MINGORA, Pakistan — Under a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, the ninth-grade girls clasped their chemistry texts, smoothed their white head scarves and movingly voiced support for the cause of their classmate, Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban last week because she advocated a girl’s right to attend school.
“In our hearts is the thirst for education,” one 14-year-old told reporters brought to her classroom by the Pakistani military’s public relations wing Monday. “We want to show the world that we are not worried.”
It was a brave but ultimately false front. “We are worried for our lives,” the same girl confided later out of earshot of the army minder. She pleaded that her name and photograph not be used because she feared retribution by the Taliban.
The powerful army, which immediately took over Yousafzai’s care after she was shot in the head in Mingora, the Swat Valley’s largest town, says the attack Oct. 9 was an aberration, not an indication of resurgent militancy. In the main that seems true: Verdant, mountainous Swat, once a haven for foreign tourists, rarely sees violence, its residents say.
But Yousafzai’s shooting spoke to a larger truth: The threat of Pakistani Taliban attacks pervades the entire nation, especially the northwestern frontier and the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. The instability persists despite massive military operations three years ago to quash the extremist group and the continued presence of troops in all seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
That nagging threat seemed reinforced when the military assigned a heavily armed squad from its Rapid Reaction Force, including a mounted machine gunner, to protect a small convoy of international journalists for a six-hour trip to Mingora from Islamabad.
“There is a security alert in this area,” a military official said. “That is why some precautions were taken.”
Soldiers were posted at every stop along the route, including the Khushal girls’ high school and college, which Yousafzai attended; the final, boisterous regional match of the Peace Cricket Tournament; and the police station where the open-backed, canopied van that had carried the schoolgirls still bore splashes of blood on its white benches.
Even so, parents here refuse to bow to terror: While 14 girls out of 31 in Yousafzai’s class did not attend school the day after the assassination attempt, on Monday only six were absent.
The attack grievously wounded Yousafzai — who was flown to England on Monday for specialized treatment — and left two classmates with lesser injuries. Yousafzai’s prognosis appears to be improving, but she faces long-term rehabilitation.
In the face of worldwide revulsion, the Pakistani Taliban has issued several statements attempting to justify her shooting.
The latest is a six-page disquisition e-mailed to journalists Monday night that twists Islamic history and scripture to reach the same murderous conclusion that has been denounced by Muslim leaders worldwide:
“Malala was using her tongue and pen against Islam and Muslims,” the Taliban said, “so she was punished for her crime by the blessing of the Almighty Allah.”
In the religiously conservative, ethnically Pashtun Swat Valley, residents initially embraced the imposition of Islamic law, viewing the secular government and courts as unresponsive and corrupt. But their support faded during a reign of Taliban terror from 2007 to 2009.
The militants shuttered girls’ schools and blew them up. They flogged and executed people and left their bodies to rot in the town square for supposed noncompliance with the Taliban interpretation of sharia law.
The army routed the extremists led by Maulana Fazlullah, known as Mullah Radio for his sermons broadcast on pirated FM signals, and they relocated to eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistani military estimates that Fazlullah has 1,000 men under arms.
They and other militants regularly attack Pakistani security posts along the Afghan border, capturing soldiers and beheading them, but the army says the insurgents have been beaten back and are contained in a relatively small area.
Out of frustration, extremists resort to “sneak attacks” like the one on Yousafzai, a senior military officer told journalists in a briefing. “It is a one-off incident. There is no question and no room for a resurgence.”
Residents generally agree. “I think terrorism will never come back in Swat as in past years,” said Ahmed Shah, a member of the Swat peace jirga, a council of elders. “But we worry that the target killings will continue in the future.”
Riaz Ahmed said he also considers Swat to be much safer now — even though his daughter Kainat was wounded when the pistol-wielding assailant fired inside the van full of students, about 16 of them, after classes let out.