Runaway Taliban frontman: Ehsanullah Ehsan, the man and myth

Runaway Taliban frontman: Ehsanullah Ehsan, the man and myth

Author
Short Url

I first met Malala Yousufzai after she was given the National Peace Award by the Pakistani government for her diary on BBC about life under the Taliban in Swat valley. I connected her with my daughter and the two of them chatted away on the phone while I looked on in amazement at the girl who courageously stood up to the Taliban. 
Just a few months later, I was directing news coverage of an assassination attempt against her. Visuals poured in of her bullet-riddled school van, her bandaged face, of the military helicopter carrying her from Swat valley to Peshawar, eye witness accounts by her friends. The newsroom is no place for personal emotions, but I remember choking up when I got the phone call from the Taliban accepting responsibility. 
“Assalam-o-Alaikum. We, the Taliban, have shot the girl. She was propagating against the Mujahideen. She was becoming a tool of Jews and Christians. We did what we had to.” 
The caller was Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban. 
Eights years have gone by. Malala fought for her life, went on to win the Nobel peace prize and become an ambassador for girls’ education. I fought cancer and survived. And Ehsanullah Ehsan surrendered to the state, didn’t face either prison or courts, and went on to escape from the custody of Pakistan’s security agencies.
I first met Ehsanullah Ehsan some twelve years ago when I visited the Mohmand tribal belt, then a hotbed of militancy, bordering Kunnar and Nangarhar in Afghanistan and Khyber and Bajaur in Pakistan. 
At the time, Ehsan was still using his real name, Liaqat Ali of the Safi tribe. Years later he threatened to kill me unless the TV channel I was heading started referring to deceased Taliban Emir, Hakimullah Mehsud as ‘shaheed’ (martyr). 
I vividly remember.
‘Why didn’t you call our respected leader a martyr?”

Eights years have gone by. Malala fought for her life, went on to win the Nobel peace prize and become an ambassador for girls’ education. I fought cancer and survived. And Ehsanullah Ehsan surrendered to the state, didn’t face either prison or courts, and went on to escape from the custody of Pakistan’s security agencies.

Owais Tohid

Harsh words were exchanged and then a threat: “I can put four bullets in your forehead and kill you.”
Ehsan entered the underworld of militancy as an apprentice to and spokesman of Taliban Emir Abdul Wali alias Omer Khalid Khorasani in Mohmand agency. Educated, technologically savvy and with a flair for languages – he spoke Urdu, Pushto, Arabic, Persian, and English – he later became the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban under Hakimullah Mehsud when he became Emir of the militia after the death of Baitullah Mehsud. 
“I wanted to study law to become a lawyer but fate has brought me here. Now I will fight cases of Mujahideen as their lawyer,” Ehsanullah Ehsan told a group of journalists I was with. 
He institutionalized Taliban propaganda. Short films, videos of beheadings, Taliban songs were all produced under his command. A local tribal journalist states he witnessed how Ehsan roped in educated youth. 
“He sat there in his huge office with his Kalashnikov, handing over computer hard drives to university graduates and assigned them which TV channels to monitor including Al-Jazeera and CNN.”
It was Hakimullah Mehsud who asked him to use the name Ehsanullah Ehsan-- believed in Taliban circles to be the name of one of the first Mujahideen who ‘conquered’ Kabul in 1996, brutally murdering former Afghan president Dr. Najib and hanging his body from a traffic post.
Under Hakimullah, he ran his setup from Miranshah, the district headquarters of North Waziristan. Ehsan became the coordinator for Al-Qaeda and foreign militants from Uzbekistan and Chechnya in the tribal belt, creating communication channels when their usual modes were in disarray because of US drone strikes. He also maintained close contacts with OBL’s son, Hamza bin Laden.
When the massive military crackdown against militants was carried out in North Waziristan, Ehsan fled to Afghanistan with his old mentor, Omer Khorasani. They both splintered from the Pakistani Taliban and formed their own group, Jamaat ul Ahrar, which claimed several terror attacks.
The Taliban commander who surrendered some three years ago was believed to have been kept in protective custody in Peshawar city where he lived with his family. He reportedly enjoyed the Internet and mobile phone facilities and even had a child from his second wife. 
One Peshawar based tribal journalist says he spoke to Ehsan a few months ago. 
“I was at a music performance at Peshawar Press Club and a friend handed me his phone saying someone wants to talk to you. I was shocked to hear Ehsanullah Ehsan, I’ve met him enough times to know his voice. He said to me: ‘You are enjoying pop songs, you should listen to revolutionary songs and poetry as well,’” the journalist narrates.
Now, Ehsan has fled once again. While officials, both military and civilian, have remained silent on the issue, unnamed sources quoted in the news media say he escaped during a sensitive intelligence operation, implying confirmation of his escape. His getaway has raised questions about how such a high-value Taliban commander managed to escape and has triggered many conspiracy theories. 
Meanwhile, he has set up a new Twitter account to start his communications afresh. All the while, parents who lost their children in the APS schoolchildren massacre in Peshawar look on, furious as they reflect on the lifelong pain and agony the Taliban have inflicted on their lives.

*Owais Tohid is a leading Pakistani journalist/writer. His email address is [email protected] He tweets @OwaisTohid.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view