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«MEDIA MILITANCY: CASE STUDY OF USE AND OF FM RADIO BY TALIBAN IN SWAT Sajjad Malik∗ Abstract The FM radio played an important role in the rise of ...»

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Media and Militancy: Case Study of Use of1FM Radio2013): 77-96 Swat

IPRI Journal XIII, no. (Winter by Taliban in 77




Sajjad Malik∗


The FM radio played an important role in the rise of the Taliban

in Swat. Their leader, Maulana Fazlullah, was not the first cleric to use the airwaves to reach out to the masses but he was the first who was able to win over people to his version of Islam by his broadcasts on the pirate FM radio. The timings and contents of his broadcasts were carefully chosen to reach the maximum number of people. Their influence on the people was beyond anyone’s expectations. Soon, Fazlullah became known as “Mullah Radio” and his radio sermons convinced a great many people that the militants were struggling for a just cause. The broadcast became very popular and during the height of Fazlullah’s control in Swat in 2007 and 2008, almost everyone listened to his radio. The listeners were influenced by the messages which slowly prepared them for an armed struggle. It can be said that he would have not been able to raise a big army of fighters without the comprehensive communication system he created using his pirate FM radio service. It was so important that the Taliban tried their best to keep it on-air when they were on the run during the army operation. The key lesson is that rebel media plays a key role during militancy to advance their agenda and state authorities should take proactive measures to stop or neutralize it to end violence.

Key Words: Media, Militancy, FM, Taliban, Sawat.

Introduction M edia plays an important role in moulding perceptions. With its increasing impact on day-to-day occurrences, more and more people turn to electronic and print media for their daily knowledge of news and current affairs. Radio as one of the oldest forms of media has been in the forefront in airing the latest news and views during wars and insurgencies. It has also served as a great propaganda tool of governments to ∗ The writer is a journalist and PhD scholar at National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad.

78 Sajjad Malik launch psychological operations (psy-ops) to defeat an enemy. Susan Carruthers writes that during the Second World War and afterwards, radio played a major role in military psychological operations with the true source of such clandestine broadcasts frequently disguised to elude enemy listeners into assuming that the station is run by disgruntled elements from their own side.

“Such radio stations are a classic form of what is known as ‘black propaganda:’ propaganda which wilfully mystifies its own provenance.”1 On the lines of some of the successful media models, like the Allies during the first Gulf War, the modern insurgents have displayed marked skills in using radio as a tool to achieve their objectives. Former British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher told the American Bar Association in London in July 1985 that terrorist entities need the “oxygen of publicity.”2 Militant organizations, including Taliban fighters, in Pakistan have used modern media to highlight their activities. Though they use print, electronic and online media, FM technology has proved handy for their clandestine activities as it is easy to set up and operate.

Miniature FM transmitters have also been used as covert listening devices or so-called “bugs” for espionage and surveillance purposes. The advantage of using the FM broadcast band for such operations is that the receiving equipment is not regarded as suspicious. A lot of pirated radio activity, which is illegal and unregulated, is broadcast in the FM range, because of the band’s greater clarity and listenership, as well as the smaller size and low cost of equipment.

In Pakistan, the FM radio transmission began in the mid 1990s when FM 100 music radio started its broadcasts. Since then a number of FM channels have become functional, both in private and public sectors. They are used for entertainment, news and current affairs and educational purposes.

The setting up and operation of FM broadcasts is controlled by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) which says that there are 104 commercial and 24 non-commercial FM stations in the country. “Another 60 FM radio stations are being set up as their applications have been accepted and PEMRA is in the process to issue them licenses.”3 The activities of pirate FM radios became known after the United States attacked Afghanistan and pushed the Taliban into Pakistan’s border areas. A number of FM channels emerged in the tribal areas and settled parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including Swat in the Malakand division, where Maulana Fazlullah’s radio broadcasts became very popular among the people. He became known as “Mullah Radio” due to his FM sermons, which Susan L Carruthers, The Media at War (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 2000), 6.


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Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, http://www.pemra.gov.pk/fmradio.html 3 (accessed September 25, 2010).

Media and Militancy: Case Study of Use of FM Radio by Taliban in Swat 79 played an important role in his rise. He fled from Swat and closed his radio broadcasts after the army operations there against the Taliban. The use of FM radio by the Taliban to spread their influence in the Malakand division and their virtual takeover of the valley of Swat challenging the state offers an interesting area of study at a time when the extremists and terrorist groups are increasingly using modern technology in support of their activities and for advancing their agendas. This paper attempts a systematic study of this phenomenon with particular reference to the use of FM radio by the Taliban to establish their rule in Swat and other areas of Malakand division.

The researcher has used both primary and secondary sources for the study. Not only various books, magazines, newspapers and online material were scanned, but a detailed survey based on three sets of questionnaires comprising 30 questions, involving 220 respondents from various areas of

Swat was carried out. The respondents represented a cross section of people:

businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, workers, government employees, security officials and some unemployed individuals. The first questionnaire was titled “Composition of Taliban in Swat,” the second "Role of FM Radio in Taliban Rise” and the third as “FM Radio.” The author also organized four focal group discussions at four different places — Saidu Sharif, Kanju, Kabal and Shah Sheri, with groups having between eight and 22 participants. Selective interviews with law, medicine, judiciary and education experts were also conducted to fill any gap in the questionnaires and gather information on related issues through discussions with focal groups. Sources from defence forces and police were also used for background information. Informal chats with local people during research trips was another source. Local listeners were consulted to analyse the language of radio speeches that the Taliban used to garner people’s support and get public attention.

The identity of the respondents who didn’t wish to be recognised has not been revealed.

FM Radio and Militants Fazlullah is known for using FM radio better than many others among the militants in Pakistan’s north-western areas, but it was not him who used it for the first time, as it was Haji Namdar, leader of Tanzim Amr bil Maroof Wa Nehi Anil Munkir (Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue), who established a local extremist FM radio station in December 2003.4 He hired services of a Deobandi Sunni cleric, Mufti Munir Shakir, who preached his particular brand of Islam which infuriated the Muslims belonging to the Mukhtar Khan, “FM Mullahs Spread the Taliban’s Word,” Asia Times Online, June 4, 4

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Barelvi Sufi order, who set up a rival FM channel headed by Pir Saif-urRahman. The conflicting theological interpretations on rival radios provoked violent clashes in Bara Tehsil of Khyber tribal agency in early 2006 in which scores of people were killed and hundreds were forced to flee to safer places.

Fed up with the constant fighting, the local people and government authorities expelled both broadcasters from the area. However, the situation with their expulsion as pirate radio stations cropped up in the unruly tribal areas along the Afghan border. After Mufti Munir Shakir vanished from the scene, another militant mullah, Haji Mangal Bagh, emerged to replace him, who reorganized the Mufti's religious organization, Lashkar-e-Islam, and started recruiting new fighters through his radio sermons. He started issuing Fatwas (religious decrees) against his opponents, demanding the implementation of his brand of Islam by force. He organized a parallel administration, directly challenging the state authorities.

In addition to the tribal areas, where it is easy to do any illegal activity, local religious leaders also set up radios in settled areas like Swat, Mardan and Charsada, where over 100 pirate Islamic radios were working. The PEMRA estimates the number of these FM mullahs to be around 300. Most of the radios are owned and operated by powerful mullahs with connections in religious and right wing political parties. PEMRA described Maulana Abdullah Shah’s FM station in Charsadda and Maulana Tayyeb’s radio station in Panj Pir as very popular.

Fazlullah as Mullah Radio Maulana Fazlullah was born as Fazal Hayat on March 1, 1975, at the house of Biladar Khan, a Pushtun of Babukarkhel clan of Yousufzai tribe at Mamdheray in Swat.5 He earned a secondary school certificate from a school in his village and got admitted to Government Degree College, Saidu Sharif. After passing his higher secondary certificate examination he moved to Maidan in Lower Dir to acquire religious education in Madrassah Jamia Mazahir-ul-Uloom, run by Sufi Mohammed. Fazal soon developed close relations with his mentor who not only gave his daughter into his marriage but also gave him a new name, Fazlullah (meaning blessing of Allah). After completing his religious education, he returned to Swat and settled at Mamdheray to start his own seminary. But he was not qualified for that as according to his own admission he was not a Mufti, had no Madrassah graduation certificate and had received religious instruction only from his father in law.6 He assumed the leadership of the following of Sufi Mohammad when the latter was languishing in jail after his misadventure in Afghanistan where Amir Mir, The Fluttering Flag of Jehad (Lahore: Mishal, 2008), 96.

5 Ibid.

6 Media and Militancy: Case Study of Use of FM Radio by Taliban in Swat 81 he had misled thousands of poorly armed young men in support of the Taliban against the US forces. Maulana Sufi’s long absence from the scene of action gave him the time and space to build on and enlarge his mentor’s support base and raise his own stature as a leader.

When Fazlullah joined the holy warriors waging “Jihad” against the state of Pakistan, he realised he could put to good use the power of the media to advance his agenda. The easiest and cheapest way to do that was to utilise the FM technology. So he set up his own pirate radio station for propagating his views. It became so popular among the listeners that it soon earned him the title of “Mullah Radio” at home and the “FM Mullah” abroad.

It is not certain when exactly the FM broadcast in Swat were started by Fazlullah’s militants. Asia Times (Online) wrote that Fazlullah set up his pirate radio in late 2005 at Mamdheri. “It was Maulana Fazlullah, however, who excelled in the effective use of radio and ruled over the Swat Valley from his station in Mamdheri (also known as Imam Dheri). In late 2005, he started his FM service and within the short span of one year, Fazlullah was a household name throughout the Swat Valley.”7 But local people, for whom it was part of daily routine to listen to radio broadcasts in the heydays of militancy, are not sure when they first knew about the radio. To a question when the FM radio was set up, 48 per cent said 2006, 14 per cent thought 2007 and two per cent said 2005, whereas 36 per cent had no idea when the radio began

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A part of the same question was about the location of the FM radio.

Out of 50 respondents, 40 per cent said it operated from Imam Dheri, 14 per cent said from Swat, two per cent each said from Shamozai, Charbagh and Kozabanday, and 40 per cent said they did not know about its location.

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Answering the question about the timing of the broadcast, 30 per cent respondents said it was in the morning and evening, 48 per cent said only in the evening, 10 per cent said only morning, and 12 per cent said they did not know.

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