MINGORA: The horrific attack on a Pakistani child rights activist, shot in the head by the Taliban in front of terrified schoolgirls, has raised fears that targeted attacks are on the rise in the Swat valley.
Malala Yousafzai, 14, who won international recognition for a blog about the horrors of life under the Taliban and a campaign for the right to an education, is the highest-profile target of militants in Swat for more than three years.
The army declared the region once known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan” back under control in July 2009, defeating radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah and the Taliban fighters who waged a two-year campaign of terror in the district.
The operation won praise in the United States. It was arguably Pakistan’s most successful offensive to date against the insurgents who have bombed and killed thousands across the country for the last five years.
The Swat of 2012 is unrecognisable from the Swat of 2009. There are no Taliban on the streets. Girls are free to go to school. Shops are bustling, women walk without fear.
But after Malala was shot on Tuesday – by a man who stopped her bus, asked the children to point her out and fired a bullet into her skull – parents are worried.
“It is calm now in Swat but this attack has worried us for our children’s future,” Rahim Khan, a member of Malala’s extended family, told AFP at home in Mingora.
And Malala has not been the only victim.
In the last four months, two businessmen and outspoken anti-militant campaigners have been shot dead and two others wounded, raising fears of a wave of assassinations targeting those who speak out against extremism.
“In the last three or four months, unknown persons have started targeting elders in the area who want peace in Swat,” peace activist Mukhtar Yousafzai told AFP.
“We fear it may be the start of targeted killings.”
All four victims before Malala were senior members of an anti-militancy group. Yousafzai says he too has been threatened several times.
The army claimed to have killed hundreds of Taliban fighters in Swat, but many are understood to have fled to Pakistan’s tribal belt and into Afghanistan.
Fazlullah, under a bounty of 50 million rupeese, has never been captured.
Local residents ask how the attack could have happened and how the perpetrators could have escaped an area with such a visible police and army presence.
Police blame the recent shootings on gunmen who cross the mountains into Swat from the northwest, then melt away without trace.
“It is very difficult to hunt down these people in the valley, a home to more than one million people,” one local police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Malala goes to the Khushal Public School founded by her father Ziauddin, a prominent Swat teacher, in a middle-class neighbourhood of Mingora. Her family never believed she needed special protection.
“It happened in broad daylight. It means some (extremist) elements are still here and it is really disturbing,” said Habibullah Khan, a shopkeeper in the Mingora bazaar.
The shock in Mingora is palpable. Relatives, family friends and well-wishers have visited Malala’s house, where police now stand guard, to express support.
“Our only demand is protection. We need security. The government has completely failed to protect students,” said Ahmad Shah, chairman of the association of private schools that includes Malala’s.
“Girl students in particular feel insecure.”
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul, who has written extensively about the tribal belt, suggests that after three years of relative peace, the authorities may be letting their guard drop and enabling Taliban remnants to strike.
“We have to keep in mind that lots of militants are embedded in the population without being detected by security agencies,” he told AFP.
“It is quite possible that complacency within the security services and civilian government encourages them to resume their terror campaign.”