National Security

The Rise of 'Radio Mullah'

Mullah Maulana Fazlullah, the new head of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), is commonly referred to as "Radio Mullah" for the fiery broadcasts that played a significant role in his rise to power in the Swat region. While his appointment to replace the recently deceased Hakimullah Mehsud may have come as a surprise to some, Fazlullah's tactical victories in Swat between 2006 and 2009 should not be forgotten. His reign of terror in the area, which prompted a Pakistani military operation (Operation Rah-e-Rast in April 2009) that forced millions to evacuate the region, was primarily supported by his radio programming, which was often carried out by Shah Doran, a close aide and cleric. The content of this radio station, widely reported to consist of anti-U.S. and anti-Pakistani government broadcasts, relied heavily on fundamentalist Islamic teachings, and called for shari'a law to be enforced in the region as part of a wider campaign to restore the Caliphate. Interviews conducted in Islamabad between May 2011 and July 2011 reveal key nuances about the success often attributed to Fazlullah's radio station.

Fazlullah had the unique opportunity to fill the information vacuum in the region because the Pakistani Electronic Media Regularity Authority (PEMRA) cannot regulate media content once a radio station is operational. Interestingly, in an interview with a local journalist, Fazlullah revealed that because PEMRA's mandate does not extend to the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas, his radio stations had never acquired a license. However, "a nine-point peace deal" between Fazlullah and the government in Peshawar in May 2007 allowed him to continue spreading his message using radio stations. Therefore, when specifically addressing Fazlullah's radio programming, these stations cannot be deemed "pirate radio" or even illegal -- as they have been termed by several media outlets and analysts -- primarily because they were almost always functioning around legal loopholes.

Using the airwaves to issue direct threats against the Pakistani armed forces and individual citizens, as well as ordering locals to lead a more fundamentalist Islamic life, Fazlullah carefully manipulated listeners into terrorizing the region. According to one Swat citizen, when his political message began to incorporate Quranic texts, the listeners' "sentiments and loyalties" were more easily exploited. In fact, his radio broadcasts "inspired" many "disenchanted, poor, illiterate, and unemployed youth" to take up arms. A prominent media analyst added that the content relied on Fazlullah's Quranic understanding as a tool of legitimacy and his interpretation in Pashto offered solutions that the state and local governments did not provide. This approach was especially effective because it was often accompanied by violent actions. One respondent, who met Fazlullah several times, commented:

"One day he [Fazlullah] would address the people of Mingora, and two days later he would appear, so there was two kinds of action. He would ideologically threaten people and then physically appear dressed in black clothes and riding around on a black horse. This way, his radio station became an important tool. He mentally frightened the population, but when you begin the physical oppression, there is just no resistance."

Fazlullah's calculated psychological manipulation -- coupled with the locals' grievances with an inept judicial system -- his promises of justice in life and rewards after death, and inaction on part of the local authorities, drew recruits to him.

As part of its overall mission, the radio station specifically targeted female audiences in Swat. From the beginning, Fazlullah actively advocated for women's rights under shari'a law, and his programming gained popularity among women because he highlighted Islamic teachings that prohibited domestic injustices committed against them. By gaining religious legitimacy in the eyes of his female listeners, Fazlullah was then able to use his sermons to raise funds for his madrassa at the Imam Dheri mosque, often by asking women to donate their jewelry and belongings.

Although Fazlullah's station enjoyed a significant number of female listeners, the shift in his broadcasts from focusing on their rights to more rogue threats was not received well. According to a local journalist based in Malakand, Fazlullah's rhetoric increasingly became more aggressive after the siege on Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007. The programming openly condemned the government's policies, and began issuing threats against girls and women who continued to pursue an education, despite being warned not to do so.

A researcher involved in a joint project between the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), assessing the impact of this radio programming on women, explained: "Respondents for our project said they felt betrayed because they [radio hosts] had never talked about burning down schools." But Fazlullah's radio lectures aggressively encouraged females over the age of nine to forego schooling. This slowly progressed to issuing threats against girls and women who continued to pursue their education. In addition, women were actively encouraged to send the men in their households to join Fazlullah's mission against the Pakistani forces. The CRSS/UNDP report concludes that: "the tyranny exhibited by the militants soon replaced the initial support for them with dislike and contempt." 

But that dislike does not necessarily translate into resistance and Fazlullah's appointment as the leader of the TTP does not bode well for peace and security within Pakistan. His recent return to an undisclosed location in the country's tribal regions provides him with the strategic advantage of operating at the helm of the Pakistani Taliban network. The effective use of illegal radio stations to spread his message cannot be completely eliminated, as these radio stations are relatively cheap to operate and can even function from a moving vehicle. In the past, Fazlullah's radio programming served as an effective tactic in part of a broader communications strategy aimed at bringing him to power. His open opposition to future peace talks with the Pakistani government is another indicator that his selection as head of the TTP will prove to be a daunting challenge for the Sharif administration to handle.

Mohsin Ali holds an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University's School of International Service. This piece has been adapted from his graduate thesis, which was presented at the International Studies Association and American Political Science Association's joint conference Bridging the Academic/Policy Divide in October 2013. Follow Mohsin Ali on Twitter: @M_Mohsin_Ali.

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