FM mullahs spread the Taliban's word
By Mukhtar A Khan
The scenic Swat Valley is thundering with aerial bombardments and fiery Taliban
FM radio sermons. In a large-scale military operation dubbed Operation
Rah-e-Raast (Operation Straight Path), the Pakistani army is hitting Taliban
targets with helicopter gunships while the Taliban respond with AK-47s and
their powerful propaganda radio broadcasts.
More than a million people have fled the scene of the battle and millions more
are trapped inside the valley. While the government has asked the local people
to help the military in identifying
Taliban hideouts, the Taliban have been broadcasting warnings against
supporting the military.
Through their pirate FM transmitters, the Taliban have demanded that local
parliamentarians, security forces and other government officials resign from
their positions as a mark of protest against the military operations; otherwise
they should be prepared for a jihad directed against them.
The Taliban radio broadcasters, popularly known as "FM Mullahs", continuously
transmit anti-American and anti-government sermons, calling democracy
"un-Islamic" and those practicing it "infidels".
In their fiery radio speeches, the Taliban preachers have demanded that the
non-Muslim minorities of Malakand pay jizya (protection tax) or face
jihad. In the same tone, they have issued warnings to local non-governmental
organizations, musicians and anybody else involved in "un-Islamic" activities.
Those defying their orders are butchered, and daily announcements of the
details of their deaths broadcast on FM channels.
The original FM mullah
It was the Swat Taliban leader, Maulana Fazlullah, who first gained
international attention through his FM radio broadcasts and earned the nickname
"FM Mullah". However, the use of pirate radio stations in the region began in
the Khyber Tribal Agency.
It was Haji Namdar, leader of Tanzim Amr bil Maroof wa Nehi Anil Munkir
(Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue), who established a local
extremist FM radio station in December 2003. Haji Namdar hired a firebrand
Deobandi Sunni cleric, Mufti Munir Shakir, who preached a strict version of
Islam on his radio which infuriated Muslims belonging to the Barelvi Sufi
Consequently, the Sufis opened up a rival FM channel headed by Pir Saifur
Rahman. The opposing views on rival channels resulted in violent clashes in the
Bara Tehsil (county) of the Khyber tribal agency in early 2006. The war of
words in the air culminated into a battle on the ground in which scores of
people were killed and hundreds of others were displaced. The fighting
compelled the local people and government authorities to expel both varieties
of FM Mullahs from the region.
However, the proliferation of pirate FM radio stations did not stop. Several
other small FM channels propagating sectarian views emerged. The vacuum left by
Mufti Munir Shakir was soon filled by a more militant cleric known as Mangal
Bagh. He re-organized the Mufti's religious organization, Lashkar-e-Islam, and
started recruiting new fighters while terrorizing his opponents with radio
sermons. He started issuing fatwas (religious decrees) against his
opponents, demanding the implementation of his brand of Islam by force when
necessary. Mangal Bagh developed a parallel administration in the region and
openly challenged the writ of the government through his influential
It was Maulana Fazlullah, however, who excelled in the effective use of radio
and ruled over the Swat Valley from his station in Mamdheri (also known as Imam
Dheri). In late 2005, he started his FM service and within the short span of
one year, Fazlullah was a household name throughout the Swat Valley.
He was extremely popular amongst the local women, who donated cash and jewelry
for his madrassa (seminary) in Mamdheri. The common people of the area
looked to him for guidance and sought his resolution of their long-standing
disputes. The tide turned when he asked the people and the government to
consider his FM sermons as the only and final authority on important questions.
Maulana Fazlullah politicized his broadcasts in order to gain maximum power and
influence in the area. Fighters were recruited and organized by receiving
instructions on the radio. Fazlullah sent a wave of terror through opposing
politicians and government functionaries and listening to his broadcasts became
mandatory for the local public. If someone missed a broadcast, they often felt
the need to ask others what the FM Mullah had said that particular day. Who is
to be flogged or beheaded next? Who was forgiven and who was punished today?
Radicalizing the Pashtun
Maulana Shah Dauran is another FM Mullah in Swat who is famous for his harsh
and derogatory denunciations of Pakistani politicians, the United States and
the coalition of nations involved in the war on terrorism. He typically
parodies the Pakistani leadership and specializes in character assassination.
A Taliban leader in Darra Adam Khel, commander Tariq Afridi, has recently
launched a pirate FM station which is also considered to be one of the most
influential in the area. It is a short-range broadcast that can be heard only
within a two-kilometer radius, but its words are taken very seriously. Tariq
Afrida has been threatening tribesmen with dire consequences if they dare to
raise a lashkar (tribal militia) against the Taliban or help the
government against the Taliban in any way.
Local Taliban leaders air their point-of-view on the same Darra channel which
is then transmitted through other media to the wider community, enabling the
radical preachers to control the area by spreading fear and intimidation.
Besides the tribal areas and the Swat Valley, there is a growing tendency to
launch pirate FM stations in the urban centers of the North-West Frontier
Province (NWFP). Big cities like Charsadda, Mardan and Swabi have more than 100
Islamist pirate radio stations. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory
Authority (PEMRA) estimates the number of these FM Mullahs to be around 300.
Most of these Mullahs are highly influential; some of them are even members of
parliament. Maulana Abdullah Shah's FM station in Charsadda and Maulana
Tayyeb's radio station in Panj Pir are very popular.
These FM channels have served the cause of the Taliban in radicalizing Pashtun
society and winning them legitimacy for terrorist activities carried out in the
name of religion. They use the airwaves to incite people to jihad, redefine the
role of women and intimidate the public by announcing the names of tribal
elders, "spies" and security officials who are to be killed or hanged.
FM as effective propaganda
Historically and culturally, Pashtuns are a radio society. Now they are an FM
society. To win over the hearts and minds of Pashtuns, one would have to talk
to them through the medium of FM radio. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the
medium is the message, and the Taliban have been wisely exploiting this medium.
These channels are cost effective in sending powerful messages to the immediate
local community. A 10-watt FM channel costing only US$200 is good enough to be
clearly heard across the village. Launching an FM channel takes little
technical skill. Semi-literate Taliban need only a transmitter, amplifier and a
car or bike battery to send their propaganda into each home of a village. All
this equipment is readily available in the local market. FM radio sets are also
very cheap compared to shortwave and medium-wave brand radios.
Poor people in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and NWFP prefer to
buy a cheap FM transistor radio at a cost of only a dollar as opposed to a
shortwave receiver, which can cost 10 to 100 times as much. And now people
often don't need to buy an FM radio as most cell phones have a built-in FM
radio. These local FM broadcasts are regularly tuned in by public transport
vehicles.  The local Pashtun population prefers to listen to and rely on the
news contained in the local broadcast as compared to broadcasts beamed from
thousands of miles away. They want local information in local dialects.
The Taliban are smart enough to have exploited these outlets in their
propaganda war against the US and foreign forces in Afghanistan. They incite
the local youth to rise up for jihad against the foreign armies and urge
elderly men and women to give their moral and financial support to the cause of
jihad. Typically, the broadcasts are made from mosques and madrassas where
hundreds of men are present to listen to the FM Mullahs in person while women
listen in their homes.
The broadcasts are highly interactive - not only do men ask questions of the
mullahs in these live broadcasts but women also send questions to be answered
by the mullahs, who have successfully won a majority of the women over to their
side by asking men to give women their legal share of inheritances, especially
All the FM Mullahs' broadcasts start with the recitation of the Koran and its
interpretation. They soon switch to politics and hate sermons against the US
and Pakistani governments and their militaries. Their political and ideological
agenda is justified by their own interpretation of the religion. However, they
may refer to Pashtun culture or nationalism if it suits their goals and
The Taliban are not shy about exploiting other traditional and modern media
tools like night-letters (unsigned leaflets), pamphlets, CDs, DVDs and mobile
messaging. They also make efforts to appear live on other electronic media to
voice their unedited propaganda.
To give legitimacy to his far-fetched claim of responsibility for the April 3
murders of 14 people in Binghamton, New York, Baitullah Mahsud, chief of the
Pakistani Taliban, contacted the Pashto-language Deewa Radio, funded by the US
government's Voice of America. In the same week, Baitullah used VOA to threaten
attacks on the White House and other targets in Washington DC.
How to challenge Taliban propaganda?
Homeopathy has a long-established principle of "Let likes cure likes". In the
same sense, the Taliban's FM propaganda can be challenged with the same FM
radio tools operated by local people unaffiliated with the Taliban.
Jamming the Taliban's FM transmitters can provide temporary relief but it is
not a solution, owing to the very nature of these channels. Jamming could
interfere with the intelligence system, as some of these FM transmitters
illegally use the same frequencies allocated for the police and security
agencies, ranging from 88.00 to 108.00 MHz. Confiscation of equipment is also
not a permanent solution.
The problem is that the broadcasters can easily resurface. An FM channel can be
operated even from a motorbike on the run. One can pack the whole transmitter
in a brief case and re-launch it from another location unless the broadcasters
lose support and popularity among the local people. PEMRA officials confiscated
180 illegal FM transmitters in the NWFP last year, but their number is still on
the rise.  Confiscation or jamming may create public anger which could
further be exploited by the Taliban against the Pakistani and American
The best way to fight the illegal broadcasts is to launch local non-Taliban FM
stations, possibly housed in the traditional Pashtun hujras (community
Ideally, there should be one small and simple FM channel for each village in
FATA and the NWFP, operated by respected local people who may handle regional
issues with cultural sensitivity. These stations could deal in an interactive
way with subject matters like farming, local trade and business, health,
education and employment. For women and youth, there could be special programs
related to their interests, such as embroidery, child care, folklore, fashion,
poetry, comedy, drama, traditional sports and quiz competitions.
Once the local people are engaged positively and feel connected and empowered,
they will resist any temptation to cause destruction in the name of religion or
nationalism. Already some non-Taliban FM channels in both the NWFP and FATA
have demonstrated success. In fact, Radio Khyber in the Jamrud area of the
Khyber tribal agency has been so popular among the local public that it has
almost replaced Mangal Bagh's pro-Taliban FM station.
It airs live discussion on issues ranging from politics and education to music
and culture. Radio Burraq is another such FM channel which is very popular in
Peshawar and Mardan. FM Dilbar is yet another example, headquartered in
Charsadda. Even Pakistan's military has established several FM channels,
including "Mera Swat" (My Swat) in the Swat Valley, but they remain
comparatively unsuccessful because local people want community ownership and
local labeling of these channels.
1. Author's interviews with public transport vehicle operators and passengers.
Mukhtar A Khan is a Pashtun journalist based in Washington, DC, covering
the issues of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions.
Before shifting to Washington, Mukhtar closely monitored Pakistan's tribal
areas by paying frequent visits and interviewing top Taliban leadership.
Currently, he is working on a book on increasing trends of militancy in the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions and their spillover to rest of the world.