x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The day they decided a schoolgirl had to die

The story began in 2009 with the closure of schools for girls. It ended when a 14-year-old schoolgirl was shot.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan // One of the Taliban's most feared commanders, Maulana Fazlullah, carefully briefed two killers from his special hit squad on their next target.

The gunmen would not be going after an army officer, politician or western diplomat.

Their target was a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who had angered the Taliban by speaking out for "western" girls' education.

Last week's shooting of Malala Yousafzai was the culmination of years of campaigning that had pitted the fearless young girl against one of Pakistan's most ruthless Taliban commanders.

Their story began in 2009, when Fazlullah, known as Radio Mullah for his fiery radio broadcasts, took over Swat Valley, and ordered the closure of girls' schools, including the one Malala attended.

Outraged, she kept a blog for the BBC under a pen name and later launched a campaign for girls' education.

Malala was not blind to the dangers. In her hometown of Mingora, Fazlullah's Taliban fighters dumped bodies near where her family lived.

"I heard my father talking about another three bodies lying at Green Chowk," she wrote in her diary, referring to a nearby roundabout.

Malala continued to speak out despite the danger. As her fame grew, Fazlullah tried everything he could to silence her.

The Taliban published death threats in the newspapers and slipped them under her door. But she ignored them.

The Taliban say that was why they sent the assassins, despite a tribal code forbidding the killing of women.

"We had no intentions to kill her but were forced when she would not stop," said Sirajuddin Ahmad, a spokesman of Swat Taliban who is now based in Afghanistan's Kunar province.

Ahmad said the Taliban held a meeting a few months ago at which they unanimously agreed to kill her. The task was given to military commanders to carry out.

They chose two Swat Valley men, aged between 20 and 30.

The gunmen had proved their worth in previous assassinations, killing an opposition politician and attacking a leading hotelier for "obscenity" in promoting tourism.

Now it was Malala's turn.

"Before the attack, the two fighters personally collected information about Malala's route to school, timing, the vehicle she used and her security," Ahmad said.

They chose to shoot her near a military checkpoint to make the point that they could strike anywhere, he said.

On Tuesday, the two men stopped the bus she in which she was riding home. They asked for Malala by name.

Although the frightened girls said she was not there, the men fired at her and also hit two other girls. One of them remains in critical condition. Shot in the head and the neck, Malala is still unconscious in hospital.

Her would-be killers said they had no idea their attack would propel their victim, already a national hero, into a global heroine.

"Actually, the media gave it so much importance and then even Ban Ki-moon used dirty language against us," Ahmad said.

Now that they had failed to kill Malala, they would target her father Ziauddin Malala, the headmaster of a girls' school.

"We have a clear-cut stance," Ahmad warned. "Anyone who takes side with the government against us will have to die at our hands.

"You will see. Other important people will soon become victims."

* Reuters