Fazlullah’s ascent

THE ascendancy of Mullah Fazlullah as the chief of the banned militant outfit Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has raised several questions.

The death of Hakeemullah Mehsud in a drone strike on Nov 1 and Fazlullah’s taking over the TTP is said to have jeopardised the government’s strategy to deal with terrorism in Pakistan. Confusion in all segments of society seems to be the order of the day. Two aspects of the complexity need to be disentangled to understand the situation.

First, Fazlullah’s character and approach must be examined in the context of his rule over Swat Valley from 2007 to 2009. Second, the dynamics of counterterrorism need to be studied to devise a comprehensive strategy to fight militancy in Pakistan.

The strategy adopted by Fazlullah to bring about a shift in the socio-cultural and political power structures in Swat valley included a narrative based on Salafi jihadist ideology, ideological persuasion, the spread of this ideology, social control and expansion of that control.

Fazlullah’s discourse revolved around ‘jihad’, martyrdom, the revival of Islam’s glory; it was an anti-modernity, anti-woman and anti-state narrative. The illegal FM radio proved an effective tool to disseminate the discourse because it was inexpensive and easily accessible.

Fazlullah identified the US and the Pakistani state as the enemy. He acknowledged and highlighted the lot of the marginalised, established a madressah and markaz or centre for ideological persuasion at Imam Dherai, a village north of Mingora across the Swat river. The markaz was built on communal land apparently with the local population’s support.

Fazlullah developed a strong local resource base by persuading natives working in the Middle East and the West to donate generously to the newly established madressah. During the stage of social control, Fazlullah established a loose militia, called the Shaheen Force, which was later merged with the TTP.

He established a parallel judicial system, and started targeting those who were socially, culturally and politically influential in the upper valley. His militia co-opted criminal gangs in and around Swat that provided him with trained hands in gun-running.

Throughout this time, Fazlullah developed his organisational structure. He gradually isolated the community by banning television, the internet and girls’ education. Targeted killings and slaughtering of those suspected of ‘spying’ for the authorities also sent a chilling message to the community.

State institutions in the upper valley were effectively defeated during this stage. Fazlullah’s militia started running a parallel administration. He started recruiting from almost all parts of Swat, especially from the towns of Charbagh, Kabal and Matta.

Fazlullah’s organisational structure became robust. It was hierarchal and networked with other outfits after he joined the Baitullah-led TTP and became the Swat chapter head of the militant outfit. Militant training and recruitment drives were launched across the Swat Valley.

Observers believe that the right-wing Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal government in the then NWFP facilitated Fazlullah in many ways in his attempts to gain control of the area.

Firstly, the provincial government disallowed any move by the local administration or the federal government to block Fazlullah’s control of the valley.

Secondly, the provincial government simply looked the other way as Fazlullah started large-scale recruitment and amassed financial resources and used his illegal FM radio channel to spread his extremist ideas.

Keeping in view the roots of Fazlullah’s movement in Swat, one is in a better position to assess the strategy that could be adopted by the TTP in the days and months ahead.

The ascendancy of Fazlullah as TTP chief seems to have brought militant tactics from the hinterland to the Pakistani mainland. The already established militant network and sleeper cells in the settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa might be activated by the TTP command to defeat state institutions. Peshawar, Swabi, Mardan and Dir may become the hub of militant activities in the coming days.

The government has to construct and disseminate a counter-narrative to deny the militant network any large-scale exercise in recruitment. The illogical myths regarding the terrorist network in Pakistan that are being propagated on the social, electronic and print media for the last several months by many quarters need to be debunked.

The state narrative can only be accepted as credible when the narrative of ‘jihad’ and private militias for achieving foreign policy objectives is altogether excluded as a policy option.

Moreover, the definition of peace should not be confined to the absence of military-militant crossfire but include the rule of law, pluralism, constitutional democracy and human rights.

Next, the government has to establish a coordinated intelligence network to block the militants’ supply lines. For this, the KP and central governments must be on the same page. The military establishment and governments too must have an understanding on the details of the counterterrorism strategy.

It is also important for the federal government to make serious efforts to end its economic, political and strategic isolation with regard to neighbouring states so that strategic space for the militant network is squeezed.

Urgent measures are needed to eliminate the sprawling economy of war. This will require the assistance and support of the international financial organisations and international community while strengthening indigenous markets, particularly in the conflict zones.

In the context of Pakistan’s needed transformation, we can quote Michel Foucault: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”