The alleged organiser of the Taliban shooting of a Pakistani schoolgirl was captured during a 2009 military offensive but released after three months, two senior officials said yesterday
They identified the man who planned the attack on 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai only as Attaullah, and said he was one of the two gunmen who shot her on a school bus this month in the Swat valley.
Believed to be in his 30s, Attaullah is on the run and may have fled to Afghanistan, they said. He organised the attack on the orders of one of the Taliban's most feared commanders, Maulana Fazlullah, the officials said.
Critics say Pakistan's low conviction rate of militants, even high-profile ones who carried out major attacks, is a reason why extremism has spread in the country.
The attack on Malala, an advocate of education for girls, has drawn widespread condemnation and raised fresh questions about Pakistan's commitment to fighting militancy.
Doctors treating her in Britain have said Malala has every chance of making a "good recovery" after being shot in the head.
The Taliban have said they attacked her because she spoke out against the group and praised the US president, Barack Obama.
The two officials said Attaullah was detained by security forces after a 2009 Pakistani military campaign pushed the Taliban out of the Swat valley.
"He spent three months in the custody of security forces but was freed after no evidence (of wrongdoing) was found," one official said.
The second source, a high-ranking security official, said authorities had gathered enough evidence to arrest Attaullah after raiding his house in the Swat valley.
If Attaullah is in Afghanistan, finding him could be difficult. Some of the world's most dangerous militants have operated in the ethnic Pashtun border area for years, an area hard for security forces to reach.
The officials said Pakistani security forces were trying other ways to bring him to justice.
"His mother and two brothers were taken into custody to force him to surrender," said the second senior official. "Also two other close relatives of Attaullah have been taken into custody because we heard he spent the night in their house after his escape from Swat."
The second official said Attaullah was not a hard-core militant, only a sympathiser when he was arrested in 2009.
The Taliban commander in charge in Swat was Fazlullah, who melted away during the crackdown and eventually moved to Afghanistan with some of his fighters.
From there, he has orchestrated cross-border raids against Pakistani government forces and has again emerged as a major security threat, security sources have said.
The Taliban have blown up hundreds of girls schools in recent years in Swat and other areas to further their opposition to the education of women.
Police and security officials say dozens of suspects were arrested after the Taliban gunmen shot Yousufzai, including four employees of her school. Two of them were released.
Public fury over the shooting has increased pressure on the Pakistani military to mount a major offensive against the Taliban, which is close to Al Qaeda and a host of other militant groups.
While many Pakistanis were outraged by the attack on Malala, some leaders of religious parties described the assault as an American conspiracy designed to trigger a military offensive against militant groups based in the North Waziristan tribal region.