“For the last few days, we have been noticing some suspicious people, sporting long beards, wearing turbans and bearing arms in our areas,” said Gulikhandana, a social activist and school teacher. “They remind us of the ugly time around 2007 when the heavenly environment of Swat valley was transformed into hell,” she whispered, her voice barely carrying over the phone.
According to Gulikhandana, who spoke to me on the phone in July earlier this year, the militants had encamped in the nearby hills and would take to the streets after dark. “The sightings aren’t just limited to our area; there are reports of the presence of militants in other parts of Swat’s Matta tensil too,” she said.
Fawad Khan, a resident of Swat’s Kabal tehsil, confirmed Gulikhandana’s suspicions. He told me that villagers in Galoch had spotted militants in their areas, particularly after dark. “After the militants were spotted, our parents kept begging us not to go out after dark,” he said.
The first strike
The murmurs, which quickly spread across the Swat valley, suddenly came to a head when, according to local sources, between the night of August 7 and 8, the militants attacked a police station in the Chupriyal area of Matta tehsil. However, SHO Chupriyal Tariq Khan dismissed the reports and said the police had fired shots into the air after spotting a suspicious person.
In a related development on August 8, a video surfaced on social media in which a man — who claimed to be affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — could be seen interviewing Matta circle DSP Pir Syed Khan, and two other personnel, who as per unverified claims, belonged to Pakistan Army. The man conducting the interview also claimed in the video that the three individuals were held captive by the TTP.
Meanwhile, a recorded telephone call, allegedly between a Taliban militant and a journalist, also started making the rounds on social media. In the recording, the purported militant could be heard saying that they [Taliban militants] have held a DSP and two army officers hostage and would not free them until a jirga comprising local elders agreed to meet them.
On August 8, 2022, the Swat District Police Office confirmed that the Matta circle DSP was shot and injured in a clash between police and militants at Balasoor area of Matta tehsil. “The militants entered Balasoor from Afghanistan through the mountains of Upper Dir and opened fire when surrounded by the police,” stated the press release.
That same day, residents of Chuprial and other parts of Matta tehsil said they saw several police vans rushing towards the area. “We saw a large number of police vehicles rushing towards Matta on Monday, August 8,” said Haider Khan, a resident of Bara Bandai village. The police, on the other hand, did not divulge further details on the incident.
Read more: Why and how is the TTP surfacing in Swat?
Less than a week later, the military’s media wing, the ISPR, issued a press release, lending credence to reports of the presence of a “small number of armed men on few mountain-tops between Swat and Dir”, but refuting reports of the TTP running amok in the mountains.
According to the ISPR statement, “required measures are in place by all LEAs for the safety and security of people of adjoining areas. Presence of militants anywhere will not be tolerated and they will be dealt with full use of force if required”.
Picking up the ante
A month later on September 13, seven workers of a private mobile network, including two communications engineers, were abducted by militants, who demanded a huge amount as ransom for their release. Five of the abducted persons were released later the same day, while the two engineers were kept in custody.
One of the abducted persons, who was released later in the day, told me that their team was working at a mobile phone tower when 10 masked men, armed with modern weapons, blindfolded them and took them to an unidentified location.
The contractor, who also asked not to be named, told me that they were installing a mobile phone tower at Jana Mountain near Barthana area of Matta tehsil. “On Sept 13, I had gone to get some material for the tower installation. When I arrived at the tower, I learnt from locals that all seven workers had been abducted by militants,” he said.
He said that the militants initially demanded Rs100 million, but eventually released everyone without taking any ransom.
The same day that the seven workers were abducted, six persons, including a former head of the Aman (Peace) Committee and two police personnel, were killed after a remote-controlled bomb struck their vehicle in the Ghlo Kandaw area of Kabal Tehsil.
Idrees Khan, the former head of the peace committee, along with two police guards, Rambail and Tauheed, and a child were on their way from Kotakay to Bandai village when the bomb, planted on a dirt road, exploded, killing all four on the spot. Two passersby were also killed in the explosion.
On September 16, unidentified persons shot dead another village defence committee member at Dakorak village in Charbagh tehsil, late in the evening. According to Charbagh police, Muhammad Sheerin, a former VDC member, was shot dead by unidentified assailants who were waiting for him on the way. “The deceased was returning home after offering Isha prayers when unidentified armed persons opened fire at him, killing him on the spot,” said the police.
On October 8, two persons were killed and four others injured in a clash between two groups at Bypass Road near Mingora.
According to local sources, the incident occurred early in the morning at a weight station. As a result, a man who owned the weight station and his son were killed on one side, while four persons from the other side were critically injured. The deceased were identified as Ali Syed and his son Anees Ahmad.
However, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) police later issued a press release, claiming that the two deceased persons, who were father and son, were informers for the militants, and that they were killed in an encounter with the security forces.
Locals and relatives of the deceased refuted the allegations, however, saying the father-son duo were not involved in any anti-state activities and had run the weight station for a long time.
“It was a monetary issue as one of my brothers had taken Rs3,500,000 from a party and had fled, after which our father returned about 80 per cent of the money. Last week, the other party starting pressuring our father through security forces to get the money,” said Waqas Ahmad, another son of the deceased, Ali Syed.
On October 8, four persons came to the weight station to discuss the matter with Ali Syed, who opened fire on them. As a result, the four persons were injured, following which Ali Syed and his son, Anees Ahmed, who was also present at the weight station, were killed. The next day, the CTD issued the press release, implicating the deceased as being informants for militants.
This attempt to paint the victims as militants did not go down well with the already wary people of Swat, leading to mass protests across the valley. The pressure seems to have forced the provincial government, with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Special Assistant for Information Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif later clarifying that the incident wasn’t linked to terrorism and that an investigation was being conducted into it.
It did not help then that two days later, unidentified armed assailants opened fire on a school van in Gulibagh area of Charbagh tehsil on October 10, killing the driver and injuring two children. Following the incident, the protest movement against militancy, which had been brewing for the past few weeks, came out into the open, with thousands of people marching in the city centres, demanding the authorities take action against the TTP and prevent a repeat of the 2000s.
“When we heard about the reappearance of militants in Swat, we decided to start a movement under Swat Olasi Pasoon [Swat Public Movement] in a bid to gather the youth and raise our voice against militancy,” said Fawad Khan, a member of the Swat Olasi Pasoon.
The first public protest was held on August 9 by a few dozen young men at Nishat Chowk in Mingora. The protesters said they wanted to send a clear message to the state and the law enforcement agencies that they would not be willing to let anyone sabotage peace in Swat at any cost.
“We have witnessed one of the ugliest times in Swat’s history when the TTP militants challenged the writ of the state and held the entire security apparatus hostage. They killed innocent people, destroyed their properties and spread fear through their barbaric activities,” said Amjad Ali, a social activist, adding that the people of Swat were not fully aware of who the militants were and what they stood for.
The protesters said that the Swat of 2022 was completely different from the one in 2007, and that its people were aware of the ‘games’. “We will not be deceived by any game this time, and will never allow any terrorists on our land. We are peaceful, and we want peace in Swat,” said Mukhtiyar Yousafzai, a member of the Swat Qaumi Jirga, adding that the government and security agencies must not repeat the mistake of bringing militants to Swat again.
Also at the protest, Haji Zahid Khan, the president of Swat Hotels Association, recalled the three years of insurgency in Swat from 2007 till 2009, when Mullah Fazlullah, through his FM radio station, misled the people of Swat and started mobilising them for his own interests. “He [Mullah Fazlullah] started his movement with sermons of the Holy Quran, but later he shifted his movement towards bloodshed by carrying out bomb blasts and other terrorist activities,” he told Dawn.com, adding that the militancy in Swat was deliberately nurtured under the umbrella of some hidden forces.
He said that this time, though, no tactics of the hidden forces would work in Swat “as everyone understands the real motives behind militancy”.
Meanwhile, the protesters numbering in the thousands, raised white flags and shouted slogans demanding peace. “At first, there was a sense of fear among the people. Now they are angry,” said Imtiaz Ali, a resident of Swat, at one of the protests. We will pick up our weapons against the militants if the state agencies are not serious about eliminating them,“ he added.
The movement against terrorism, which kicked off with a small group of young men, managed to get rousing support from not just everyone in the valley, but also from other parts of the province as well as the country. Besides peace activists, students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, transporters, traders, and people from walks of the life participated in the demonstrations.
Sawab Khan, who owns a private school in Swat, while addressing a protest organised by the Private School Management Association (PSMA) against the October 10 targeted attack on the school van, said that if the state failed to eliminate terrorist factions, all the teachers in Swat would mobilise their students to protest the state’s failure to provide security.
After the initial protests, three army divisions came to Swat between September 18 and 22, and were stationed in the hilly areas of Matta, where the internet was also blocked for about 22 days. However, there was no tangible operation against the militants. On the other hand, the people of Matta, Khwazakhela, and Bahrain tehsils also demanded that the government restore the internet facility. After the pressure built by the youth, the internet facility was restored after 22 days.
Meanwhile, the protesters also censured the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Special Assistant for Information Barrister Saif, who said that the government was negotiating with the TTP with the assistance of the Afghan Taliban government. “Anti-TTP groups are making the situation worse in KP. Things are right with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan; they are not involved in targeted killings and extortion,” he said at a press conference in Peshawar on August 15.
Two months on, however, Barrister Saif seemed to have changed his tune in October, when he addressed a press conference earlier this week. Distancing the provincial government from the negotiations, Barrister Saif said provincial government was making no deal with TTP; rather it was standing with the people of the province. “We are happy that the people of Swat took to the streets for peace. Durable peace will prevail in the valley with the support of provincial government,” he added.
Perhaps the change of heart came about in the wake of the October 11 rally held organised at Nishat Chowk in Mingora by the Swat Olasi Pasoon, which was attended by a record number of people. Prominent leaders, including Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement chief Manzoor Pashteen, Swat Olasi Pasoon President Fawad Khan, veteran politician Afrasiab Khattak, Awami National Party (ANP) KP President Aimal Wali Khan, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, ANP parliamentary leader in the KP Assembly Sardar Hussain Babak and many others addressed the rally, which was attended by thousands of people. Videos circulating on social media showed the town centre filled with a charged crowd, raising slogans against militants and demanding peace.
Amid all this, the people of Swat, in particular, and the province in general, raise questions over the silence of both the federal and provincial governments on the entire episode. It was only after the October 11 protest and thousands of tweets and Facebook posts later that the National Assembly discussed the issue.
“We are surprised that the elected representatives, both in the provincial and national assemblies, have observed complete silence on the fresh wave of terrorism. Even the CM is from Swat, but he did not bother to visit Swat and stand with his people in this hard time,” said Ihsan Ali Khan, a peace activist based in Mingora, adding that the people of Swat were both sad and angry that neither of the elected representatives stood with them.
This time, however, the people of Swat won’t fall for these ‘games’, said Fayaz Zafar, a senior journalist based in Swat. “We are now fully aware that this is not a movement for Islamic Shariah or other religious purpose, but for something else, for which innocent people are being slaughtered,” he said.
“This time, everyone in Swat is on the same page and they want peace. They will not tolerate any terrorist on their land. The huge crowds in the protests are a testament to this,” he said.