The FM Mullahs and the Taliban’s Propaganda War in Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 14

The scenic Swat valley is thundering with both aerial bombardments and fiery Taliban FM radio sermons. In a large-scale military operation dubbed Operation Rah-e-Raast (Operation Straight Path), the Pakistani army is hitting Taliban targets with gunship helicopters while the Taliban respond with AK-47s and their powerful propaganda radio broadcasts. More than a million people have fled the scene of battle and millions more are trapped inside the valley. While the government has asked the local people to help the military in identifying Taliban hideouts, the Taliban have been broadcasting warnings against supporting the military. Through their pirate FM transmitters, the Taliban have demanded that local parliamentarians, security forces and other government officials resign from their positions as a mark of protest against the military operations; otherwise they should be prepared for a jihad directed against them. The Taliban radio broadcasters, popularly known as “FM Mullahs,” continuously transmit anti-American and anti-government sermons, calling democracy “un-Islamic” and those practicing it “infidels.” In their fiery radio speeches, the Taliban preachers have demanded that the non-Muslim minorities of Malakand pay jizya (protection tax) or face jihad. In the same tone, they have issued warnings to local NGOs, musicians and anybody else involved in “un-Islamic” activities. Those defying their orders are butchered, and daily announcements of the details of their deaths are broadcast on FM channels.
The Original FM Mullah
It was the Swat Taliban leader, Maulana Fazlullah, who first gained international attention through his FM radio broadcasts and earned the nickname “FM Mullah.” However, the use of pirate radio stations in the region began in the Khyber Tribal Agency. It was Haji Namdar, leader of Tanzim Amr bil Maroof wa Nehi Anil Munkir (Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue), who established a local extremist FM radio station in December 2003 (Dawn [Karachi], December 2, 2004). Haji Namdar hired a firebrand Deobandi Sunni cleric, Mufti Munir Shakir, who preached a strict version of Islam on his radio which infuriated Muslims belonging to the Barelvi Sufi order. Consequently, the Sufis opened up a rival FM channel headed by Pir Saifur Rahman. The opposing views on rival channels resulted in violent clashes in the Bara Tehsil (county) of the Khyber tribal agency in early 2006. The war of words in the air culminated into a battle on the ground in which scores of people were killed and hundreds of others were displaced (The News [Islamabad], October 25, 2006). The fighting compelled the local people and government authorities to expel both varieties of FM Mullahs from the region.
However, the proliferation of pirate FM radio stations did not stop. Several other small FM channels propagating sectarian views emerged. The vacuum left by Mufti Munir Shakir was soon filled by a more militant cleric known as Mangal Bagh. He re-organized the Mufti’s religious organization, Lashkar-e-Islam, and started recruiting new fighters while terrorizing his opponents with radio sermons. He started issuing fatwas (religious decrees) against his opponents, demanding the implementation of his brand of Islam by force when necessary. Mangal Bagh developed a parallel administration in the region and openly challenged the writ of the government through his influential broadcasts.
It was Maulana Fazlullah, however, who excelled in the effective use of radio and ruled over the Swat valley from his station in Mamdheri (also known as Imam Dheri). In late 2005, he started his FM service and within the short span of one year, Fazlullah was a household name throughout the Swat valley. He was extremely popular amongst the local women, who donated cash and jewelry for his madrassa in Mamdheri (Newsline [Karachi], August 2007).  The common people of the area looked to him for guidance and sought his resolution of their long-standing disputes. The tide turned when he asked the people and the government to consider his FM sermons as the only and final authority on important questions. Maulana Fazlullah politicized his broadcasts in order to gain maximum power and influence in the area. Fighters were recruited and organized by receiving instructions on the radio. Fazlullah sent a wave of terror through opposing politicians and government functionaries and listening to his broadcasts became mandatory for the local public. If someone missed a broadcast, they often felt the need to ask others what the FM Mullah had said that particular day. Who is to be flogged or beheaded next? Who was forgiven and who was punished today?
Radicalizing the Pashtun
Maulana Shah Dauran is another FM Mullah in Swat who is famous for his harsh and derogatory denunciations of Pakistani politicians, the United States and the coalition of nations involved in the war on terrorism. He typically parodies the Pakistani leadership and specializes in character assassination (The News, January 5).
A Taliban leader in Darra Adam Khel, Commander Tariq Afridi, has recently launched a pirate FM station which is also considered to be one of the most influential in the area. It is a short range broadcast that can be heard only within a 2 kilometer radius, but its words are taken very seriously. Tariq Afrida has been threatening tribesmen with dire consequences if they dare to raise a lashkar (tribal militia) against the Taliban or help the government against the Taliban in any way (Dawn [Karachi], April 25).
Local Taliban leaders air their point-of-view on the same Darra channel which is then transmitted through other media to the wider community, enabling the radical preachers to control the area by spreading fear and intimidation (Dawn [Karachi], April 10). Besides the tribal areas and the Swat valley, there is a growing tendency to launch pirate FM stations in the urban centers of the North-West Frontier Province. Big cities like Charsadda, Mardan and Swabi have more than a hundred Islamist pirate radio stations. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) estimates the number of these FM Mullahs to be around 300. Most of these Mullahs are highly influential; some of them are even members of parliament. Maulana Abdullah Shah’s FM station in Charsadda and Maulana Tayyeb’s radio station in Panj Pir are very popular.
These FM channels have served the cause of the Taliban in radicalizing Pashtun society and winning them legitimacy for terrorist activities carried out in the name of religion. They use the airwaves to incite people to jihad, redefine the role of women and intimidate the public by announcing the names of tribal elders, “spies” and security officials who are to be killed or hanged (Dawn [Karachi], May 4).
FM as an Effective Medium in Winning the Propaganda War
Historically and culturally, Pashtuns are a radio society. Now they are an FM society. To win over the hearts and minds of Pashtuns, one would have to talk to them through the medium of FM radio. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message, and the Taliban have been wisely exploiting this medium. These channels are cost effective in sending powerful messages to the immediate local community. A 10 watt FM channel costing only $200 is good enough to be clearly heard across the village. Launching an FM channel takes little technical skill. Semi-literate Taliban need only a transmitter, amplifier and a car or bike battery to send their propaganda into each home of a village. All this equipment is readily available in the local market. FM radio sets are also very cheap compared to shortwave and medium-wave brand radios. Poor people in FATA and the Frontier Province prefer to buy a cheap FM transistor radio at a cost of only a dollar as opposed to a shortwave receiver, which can cost 10 to 100 times as much. And now people often don’t need to buy an FM radio as most cell phones have a built-in FM radio. These local FM broadcasts are regularly tuned in by public transport vehicles. [1] The local Pashtun population prefers to listen to and rely on the news contained in the local broadcast as compared to broadcasts beamed from thousands of miles away. They want local information in local dialects.
The Taliban are smart enough to have exploited these outlets in their propaganda war against the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. They incite the local youth to rise up for jihad against the foreign armies and urge elderly men and women to give their moral and financial support to the cause of jihad. Typically, the broadcasts are made from mosques and madrassas where hundreds of men are present to listen to the FM Mullahs in person while women listen in their homes. The broadcasts are highly interactive – not only do men ask questions of the mullahs in these live broadcasts but women also send questions to be answered by the mullahs, who have successfully won a majority of the women over to their side by asking men to give women their legal share of inheritances, especially land.
All the FM Mullahs’ broadcasts start with the recitation of the Quran and its interpretation. They soon switch to politics and hate sermons against the U.S. and Pakistani governments and their militaries. Their political and ideological agenda is justified by their own interpretation of the religion. However, they may refer to Pashtun culture or nationalism if it suits their goals and ambitions.
The Taliban are not shy about exploiting other traditional and modern media tools like night-letters (unsigned leaflets), pamphlets, CDs, DVDs and mobile messaging. They also make efforts to appear live on other electronic media to voice their unedited propaganda. To give legitimacy to his far-fetched claim of responsibility for the April 3 murders of 14 people in Binghamton, New York, Baitullah Mahsud, chief of the Pakistani Taliban, contacted the Pashto language Deewa Radio, funded by the U.S. government’s Voice of America. In the same week, Baitullah used VOA to threaten attacks on the White House and other targets in Washington D.C. (The News, April 5, see also Terrorism Monitor, April 24). 
How to Challenge Taliban Propaganda? 
Homeopathy has a long-established principle of “Let likes cure likes.” In the same sense, the Taliban’s FM propaganda can be challenged with the same FM radio tools operated by local people unaffiliated with the Taliban. Jamming the Taliban’s FM transmitters can provide temporary relief but it is not a solution, owing to the very nature of these channels. Jamming could interfere with the intelligence system, as some of these FM transmitters illegally use the same frequencies allocated for the police and security agencies, ranging from 88.00 to 108.00 MHz. Confiscation of equipment is also not a permanent solution. The problem is that the broadcasters can easily resurface. An FM channel can be operated even from a motor bike on the run. One can pack the whole transmitter in a brief case and re-launch it from another location unless the broadcasters lose support and popularity among the local people. PEMRA officials confiscated 180 illegal FM transmitters in the NWFP last year, but their number is still on the rise. [2] Confiscation or jamming may create public anger which could further be exploited by the Taliban against the Pakistani and American governments.
The best way to fight the illegal broadcasts is to launch local non-Taliban FM stations, possibly housed in the traditional Pashtun hujras (community halls). Ideally, there should be one small and simple FM channel for each village in FATA and the NWFP, operated by respected local people who may handle regional issues with cultural sensitivity. These stations could deal in an interactive way with subject matters like farming, local trade and business, health, education and employment. For women and youth, there could be special programs related to their interests, such as embroidery, child care, folklore, fashion, poetry, comedy, drama, traditional sports and quiz competitions. Once the local people are engaged positively and feel connected and empowered, they will resist any temptation to cause destruction in the name of religion or nationalism. Already some non-Taliban FM channels in both the NWFP and FATA have demonstrated success. In fact Radio Khyber in the Jamrud area of the Khyber tribal agency has been so popular among the local public that it has almost replaced Mangal Bagh’s pro-Taliban FM station. It airs live discussion on issues ranging from politics and education to music and culture. Radio Burraq is another such FM channel which is very popular in Peshawar and Mardan. FM Dilbar is yet another example, headquartered in Charsadda. Even Pakistan’s military has established several FM channels, including “Mera Swat” (My Swat) in the Swat valley, but they remain comparatively unsuccessful because local people want community ownership and local labeling of these channels.

1.  Author’s interviews with public transport vehicle operators and passengers.
2.  Ibid.