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Pakistan's 'most hated' man to lead Taliban

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 6:48 p.m.

ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani Taliban appointed as its new chief on Thursday a hard-line commander responsible for some of the country's worst violence, including the recent killing of a Pakistani general and the attempted assassination of schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai last year.

After conferring for six days in North Waziristan, 17 members of the group's governing council selected Maulana Fazlullah as the terrorist group's operational and tactical leader, Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said in a phone interview. Fazlullah replaces Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed by a U.S. drone a week ago in an attack that brought vows of retribution and is complicating relations between America and Pakistan.

In choosing a figure whom some analysts describe as Pakistan's most feared man, Shahid said the Taliban's goal was to signal that its insurgency against the government will continue, despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's effort to engage the group in peace talks.

Fazlullah, who is thought to be living in eastern Afghanistan, was the Taliban commander in Pakistan's scenic Swat Valley from 2007 to 2009, when the group effectively controlled the area.

It attempted to impose harsh sharia law on residents, and those who resisted it were whipped, beaten, tortured or executed.

Fazlullah is wanted on 104 criminal charges in Swat but has evaded Pakistani security officials, NATO troops in Afghanistan and U.S. intelligence officials, despite several false reports over the years of his death in a drone strike.

Last year, Fazlullah ordered the execution of Malala, 15 at the time, because she spoke out against Taliban attempts to prevent girls from going to school. Malala, who was shot in the head on her school bus, recovered after being airlifted to England for treatment.

In early October, Fazlullah asserted responsibility in a video for killing a two-star Pakistani army general and two other military officials in a roadside bombing near the Afghanistan border. The video infuriated Pakistani military leaders, many of whom remember Fazlullah from his fierce resistance to the 2009 military campaign to regain control of the Swat Valley.

Neither Pakistan's government nor its powerful military commented on Fazlullah's selection, but analysts say the development severely undermines Sharif's efforts to hold peace talks.

Those plans have been on hold since last Friday's killing of Mehsud, who was wanted by the United States for a 2009 assault on a CIA base, which killed seven Americans, and a 2010 plot to bomb Times Square in New York.

“From the Pakistani establishment point of view, Fazlullah is a very dangerous guy,” said Saifullah Mehsud of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Center, which investigates terrorism organizations. “Through his acceptance of the killing of the army general and his cross-border attacks, all of these things establish him as the most hated guy as far as the military is concerned.”

Fazlullah, thought to be in his late 30s, is known as “Mullah Radio” because he is frequently spotted with a transmitter used to relay music and messages. Fazlullah was raised near Mingora in the Swat Valley and became an avid follower of Sufi Mohammad, the detained founder of the radical Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law group, later marrying his daughter.

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