ISLAMABAD – A gang of 10 Taliban fighters who attempted to kill teenage education activist Malala Yousafzai two years ago have been arrested, the Pakistan army claimed on Friday.
The military said a top commander of the Pakistani Taliban had told the men to kill the schoolgirl and 22 high profile figures in Swat, the picturesque region where Yousafzai lived before being shot in the head by a gunman on 9 October, 2012.
The attack on a 16 year-old girl who had risen to prominence aftercampaigning against the efforts of the Taliban to violently stop girls attending school drew global condemnation. Despite serious head injuries Malala survived thanks to emergency care at Pakistani army facilities and subsequent surgery and rehabilitation at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
“The entire gang involved in the murder attempt … has been busted,” said army spokesman General Asim Bajwa.
The army said 10 members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by a local furniture shop owner called Zafar Iqbal, were told to kill Malala and other “significant members” of the local community, including members of an anti-Taliban “peace committee”.
The killing spree was ordered by Mullah Fazlullah who became the overall leader of the TTP last year after his predecessor was killed by a US drone strike.
Nicknamed “Mullah Radio” for his fiery broadcasts at the time, Fazlullah was credited with spearheading the Taliban takeover of Swat in 2007-8. The valley, just a few hours drive from the capital Islamabad, was only reclaimed after a major military operation was launched in 2009.
On Friday the army said the initial arrest of a suspect called Israr ur Rehman revealed information that led to the capture of the other men in a series of intelligence led operations.
The full network was apprehended more than six months ago, an intelligence official said, although the news was kept under wraps for operational reasons.
He said the men had provided useful information for ongoing campaign launched in June against the TTP and other groups based in North Waziristan, a militant sanctuary bordering Afghanistan.
“These men received their orders from Fazlullah so of course they had ties to the militant hideouts in North Waziristan,” the official said.
It was not clear whether the men had been charged since their arrest and what legal basis they had been held.
Under the controversial Pakistan Protection Ordinance, recently introduced as a terrorism fighting measure, suspects can be held without charge for up to 90 days.
“Soon they will be brought in front of law and booked according to the law of the land,” the official said.
Shortly after the announcement, a former TTP spokesman issued a statement sayingsaid the army’s claims were based on “thoughts and fantasies”.
Ehsan Ehsanullah, who has since joined a Taliban splinter group, said the initiative to kill Yousafzai had been taken by junior fighters and that the leadership was only informed later. In Swat the news that Yousafzai’s alleged attackers had been arrested was welcomed, although many people say the army has still not fully removed the Taliban threat from an area once regarded as a tourist destination.
“I do not trust the army claims of the arrest of those who attacked Malala,” said an academic in Swat who did not want to be named because of his anti-Taliban views. “The army always used to claim that they were just about to arrest Fazlullah, but now he is living safely in Afghanistan.”
The young girl has made a remarkable recovery since a gunmen leaned into the back of a converted van she was sitting in to ask which of the girls waiting to be driven home after school was Malala. The schoolgirl had first defied militants by writing an anonymous BBC blog about life under the Taliban.
Two of her classmates, Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, were also injured in the attack.
Despite world-wide admiration for a teenage girl who subsequently wrote a book, won the European Union’s human rights award and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, many of her fellow Pakistanis are deeply suspicious of the global interest in her story.
Conspiracy theories abound, including that the entire incident was concocted by foreign spies to defame the TTP, even though the banned group enthusiastically took credit for the attack and threatened Pakistani journalists who criticised them for it.