November 8, 2013 9:47:24 AM
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan -- The ruthless commander behind the attack on teenage activist Malala Yousafzai as well as a series of bombings and beheadings was chosen Thursday as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, nearly a week after a U.S. drone strike killed the previous chief.
The militant group ruled out peace talks with the government, accusing Pakistan of working with the U.S. in the Nov. 1 drone strike. Islamabad denied the allegation and accused Washington of sabotaging its attempt to strike a deal with the Taliban to end years of violence.
Mullah Fazlullah was unanimously appointed the new leader by the Taliban's leadership council, or shura, after several days of deliberation, said the council's head, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhitani. Militants fired AK-47 assault rifles and anti-aircraft guns into the air to celebrate.
The previous chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by the drone in the North Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border. He was known for a bloody campaign that killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel, a deadly attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan and was believed to be behind the failed bombing in New York's Times square in 2010. The U.S. had put a $5 million bounty on his head.
Mehsud's killing had outraged Pakistani officials. The government said the drone strike came a day before it planned to send a delegation of clerics to invite the Pakistani Taliban to hold peace talks, although many analysts doubted a deal was likely.
Bhitani, the Taliban shura leader, said the group would not join peace talks with the government, accusing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of selling out the group when he met with President Barack Obama in Washington on Oct. 23.
"We will take revenge on Pakistan for the martyrdom of Hakimullah," Bhitani told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location in North Waziristan, where the shura met.
The Pakistani government did not immediately respond to request for comment on the Taliban comments or the appointment of Fazlullah.
Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has said he asked the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Richard Olson, not to carry out any drone attacks while Islamabad was pursuing peace talks with domestic Taliban militants.
The Pakistani Taliban withdrew an offer to hold talks in May after their deputy leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike but warmed to negotiations again after Sharif took office in June. It's unclear if the government will be able to coax the militants back to the table again, especially since Fazlullah is known to be such a hard-liner.
Pakistani officials have criticized the drone strikes in public, saying they violate the country's sovereignty and kill too many civilians. But the government is known to have secretly supported at least some of the attacks, especially when they targeted enemies of the state.
The Pakistani Taliban is an umbrella organization of militant groups formed in 2007 to overthrow the government and install a hard-line form of Islamic law. Based in the country's remote tribal region, the group also wants Pakistan to end its support for the U.S. fight in Afghanistan. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have generally directed their attacks on opposite sides of the border.
Fazlullah, believed to be in his late 30s, served as the Pakistani Taliban's leader in the northwest Swat Valley but is now believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. He rose to prominence through radio broadcasts demanding the imposition of Islamic law, earning him the nickname "Mullah Radio."
His group began infiltrating the valley in 2007 and spread fear among residents by beheading opponents, blowing up schools, holding public floggings, forcing men to grow beards and preventing women from going to markets.
The military invaded Swat in 2009 after a peace deal with the militants fell apart. The offensive pushed most of the fighters out of the valley, and Fazlullah escaped to Afghanistan. But periodic attacks continue in Swat.
Fazlullah and his group carried out the attack on Malala, who was shot in the head while on her way home from school in October 2012. She was targeted after speaking out against the Taliban over its interpretation of Islam, which limits girls' access to education.
The shooting sparked international outrage, and Malala was flown to the United Kingdom, where she underwent surgery to repair the damage to her skull.
She has since become an even more vocal critic of the Taliban and advocate for girls' education, earning her international acclaim, including the European Parliament's Sakharov Award, its top human rights prize. On her 16th birthday, she delivered a speech at the United Nations in New York. She was considered a front-runner for this year's Nobel Peace Prize and met with Obama at the White House.
Malala's representatives said she declined to comment on Fazlullah's appointment. Attempts to reach her father also were unsuccessful.
Fazlullah also claimed responsibility for the deaths of a Pakistani army general and two other soldiers in a roadside bombing near the Afghan border in September. The killings outraged the military and raised questions about whether the Taliban had any real interest in negotiating peace.
Imtiaz Gul, head of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies, said Fazlullah became the Pakistani army's "enemy No. 1" after the attack on the general.
Fazlullah is the first leader of the Pakistani Taliban not to come from the Mehsud tribe based in South Waziristan. The group's first leader, Baitullah Mehsud, also was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2009.
Some Mehsud commanders were unhappy with the decision to appoint Fazlullah but eventually agreed under pressure from some of the group's senior members, said a Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
Khalid Haqqani was chosen as the new deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, said Bhitani, the head of the shura. The new deputy is from the northwest Pakistani district of Swabi and bears no apparent relation to the Afghan Haqqani network that is fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.