In the chaos that follows most such attacks, it is not usually possible to finger those responsible. But U.S. intelligence officers have done just that, they said recently, linking a bushy-bearded regional Pakistani Taliban commander, Maulana Fazlullah, to the February 2010 school bombing that killed Stets and two other Special Forces soldiers.
Fazlullah is notorious for murdering and maiming schoolgirls as part of his vicious campaign to impose Taliban rule on Pakistan. He also is behind the assassination attempt last fall against 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani advocate for girls education who lived in the same unruly frontier area as the schoolhouse bombing that killed the U.S. soldiers and three Pakistani girls.
The link between the violent episodes illuminates the transnational grief that one chronic terrorist figure can cause. December Stets’s life was upended, as were the lives of four other daughters, most living near Fort Bragg, N.C., where their fathers were posted. Half a world away, Malala was shot in the head and left for dead and two of her schoolmates were wounded. And survivors of the 2010 school blast, like Sara Ali, 14, who suffered major back injuries, live in fear of another attack.
Pakistan officials complained for years, and again after the attack on Malala in October, that U.S. forces were doing too little to stop Fazlullah. But that has changed. A senior U.S. Special Operations official said recently that Fazlullah is a priority — stalked by spies on the ground and squarely in the sights of armed drones.
“He is very high on the leader board,” said the senior official, referring to a list of Special Operations targets. “We have assets focused on killing him.”
Feb. 3, 2010, was supposed to be a day of celebration in the village of Shahi Koto in the Lower Dir district of northwestern Pakistan. The modest school had been rebuilt with U.S. and international donations after extremists opposed to educating girls blew it up. Pakistani and U.S. dignitaries were on their way to an opening ceremony. Its corridors and classrooms bustled with activity.
Just before 11 a.m., as the armored vehicle carrying December Stets’s father and four other Army Special Forces soldiers approached in a convoy of Pakistani security vans, the bomb was detonated. The blast killed three schoolgirls and wounded more than 100 students and teachers, some of whom were trapped for hours under slabs of concrete and steel rebar. It blew down the new schoolyard walls, turned the refurbished classrooms into rubble and twisted cars into mangled heaps.
The explosion killed Stets, as well as Sgt. 1st Class Matthew S. Sluss-Tiller, 35, and Sgt. 1st Class David J. Hartman, 27. Two other Special Forces soldiers were badly wounded.
The Pakistan military had recently concluded a surge in nearby Swat Valley to shut down Fazlullah’s regional Pakistani Taliban, which had carried out a brutal years-long campaign that included beheadings and the execution of civilians as well as Pakistani soldiers and police. But the leader had eluded them.
Fazlullah remained little known outside Pakistan until this past October, when a gunman boarded a bus carrying girls home from their school in Swat’s largest city, Mingora. He called out for Malala, who had achieved a measure of fame as an advocate for educating girls, and opened fire. Miraculously, Malala survived. She has recently left a Birmingham, England, hospital and is recuperating with her family in Britain.
The attempted assassination of a 15-year-old girl made headlines worldwide, focusing new attention on the difficulties of educating girls and young women in parts of Pakistan. Less attention has been paid to Fazlullah’s impact on the lives of young women in the United States whose lived have been changed by the loss of their fathers.
Among them, Sluss-Tiller, Stets and Hartman had five daughters and one young son. Like the survivors of other U.S. troops who were killed in action over the past decade, these children and their mothers have struggled to deal with their losses. Some have fallen into deep depression, four relatives said in interviews recently.
Stets’s wife, Nina, moved from near Fort Bragg to Las Vegas for a while last year. She said she hoped not seeing men in uniform every day would give her some relief.
“It really helped me feel better to move away,” she said. “I don’t stay in my room all day anymore with the TV on.”
Around Christmas she and December moved back to North Carolina and in with her two other daughters who were living in the family home near the Army post. On Jan. 4, Mark Stets’s birthday, they celebrated with a trip to his favorite Mexican restaurant and a round of his favorite Mexican beer. “It’s not easier for any of us,” said Nina Stets. “We just learn to live with our situation.”
Halfway around the globe, life for Fazlullah’s Pakistani victims is considerably less hopeful.
The 10-room maroon-colored school has been rebuilt, except for one feature: its boundary wall, which students and teachers say would provide a measure of defense against another attack.
Even today they are wary of talking about the bombing. Some fear Taliban retribution, and others are reluctant to stir traumatic memories.
“Another blast may happen anytime,” said ninth-grader Sara Ali, whose back injuries have required multiple surgeries. While other girls’ parents pulled their children from school for good, Sara said her parents encouraged her to resume classes after her recovery.
Still, she lives in fear. “I am scared in darkness and sometimes in dreams,” said the teenager, who wore a blue and white school uniform and covered her face with a black shawl.
For girls here, 10th grade is usually the highest level of education they can achieve, before families send them off to be wed. Once that happens, a girl’s options are narrowed because of a conservative religious culture in the frontier and tribal areas that keeps them at home. Some go on to become teachers, but increasing Talibanization is likely to make girls reluctant even to teach. “There is always fear of an attack on the schools, especially the female schools,” said a teacher in her 40s who asked that her name not be used.
Malik Ulfat Hayat, 42, a political worker in Temergarah, the major town in Lower Dir district, said education levels were increasing before extremism took hold. Not anymore: “Militancy has pushed us almost a decade backward in education,” he said.
Conflicting reports from the region said a recent U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province might have killed Fazlullah. Neither U.S. nor Pakistan officials have been able to confirm his death. Some of his followers assert that he is still alive.
Stets’s wife and daughter said they have not spent much time wondering about the identity of the person responsible for Stets’s death.
“I thought about it for a second,” said December Stets, who described herself as religious. “But it’s not going to bring him back. If we can’t get him here, he’ll be got when he’s gone. He’s not going to get away with it.”
Priest reported from Washington; Khan from Pakistan. Julie Tate in Washington and Richard Leiby in Islamabad contributed to this report.