A U.S. drone strike killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan’s eastern Konar province, Afghan officials said Friday, eliminating a notorious insurgent commander who had ordered attacks on schoolchildren in Pakistan, including future Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani confirmed the death of Mullah Fazlullah in a Twitter message and said he had informed Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief of the development. He credited “tireless human intel led by Afghan security agencies.”
The U.S. military in Afghanistan said it carried out a “counterterrorism strike” Thursday in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan that targeted “a senior leader of a designated terrorist organization.” The statement did not name Fazlullah or specify that anyone was killed.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, said U.S. and NATO forces continue to adhere to a unilateral, week-long cease-fire declared last week by Ghani. However, he noted that the cease-fire applies to the Afghan Taliban and “does not include U.S. counterterrorism efforts” against a local branch of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda “and other regional and international terrorist groups.” The Pakistani Taliban, known locally as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is separate from the Afghan Taliban, although it is now based largely on the Afghan side of the border.
Fazlullah, regarded in Pakistan as a particularly ruthless militant, was widely reviled for ordering a bloody attack on a Pakistani army school in December 2014 in the northwestern city of Peshawar. More than 140 children and their teachers were massacred. Some of the victims were as young as 6.
Two years earlier, Yousafzai, 15 at the time, was shot in her native Swat Valley for advocating girls’ education. She survived a serious head wound and went on to become the youngest Nobel Peace laureate in 2014.
The Pakistani military said in a statement Friday that Fazlullah’s death “gives relief to scores of Pakistani families who fell victims to TTP terror.”
Mohammad Radmanesh, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said the drone strike occurred early Thursday shortly before the Afghan Taliban, responding to the government’s cease-fire, started a three-day truce of its own to mark Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that follows the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. He said two other insurgents were killed with Fazlullah.
The Associated Press reported, however, that Sakhi Mashwani, a lawmaker from Konar province, said Fazlullah and five other insurgents were killed when the U.S. drone strike hit a vehicle in which they were riding.
The Pakistani Taliban did not immediately confirm Fazlullah’s death, but three members of the group told The Washington Post privately that he was among the dead.
Pakistani security analysts said the strike would help improve relations among Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States. “This is a new beginning of cooperation,” said retired Brig. Gen. Said Nazir. A retired air marshal, Shahid Latif, called the strike “a significant development” that addressed long-standing Pakistani appeals for help against the insurgents across the border. He said it would have “a positive impact on ties between the three nations.”
Fazlullah assumed leadership of the Pakistani Taliban after Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2013. His predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, died of injuries sustained in a drone strike in 2009.
In Yousafzai’s home town of Mingora, residents welcomed Fazullah’s death, AP reported.
“We witnessed the brutality of the Taliban in Swat when Fazlullah and his men were present here, and we are happy to know that he has gone to hell,” Idrees Khan, a member of a local elders peace committee, told the news agency. “People in Swat will feel safer after the killing of Fazlullah.”
Salahuddin reported from Kabul. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.