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Commander linked to Malala attack in running to be next Pakistani Taliban leader: source

Maulana Fazlullah.
Maulana Fazlullah.NBC News

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A ruthless commander whose fighters were blamed for shooting schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is among the front-runners to replace the Pakistani Taliban leader who was killed in a U.S. drone strike, a senior militant told NBC News.

A Taliban source said that Maulana Fazlullah, who commands the Taliban in the treacherous Swat region of northern Pakistan, is among two leading candidates to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed Friday. The other is tribal cleric Hafiz Saeed Khan.

Fazlullah, 39, whose forces ordered the closure of all girls’ schools in the Swat Valley, earned himself the nickname "Radio Mullah" after establishing a radio station to transmit his fiery messages.

His division has since been forced back across the border into Afghanistan, but he remains a formidable opponent of Pakistani government forces.

In 2008, NBC News obtained the first image of the firebrand commander, as his strict interpretation of Islamic law became legendary beyond Pakistan's borders.

Senior members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) met Wednesday to choose a successor to Mehsud. However, no decision was made and another session was scheduled for Thursday, a Taliban source told NBC News.

Taliban sources said the appointment of a new leader, or “emir,” had originally been scheduled for Sunday but was delayed in order to seek a wider spread of opinion.

"The nomination of the new emir took some time due to two reasons,” the senior Taliban source told NBC News. “First, we were mourning the death of Hakimullah Mehsud and receiving mourners from all over the country. Second, in the first few meetings, majority of shura [ruling council] members were not unanimous in agreeing on one person to become the emir.”

The organization is currently being run by interim commander Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani.

Wednesday’s meeting will hear from Taliban representatives who have traveled from around the region.

“Others living in remote areas in the country or in Afghanistan dispatched their views and proposals in the form of written material, audio and video," the Taliban source added.

He said the new commander would not be chosen by the central members of the shura rather than by a ballot.

“We consider democracy as an un-Islamic practice,” the Taliban source said. “Therefore we don't nominate the emir on the basis of majority. If member of the shura wants to support someone for the job, he has to give strong arguments in his favor. All the members take turns to repeat this exercise and the final decision is made by the emir of the central shura with his council."

Hafiz Saeed, 35, is a cleric and the Taliban commander in the Orakzai tribal region. He studied in a religious school, or madrassa, in Karachi.

Among the other possible candidates is Maulana Gul Zaman, the Taliban commander in the Khyber area.