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.