A US drone strike in north-east has killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, according to Pakistani and Afghan officials.
A spokesperson for Afghanistan’s ministry of defence said two other Taliban militants were also killed in the strike in Kunar province. Fazlullah led the insurgency in Pakistan’s Swat valley between 2007-09 and ordered some of the most shocking attacks in the country’s history, including an assault on a school that killed 132 children and the shooting of the young activist Malala Yousafzai.
“I confirm that Mullah Fazlullah, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has been killed in an joint air operation [with the US] in the border area of Marawera district of Kunar province,” Mohammad Radmanish told Reuters.
A spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan said a strike had been launched against a “senior leader of a designated terrorist organisation” but did not name Fazlullah or announce the death. The US had offered $5m (£3.8m) in March for information about his whereabouts.
If confirmed, the death of Fazlullah represents a major blow to Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) and is likely improve relations between Islamabad and Washington as the US seeks Pakistan’s cooperation in turning a ceasefire in Afghanistan into a longer-lasting peace.
Reports of the death of Fazlullah, who took over as leader of the TTP in 2013, were welcomed in Pakistan, where he is reviled for ordering the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. He also oversaw the failed bombing of Times Square in New York in 2016.
Fazlullah rose to fame as “FM Mullah”, broadcasting vituperative calls for jihad from his radio station. His followers introduced a brutal form of sharia law during the two-year TTP insurgency in the Swat valley, killing dancers and DVD-shop owners.
Muhammad Amir Rana, from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said the TTP would struggle to remain a cohesive group after the death of its leader.
“It’s a very big loss,” Rana said. “We do not see anyone else who can continue uniting the organisation.” Earlier in the year, Fazlullah’s son was among 20 TTP militants killed in another US drone strike in Kunar.
The latest strike may also lessen Pakistan’s suspicions of the US, according to a former EU special representative for Afghanistan. “When one comes down on the list of high profile Pakistan terrorists the US has taken care of it’s pretty impressive,” said Michael Semple. “There have got to be lot of conversations [in Pakistan] around maybe – how do we fit this in with notion they are playing against us?”
The strike should also build trust between the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan at a crucial moment in peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, he said. On Friday, the Afghan Taliban began its first ceasefire in 17 years to coincide with Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. The move follows the Afghan government own ceasefire, which started last week.