The Life and Death of Sufi Muhammad, Battle Mullah
Thousands pray at Sufi’s funeral
On a hot evening on July 11, thousands of people converged in a ground in the Maidan area in northwestern Pakistan to pray at the funeral of radical cleric Mualana Sufi Muhammad. The controversial cleric who fought US forces in Afghanistan and led a local rebellion to impose Islamic law in the Malakand region of Pakistan had died in a hospital at the age of 86.
Sufi supported the Afghan Taliban, equated democracy with kufr (disbelief), and called the Pakistani constitution un-Islamic. His extremist views indoctrinated thousands of followers and triggered armed insurrections. His son-in-law, Mulla Fazlullah, ended up heading the Pakistani Taliban and masterminded the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, which claimed the lives of 141 people, including 132 children.
His extremist views indoctrinated thousands of followers and triggered armed insurrections.
Despite his notoriety, Sufi’s death remained largely unknown in the rest of the country, as Pakistan’s usually boisterous television news channels gave it little airtime, apparently at the prodding of the powers that be. Some reporters who tried to witness the funeral were barred from the area by authorities. There was little reflection or analysis of how Sufi’s teachings sowed the seeds of widespread unrest in the northwest and helped shape the militant narrative against the state.
Sufi’s gripe with the Pakistani government stemmed from a dispute over Islamic law. The Malakand region comprises seven districts, including Sufi’s native Lower Dir district. Three of these districts including Chitral, Swat, and Dir were princely states, and ruled by local rulers with their own laws and rules. Following the creation of Pakistan, these rulers sided with Pakistan and the states formally merged with the country in 1969. However, a dispute arose about the legal and administrative status of the region. Should it be governed by regular Pakistani law or Islamic law? Proponents of Islamic law formed the militant group Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in 1988, and chose Sufi as its leader. TNSM chose the black turban as its symbol and came to be known as “the black-turbaned brigade.”
Malakand district, in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
In 1994, hundreds of Sufi’s followers rebelled against the government, demanding the imposition of Islamic law. Recalling those days, one of Sufi’s close aides, who wanted to be referred to by the name Haji Gul because he was afraid to use his real name, said Sufi visited places all over the region and spoke at public gatherings to instigate the rebellion. Thousands of his followers blocked main roads across the region, bringing life to a halt. This led to clashes between the government and TNSM. Eventually, however, the provincial government folded and implemented Islamic law in Malakand.
When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, people in every town in northwest Pakistan took to the streets to protest it. Haji Gul showed Sufi newspaper pictures of two Afghan boys begging at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, who then ordered his followers to start collecting donations for the Afghan Taliban. They managed to fill up 35 trucks with goods and Haji Gul managed to get past the border authorities and deliver them to the Afghan Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. Haji Gul then proceeded to Kandahar, where he delivered cash and gold to Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
Soon afterwards, Sufi declared jihad (holy war) against the US. Thousands of his followers crossed into Afghanistan armed with Kalashnikovs to fight US forces and their Afghan supporters. Sufi himself led one large band. However, many of his followers died when a plane bombed a college compound they were holed inside. Many of the survivors, including Haji Gul himself, were captured by the forces of Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Haji Gul was incarcerated for about 15 months before being released). Such was the fate of thousands of Sufi’s followers who accompanied him on his ill-fated expedition: death or imprisonment.
Such was the fate of thousands of Sufi’s followers who accompanied him on his ill-fated expedition: death or imprisonment.
It’s not clear whether Sufi himself took part in active fighting; however, in 2002, when he was crossing the border back into Pakistan in Kurram district, he was taken into custody. He was only released in 2008 to help negotiate a peace deal with his son-in-law, Fazlullah, who had unleashed a reign of terror in Malakand.
As Sufi was languishing in jail, the fires of radicalism he had stoked in his native Malakand started to engulf the whole region. The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan gradually shifted the war into Pakistan and more and more areas were drifting out of the state’s control. Fazlullah became the de facto head of TNSM in Sufi’s absence. He started an illegal radical radio show and earned the moniker Radio Mullah for his fiery broadcasts. He forged links with other terror groups in tribal areas.
The tipping point came in July 2007, when the Pakistani military took action against militants holed inside the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad. This prompted Fazlullah to declare war on the Pakistani government, and he and his followers carried out a series of devastating suicide attacks. The Pakistani army fought back, but were unable to dislodge Fazlullah’s militants from the districts they had overrun. And so, in 2008, the Pakistani government released Sufi as part of a deal with Fazlullah. The ceasefire between them didn’t last, however, and in 2009 the army launched a major offensive in Malakand and captured Sufi again.
View from the top of Malakand Pass
By now, the Pakistani Taliban was the leading militant group in Malakand, not TNSM. Many of TNSM’s senior leaders and cadres had joined the Pakistani Taliban (which was founded in 2007), most notably Fazlullah himself, who had gotten himself appointed head of its local chapter.
Sufi was not pleased at this development. In 2015, The Herald, a Pakistani magazine, published Sufi’s will, wherein he denounced his son-in-law Fazlullah as a false Muslim and urged a boycott of the Pakistani Taliban “till doomsday,” saying they were “beyond the fold of Islam.” (Funnily enough, though, Sufi continued to support the Afghan Taliban, as do many other opponents of the Pakistani Taliban). Apart from professional jealousy, Sufi also objected to the Pakistani Taliban’s more extreme tactics, like the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, and, indeed, Sufi had written his will just four days after that attack.
Sufi denounced his son-in-law Fazlullah as a false Muslim and urged a boycott of the Pakistani Taliban “till doomsday.”
Sufi also told The Herald that he thought Fazlullah and the other TNSM defectors had strayed from his teachings during his absence. (This sentiment is echoed by Haji Gul, who says TNSM was sabotaged by external infiltrators; to this day, he doesn’t regret the role he played as Sufi’s aide). Fazlullah, however, did not survive his father-in-law – he was killed in a US drone strike in June 2018. Sufi was released on bail in January 2018 and died in his home this July, most likely from various complications including hypertension, breathlessness, enlarged prostate, and heart problems.
With Sufi’s death, TNSM is all but defunct. The torch of Islamist militancy in Malakand is now securely in the hands of the even more brutal and extremist Pakistani Taliban, driven by the same forces of intolerance Sufi helped unleash on the region.