By using illegal FM radio broadcasts, militants in Pakistan are gaining the stature of a parallel government. But one government response shows that the militants have power but not credibility.
Here is a brief sample of a typical radio broadcast given recently by Maulana Shah Doran, a cleric who has risen to fame for his fiery transmissions in the Swat Valley: “I was coming to meet you people, but the infidels” – the army, police, politicians – “were there, so I cancelled my plans to visit the village of Shamozai Zarkhela. These infidels are opposing Sharia, and I say that if they do not implement it, we will enforce it on our own … they should be torn to pieces instead of being beheaded.”
Residents estimate that the militancy that is currently plaguing the valley owes some 90 percent of its strength to a single illegal FM radio station – the same that now broadcasts Maulana Shah Doran – set up by a local cleric in 2006. The story starts back in 1994, when Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the head of the Tehrek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, or TNSM), began to wage a struggle against the state, demanding the implementation of Sharia in the Malakand division of Swat (see accompanying story, “The establishment a Taliban emirate”). In 2001, Maulana Sufi took 10,000 men to fight the Americans in Afghanistan, and suffered heavy casualties. After fleeing back to Pakistan, the Maulana was imprisoned for seven years. But his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, was released on bail.
Back in Swat, Fazlullah set up an illegal FM radio station, known as Fazlullah FM, broadcasting on 92 megahertz. The technology to do so was not only quite affordable, costing as little as PKR 15,000 (less than USD 200); it was also completely portable, thus allowing its owners to easily outpace the authorities’ attempts to shut them down. Despite the broadcast’s relatively small coverage area (it was at first unable even to reach the rim of the Swat Valley), Fazlullah’s nightly tirades against the Americans and then-President Pervez Musharraf quickly earned him a degree of fame among the locals, who dubbed him the ‘Radio Mullah’. Initially, Fazlullah confined his rhetoric to reformation, which included the recitation and translation of the Quran and Hadith (traditions), as well as the observance of purdah for women. Using the electronic medium, he also advised the destruction of television sets, CDs and VCRs, which he said were sources of loose morality. One particularly insidious element of Fazlullah’s doctrine was vehement opposition to the government’s anti-polio campaign, which he claimed was a Western scheme to render Muslims infertile.
Eventually, Fazlullah decided to establish a seminary in his native village of Imam Dheri. When he appealed for donations on his broadcast, he received an incredible response. At that time, in the early days, Fazlullah was listened to mostly by women at home (and children); indeed, this was the first time that women of the area had ever been able to listen directly to a preaching mullah, as they are traditionally absent from the actual sermons. At his beckoning, these women donated their jewellery en masse, and he amassed a fortune amounting to millions of rupees. But Fazlullah’s popularity among women began to change in late October 2007, when militants loyal to Fazlullah beheaded four policemen, parading their severed heads through Swat. The women started to be less excited about Fazlullah. This incident also marked the start of a reign of fear, as local zealots increasingly looked to the Radio Mullah to fuel a war for the enforcement of Sharia as well as against opponents including politicians, the army, the police and those supporting them. As fighting intensified, the station became increasingly powerful – and ever more threatening to the army, police, politicians and civilians.
The broader reaction mirrored that of the women, though with an ironic twist. In the beginning, the local menfolk and powerbrokers had not taken Fazlullah’s broadcasts particularly seriously. But after a ban was enacted on women visiting markets and on education for girls – both of which were spearheaded by the radio station – the number of listeners increased substantially. This was as much out of fear as enthusiasm, however, with the population now desperate to stay informed on exactly what the militants were planning – what they would say about the fighting, at whom they would aim their threats on any given day. While the Pakistan Army did briefly attempt to jam the broadcasts, by playing music at the same frequency, the militants were quickly able to adapt, by simply changing their broadcast frequency or moving their equipment around.
Today, the station’s transmissions run two hours, from eight to ten every evening, with a rebroadcast in the morning from seven to nine. It is not clear from which city they are operating. Programmes include sermons based on Quranic verses, threats to ‘opponents’ and a slot titled “Good News”. This last generally includes news of various types of violence – including Islamist actions, but also deaths from natural calamities, epidemics, etc – at the national and international level. The broadcasts have three principal speakers: Fazlullah, Maulana Shah Doran and a third named Maulana Mohammad Alam. With Fazlullah, for unknown reasons, having taken a back seat during the recent fighting, Maulana Shah has emerged as the key presenter. He tends to use derisive language against those in power in Islamabad, calling President Asif Ali Zardari gaddari, Urdu for traitor, and calling Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani the ‘prime donkey’. He tends to end his broadcasts by hurling abuses at security officials, and issuing threats to policemen by name.
Whether or not the Swat Taliban is currently winning or losing in its fight against the state, it is certainly winning the propaganda war – with no more than a modest radio transmitter. The state, meanwhile, with all of its resources, has been unable to either shut the broadcast down or contain its impact. Despite the full understanding of the government and army of the threat this represents for rule of law and civil discourse, the broadcasts in Swat have only gone from strength to strength. Indeed, the range is steadily increasing, and today can be heard in Chakdara and parts of Mardan, up to 60 km away. Considering the direct impact that the station has had over the past three years, it seems fairly clear what to expect from this increased radio footprint. Today, Fazlullah is requesting that the government legalise his radio station. Given the significant increase in power wielded by the militants following the recent signing of a ‘peace agreement’ between the Swat Taliban and the provincial government, it should not be surprising if that happens. This would inevitably have broad ramifications for the rest of the country.
Illegal FM is also flourishing in Khyber Agency, just to the west of Peshawar. Here, a station is run by a militant commander, Mangal Bagh, of the Lashkar-e-Islam (LI, the Army of Islam), a hardline organisation opposed to shrines, Sufi influence and faith healers. Now 35, Bagh was a bus cleaner in 2001 when he joined the secular Awami National Party, and quickly rose to be secretary of the transport association of the city of Bara, near Peshawar. He underwent something of religious conversion and, in 2002, undertook a four-month tablighi (proselytising) trip, after which he joined LI.
Not long after his return, by July 2004 Mufti Munir Shakir, then the head of LI, and Pir Saifur Rehman, of a second militant group called Ansar-ul-Islam, had both set up illegal FM broadcasts in order to propagate their views. Indeed, a half-decade ago, up to nine illegal FM stations were operating in the Khyber Agency. Today, however, nearly all of these have closed, having fallen to the influence of Lashkar-e-Islam and Ansar-ul-Islam. The broadcasts run by these two groups, meanwhile, compete directly with each other. Locals listen raptly to both, in order to be up on the claims and counterclaims of both organisations – spats that could quickly have direct impacts on their lives. These two groups have clashed physically on several occasions, ending in the death of many. After one such clash, which left 21 people dead, a tribal jirga asked both groups to leave the agency. Subsequently, Mufti and Pir who were not locals, coming from Hangu District in the NWFP and Afghanistan, respectively, were forced to leave. At that point, Mangal Bagh, by then an important commander, assumed charge of LI. Today he virtually controls Khyber Agency.
Broadcasting at 94.2 megahertz, Bagh spends most his 45-minute shows either spouting propaganda against LI opponents, or preaching his own version of Islam. Pirs (spiritual figures), faith healers and shrines are his direct targets, and are lambasted for purportedly being un-Islamic. Like Fazlullah’s set-up in Swat, Bagh’s equipment is mobile, and much of the time he is able to cover even parts of Peshawar. A second transmitter has recently been set up, allowing him to operate in Bara and broadcast his edicts and teachings to the people of Tirah, about 60 km away from Peshawar.
Also similar to what took place in Swat, at first Bagh’s broadcasts were limited to recitations of the Quran, Hadith and the preaching of virtue. With the passage of time, however, its tone has become increasingly aggressive against his opponents. In March 2008, Bagh’s followers attacked a 400-year-old shrine in the Shaikhan area of Peshawar, killing 12 people and destroying the tomb. On 5 March this year, militants bombed the shrine of Sufi poet Rehman Baba, regarded as the national poet of the Pashtun; security officials blamed Bagh. Community leaders, backed by some key political figures, have now requested the government to take action against Bagh, threatening that otherwise they will ‘take care’ of him themselves.
There have been a few notable attempts to counter militant radio. One is a private venture, the Pak-Afghan Cross-border Radio Training and Production (PACT), started in 2004 by John Butt, a Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University and broadcasting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. PACT’s flagship program, “Da Pulay Poray” or Across the Borderline, is a two-hour show in which journalists from both sides of the Durand Line report on a range of social, cultural and other relevant issues.
While there has been significant criticism regarding the government’s seeming inability to do much to counter the growing influence of these militant-operated radio broadcasts, it is not true that nothing is being done on the official front, either. In May 2006, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat, which governs these areas, launched its own radio channel, by the name of Radio Khyber. Today, this station airs six hours of programmes daily in three-hour stints, during the day and night. It offers programming focused particularly on the youth, the elderly and women, including news and reports on health, sanitation, education and militancy. The broadcast area is quite large, able to be heard in Peshawar, Mardan, Malakand, Mohmand Agency, parts of Bajaur and even in Swat.
Radio Khyber, broadcasting at 91 megahertz, is thus able to reach many more people than are the individual militant broadcasts, and the local people are making it clear which they prefer and why. The station currently employs around 15 reporters, with the explicit aim of attempting to offer objective, independent reporting and analysis of the often complicated situation on the ground in Khyber Agency and the surrounding area. Somewhat surprisingly, the station has thus far remained free of intimidation by militants. The reason for this is undoubtedly the strong backing that the channel has received from the local community; workers at the station claim to receive some 300 telephone calls and 200 letters every week, from listeners requesting particular songs or specially focused news analysis. This is due to a very basic broadcast formula in comparison to the harangues on 94.2 and elsewhere: honest focus on real issues affecting ordinary citizens. Clearly this is a significant change from the militant broadcasts, which preach fear, broadcast threats and fervently focus on issues of importance to the mullahs – and not to the local communities themselves. How ironic that a government station is seen to be more popular and credible than private stations. But that is what happens when the airwaves are hijacked by militancy.
A version of this article appeared in Himal Southasian April 2009 issue.