ISLAMABAD – Just one year and two days since she was shot in the head at point blank range by Taliban gunmen, Malala Yousufzai could become the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
The 16-year-old is up against 258 other nominees for this year’s award – but she is arguably the favorite, and certainly the most well-known.
Malala has had a remarkable year, beginning when she was targeted as she left school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It was the Taliban's attempt to silence her increasingly prominent voice on the need to provide women with education.
The bullet passed through her head, neck and shoulder, leaving her unconscious and in critical condition. But following multiple surgeries, she survived and was released from a U.K. hospital last March. Since then, despite further threats on her life from the Taliban, her message on education rights for women has been as fearless as ever.
In an interview with NBC News on the eve of the Nobel announcement, a Taliban spokesman said the group thinks she will win the prize.
“Even if she becomes the president of the United States, it will not be a surprise to us,” Shahidullah Shahid said.
“We knew what she was doing and what she had planned for the future and that’s why we decided to eliminate her last year.”
The Taliban on Tuesday vowed to try to kill Malala again, promising "all out" efforts to punish her relationship with the West.
And on Thursday Shahid said Malala’s suggestion Pakistan and the Taliban should engage in peace talks was a ploy.
“She is not being sincere by advising peace talks between the government and the Taliban,” he said. “She wanted us to sign a peace agreement with the government and restore peace so that she could launch her secular work in the schools.”
Malala’s response to the Taliban’s continued hostility was summed-up during her appearance on the Daily Show on Wednesday night.
Asked by host Jon Stewart what she would do if confronted by attackers, Malala explained why should not use violence: “If you hit a Talib, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty…You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education.
“I would tell him how important education is and that I would even want education for your children as well. That’s what I want to tell you,” she imagined telling her assailant, before adding “now do what you want.”
But Malala’s rise to prominence came long before her assassination attempt.
Galvanized by the Taliban's increasing grip on the Swat Valley, she made her first public speech in Peshawar in 2008, aged just 11, entitled “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”
A year later she began blogging for the BBC’s Urdu service under a pseudonym, Gul Makai, writing about the militants’ grip on the valley and the lack of education for girls.
Her defiance of the Taliban’s crackdown on education for girls increased her profile further and in 2009 she was approached by the New York Times, which produced two documentaries about her life.
Adam B. Ellick, who made the Times documentary, said he was fully aware of the brutal nature of Swat – with its town center dubbed “Slaughter Square” – but he assumed if the Taliban retaliated they would attack Malala’s father, not her.
The teenager's increased publicity led to her true identity being released, despite it being kept secret by the BBC.
And her rise continued in 2011 when she won Pakistan’s National Peace Award for Youth.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who nominated her for that award, said: "Malala dared to stand up for herself and other girls. And used national and international media to let the world know girls should also have the right to go to school"
Threatened by the support Malala's cause was gaining, the Taliban published death threats in newspapers over the next year, and other written threats were slipped under her door. But she did not relent.
Then on October 9, 2012, a gunman apprehended Malala’s school bus as she traveled home with two friends after an exam. He demanded to know which of the students was Malala, and after one of the terrified girls identified her, all three were shot.
The details of the attack were provided by the other two girls, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, who were less severely wounded. Riaz is still going to school in Pakistan, protected by guards. Ramzan moved to the U.K. over the summer and is now attending a school in Birmingham.
Malala was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar where she underwent several surgeries to remove the bullet lodged near her spinal cord. On October 15 she was flown to the U.K.'s Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, which specializes in her type of injury.
It was there she came out of her coma two days later, just over a week after the shooting.
Meanwhile, thousands of people rallied across Pakistan, and the government offered a $105,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of her assailants.
But the reaction reverberated beyond Pakistan's borders.
President Barack Obama called the incident “reprehensible, disgusting and tragic” and U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education and former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown set up a petition in Malala's name vowing to ensure universal education by 2015.
Her influence has permeated popular culture, too. Madonna dedicated her song “Human Nature” to the schoolgirl at a Los Angeles concert on the day of the attack, and Malala was named TIME magazine’s runner-up Person of the Year 2012, beaten only by Obama, who had just won a second term. And in Pakistan her story inspired a popular animated television series called the "Burka Avenger" about a superhero fighting those trying to shut down girls' schools.
Her 16th birthday on July 12 marked Malala's first public speech since the shooting with an address to the U.N. The day was dubbed “Malala Day.”
She told the session, which included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: "Our books and our pens are the most powerful weapons."
Last month she released her autobiography – of the first 16 years of her life, at least – called “I am Malala,” in a book deal reportedly worth $3 million.
And on Thursday she claimed yet another accolade, winning the EU's Sakharov human rights prize, awarded in memory of Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov.
The $65,000 award is considered one of Europe’s highest and has been won by Nelson Mandela and Myanmar opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi.
This month she is also expected to visit Buckingham Palace, where she was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip.
But first the Nobel. Her main challenger is thought to be Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, who has won praise for his efforts working with victims of sexual violence in the conflict stricken region.
Other possible winners include Mary Tarcisia Lakot, a Ugandan nun, and three Russian activists, Lilya Shibanova, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, and Svetlana Gannushkina.