PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - One of the Taliban's most feared commanders, Maulana Fazlullah, carefully briefed two killers from his special hit squad on their next target.
The gunmen weren't going after any army officer, politician or Western diplomat. Their target was a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who had angered the Taliban by speaking out for "Western"-style girls' education.
Tuesday's shooting of Malala Yousufzai was the culmination of years of campaigning that had pitted the fearless, smiling young girl against one of Pakistan's most ruthless Taliban commanders.
Their story began in 2009, when Fazlullah, known as Radio Mullah for his fiery radio broadcasts, took over Swat Valley, and ordered the closure of girls' schools, including Yousufzai's.
Outraged, the then-11-year-old kept a blog for the BBC under a pen name and later launched a campaign for girls' education. It won her Pakistan's highest civilian honour and death threats from the Taliban.
Yousufzai was not blind to the dangers. In her hometown of Mingora, Fazlullah's Taliban fighters dumped bodies near where her family lived.
"I heard my father talking about another three bodies lying at Green Chowk," she wrote in her diary, referring to a nearby roundabout.
A military offensive pushed Fazlullah out of Swat in 2009, but his men simply melted away across the border to Afghanistan. Earlier this year, they kidnapped and beheaded 17 Pakistani soldiers in one of several cross border raids.
Yousufzai continued speaking out despite the danger. As her fame grew, Fazlullah tried everything he could to silence her. The Taliban published death threats in the newspapers and slipped them under her door. But she ignored them.
The Taliban say that's why they sent assassins, despite a tribal code forbidding the killing of women.
"We had no intentions to kill her but were forced when she would not stop (speaking against us)," said Sirajuddin Ahmad, a spokesman of Swat Taliban now based in Afghanistan's Kunar province.
He said the Taliban held a meeting a few months ago at which they unanimously agreed to kill her. The task was then given to military commanders to carry out.
The militia has a force of around 100 men specialised in targeted killing, fighters said. They chose two men, aged between 20-30, who were locals from Swat Valley.
The gunmen had proved their worth in previous assassinations, killing an opposition politician and attacking a leading hotelier for "obscenity" in promoting tourism.
Their trademark is to kill by shots to the head.
Such hits, although dangerous, are also a badge of honour among the Taliban. The fighters who carry them out often receive personal calls of congratulations from senior leaders and may also get cash or guns.
Now it was Yousufzai's turn.
"Before the attack, the two fighters personally collected information about Malala's route to school, timing, the vehicle she used and her security," Ahmad said.
They decided to shoot her near a military checkpoint to make the point they could strike anywhere, he said.
On Tuesday, the two men stopped the bus she was riding home in. They asked for Yousufzai by name. Although the frightened girls said she wasn't there, the men fired at her and also hit two other girls in the van. One of them remains in critical condition.
Shot in the head and the neck, Yousufzai still lies unconscious in hospital, unaware that world leaders from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to U.S. President Barack Obama have pledged support. Schoolchildren in Swat prayed for her recovery.
"The American people are shocked by this deplorable shooting of a girl who was targeted because she dared to attend school," a statement from the White House said.
On Wednesday, the singer Madonna dedicated a song to Yousufzai during a L.A. concert. In a gesture that bemused many Pakistanis, she performed a striptease that revealed Yousufzai's first name, Malala, written across her back.
Her would-be killers said they had no idea their attack would propel their victim, already a national hero, into a global icon.
"Actually the media gave it so much importance and now even Ban Ki-moon used dirty language against us," Ahmad said. The international community stayed silent when the Pakistani security forces killed women during a crackdown, he complained.
Now that they had failed to kill Yousufzai, they would target her father, Ahmad said.
Ziauddin Yousufzai, the headmaster of a girls' school, is on their hit list for speaking against them, his activities to promote peace in the region and for encouraging his daughter.
"We have a clear-cut stance. Anyone who takes side with the government against us will have to die at our hands," Ahmad warned. "You will see. Other important people will soon become victims."
(Writing by Katharine Houreld)
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