Nearly two years after a gunman shot Malala Yousafzai in the head as she sat on her school bus, Pakistani authorities announced Friday they have arrested 10 people suspected of carrying out the attempted assassination in northwest Pakistan.
Yousafzai, who was 14 at the time and survived the attack, was shot along with two classmates for supporting public education for girls in her home town in the Swat Valley. The crime horrified the world, drawing attention to the rise of Islamist militancy in Pakistan as well as to the struggles facing women there.
During a rare news conference, Pakistan army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said the suspects were apprehended as part of a wide-ranging and ongoing military operation against terrorists in northwestern Pakistan. He referred to the group as a “gang” that took orders from Mullah Fazlullah, a key Pakistani Taliban commander who last year became leader of the militant group.
Fazlullah, who is believed to reside in Afghanistan and is a fugitive, has long been suspected of planning the Oct. 9, 2012, attack on Yousafzai. But Bajwa said the arrest of the 10 individuals is a significant victory in Pakistan’s nearly three-month campaign against terrorists in the northwestern part of the country.
“All of these terrorists were captured with the help of intelligence agencies who very actively participated in the investigations and dig out the whereabouts of the terrorists,” Bajwa said.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, said the arrests were “good news” for his family and “most importantly for the people of Pakistan and the civilized world.”
“This first step of apprehending Malala’s attackers signifies the beginning of real hope for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been affected by terrorism,” said Ziauddin Yousafzai, who now lives in Britain with his family, including Malala.
Since the Pakistani military began its operation against the Taliban in June, nearly 1,000 militants have been killed, and “120 hard-core terrorists” have been arrested, Bajwa said. But the military has been slow to release the identities of those it says have been killed or captured, creating skepticism about the true success of the operation.
In a statement Friday night, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban denied that Yousafzai’s attackers have been arrested.
“Three people attacked Malala, and two of them are alive and with us, and one of them is martyred,” the statement said. “To hide their losses [on the battlefield], the military is lying.”
But Bajwa said the gang that carried out the attack was led by a furniture store owner in the Swat Valley. “During interrogation, the terrorists revealed that the plan was conceived by Mullah Fazlullah and the group was given the responsibility to execute it,” Bajwa said, adding that the group also took credit for the 2012 killing of a watchman at Swat College of Science and Technology.
Malala, who had defied a Taliban campaign to close or bomb hundreds of schools in the remote and conservative Swat Valley, has become one of the world’s most recognized humanitarians. In 2013, she was a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize. She also wrote a best-selling autobiography, “I Am Malala.”
Aamir Iqbal in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report. Craig reported from Kabul.