Mullah Fazlullah was unanimously appointed the new chief by the Taliban’s leadership council, or shura, after several days of deliberation, said the head of the shura, Asmatullah Shaheen Bhitani. Militants fired AK-47 assault rifles and anti-aircraft guns into the air to celebrate.
The decision came less than a week after a US drone strike killed leader Hakimullah Mehsud in the North Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border.
Even though Mehsud was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians and security forces, his Nov. 1 killing outraged Pakistani officials. They accused the US of sabotaging the government’s attempt to strike a peace deal with the militants—although many analysts doubted a deal was likely.
The government said the drone strike came a day before it planned to send a delegation of clerics to formally invite the Pakistani Taliban to hold peace talks.
Bhitani, the Taliban shura leader, ruled out holding 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.
Pakistani officials have criticized US 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.
Fazlullah has served as the Pakistani Taliban’s leader in the northwest Swat Valley but is believed to be hiding in neighboring Afghanistan. He rose to prominence through radio broadcasts demanding the imposition of a harsh brand of Islam, earning him the nickname “Mullah Radio.”
His group began to infiltrate the valley in 2007 and spread fear among residents by beheading opponents, blowing up schools, forcing men to grow beards and preventing women from going to markets. A military offensive in 2009 pushed the group out of the valley, and Fazlullah escaped to Afghanistan.
Fazlullah and his group carried out the attack on teenage activist Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head while on her way home from school in October 2012. She was attacked after speaking out against the Taliban over its interpretation of Islam, which limits girls’ access to education.
The shooting sparked international outrage. Malala was flown to the United Kingdom, where she underwent surgery to repair the damage to her skull. She has emerged as an even more vocal critic of the Taliban and advocate for girls’ education, earning her many international awards. She delivered a speech at the United Nations in New York and was considered a front-runner for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
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.
Fazlullah is the first leader of the Pakistani Taliban not to come from the Mehsud tribe based in the South Waziristan tribal area. The group’s first leader, Baitullah Mehsud, also was killed by a US 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.