The Pakistani Taliban have a new leader — and that's not good news

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World.
As extremist credentials go, the Pakistani Taliban's new leader comes well armed. Maulana Fazlullah is the man behind the shooting of young Pakistani activists, Malala Yousafzai, last year, and he's long had a reputation for being ruthless. Five years ago, Fazlullah led a campaign through Pakistan's Swat valley where his men beheaded and flogged people in public and burned schools. Declan Walsh is 'The New York Times'' Pakistan bureau chief. Who is Maulana Fazlullah, Declan, and what can you tell us about him and his past?

Declan Walsh: Fazlullah is one of Pakistan's most famous Taliban commanders. He comes from the Swat Valley, that's a part of the northwest of the country, where the Pakistan army engaged in a very serious offensive against the Taliban in 2009 in response to an effective Taliban takeover of that district. And over the last number of years, the Taliban had been on the run, but they've carried out a number of attacks, most famously against Malala Ufufzi, the teenage education activist who was shot in the head by militants. Mister Fazlullah, who ostensibly was responsible for that attack, has now been made the head of the Taliban.

Werman: Right, so I mean, Malala was the most high profile of Fazlullah-lead attacks, but just one of many. I mean, remind us what else he's kind of lead in terms of violent campaigns, in the Swat valley?

Walsh: And he's someone who combines a sort of flare for publicity. When he came into the Swat valley, he was famously riding a white horse, and he came to prominence through a pirate radio station. He sort of broadcast his message across the Swat valley using this illegal radio station, but also cemented a reputation for ruthlessness and violence. The Taliban abducted and killed many perceived enemies when they were in control in Swat. They shot down girls' schools in the valley. And mister Fazlullah himself has been thought to be hiding across the border from Swat, and from Pakistan, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, orchestrating these guerilla attacks on Pakistani forces.

Werman: So Fazlullah is a pretty violent individual. His predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed last Friday when US drones hit his car. How was his death seen by the Pakistani government and Pakistanis?

Walsh: His death was greeted with great anger by the Pakistani government, and indeed the broader political establishment. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government said that it had been on the verge of starting peace talks with Hakimullah Mehsud just when that American drone strike occurred. Mister Sharif's officials said that they regretted that this drone strike had taken place, and that they felt that Mehsud was someone who they could do business with. So even though this was a man who had orchestrated many attacks on Pakistan cities, that had killed probably thousands of civilians over the years, paradoxically, the Pakistani government felt that now was not, if you like, the right time to kill him.

Werman: So is there any sense of how the Pakistani government feels about this new leader, Maulana Fazlullah?

Walsh: There's been no official reaction just yet, but they're not likely to be very pleased, because Maulana Fazlullah has a history of reneging on peace deals with the government, if that's indeed what they still seek at this stage. And indeed in the last couple of hours, since his leadership has been announced, the Taliban spokesman has come out and said that he will not be engaging in any peace deal with... any peace negotiations with the Pakistani government, and that the Taliban will now concentrate its forces on carrying out some sort of retaliatory attack for mister Mehsud's death, probably in Punjab, which is the country's most populated province.

Werman: Declan, the internal workings of the Pakistani Taliban are pretty intriguing, as well. I mean, they usually choose leaders within the Mehsud family, as in Hakimullah Mehsud and his own father. So what happened this time?

Walsh: Yeah, this is a major departure for the Taliban, and it can be seen in several different ways. The most obvious explanation is that there have been tensions within the Mehsud tribe over the succession, and this could be a way to settle those arguments or to avoid them flaring into a violent dispute. But if mister Fazlullah runs the Taliban from outside the tribal belt, that would certainly make it harder, if you like, for the American drones that have been hunting Taliban leaders over the years, because until now they have operated just within the tribal belt.

Werman: 'The New York Times' Declan Walsh, thanks very much for your time.

Walsh: My pleasure.