Maidan in Lower Dir district. Despite his studies, Fazlullah failed to obtain any certificate of religious education that was recognized by the Pakistani madrasah authority, the Wafaqul Madaris. Fazlullah nevertheless began teaching Islam in a mosque-cum-madrasah in his village, leading prayers and giving sermons.
After the United States invaded Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in November 2001, Fazlullah accompanied his father-in-law and several thousand TNSM members to fight against the Americans and their Northern Alliance allies. But the largely untrained TNSM volunteers and other Pakistani jihadi groups were routed. Fazlullah and his father-in-law narrowly escaped, returning to Pakistan only to be arrested. Fazlullah was bailed out after spending 18 months in the Dera Ismail Khan jail, but Maulana Sufi Mohammad remained behind bars after refusing to apply for bail from Pakistan’s British-style courts, which the TNSM leader regarded as un-Islamic.
Back in his village, Fazlullah began delivering vehement anti-United States and anti-Musharraf speeches that earned him local fame. In 2004, he set up a clandestine FM radio channel to preach directly to villagers. He then came to be known as “Radio Mullah.” Fazlullah’s broadcasts promoted fundamental Wahabbi/Taliban values such as the prohibition of music, dancing and television shows. He also preached for women to strictly observe the purdah (concealment of the female body from men) and discouraged them from seeking education. Fazlullah obstructed a polio vaccination campaign in the region, claiming that it was a Western conspiracy to make Muslims infertile so that their numbers could not grow.
Strangely, many women are avid listeners of his radio sermons that are aimed to reform a society Fazlullah describes as plagued by television sets, VCRs and CDs, which are sources of obscenity and vulgarity. Women gave their jewelry willingly in an appeal for donations to construct an elaborate madrasah in Fazlullah’s village, which is still unfinished after being bombed by the Pakistani military (Newsline [Karachi], August).
Ironically, TNSM has recently expelled Fazlullah, and Sufi Mohammad has sent messages criticizing his virulent campaign. In the latest military operation aimed at foiling Fazlullah’s sway over Swat, the Pakistani army claimed to have killed a key commander named Matiullah on November 15 (The News [Karachi], November 17). There are also reports that the Pakistani army will launch an imminent large-scale operation to clear out some 500 well-armed militants—whose numbers include Uzbek fighters—who have infiltrated the region from strongholds in Waziristan and Afghanistan (Dawn, November 17).
In the meantime, it has been reported that the imprisoned TNSM leader has been transferred from his prison in Dera Ismail Khan to a hospital in Peshawar for treatment of diabetes and high blood pressure. There is speculation now that Sufi Mohammad may be set free to help the government to negotiate with his errant son-in-law (Daily Times [Lahore], November 17).