MINGORA, Pakistan The Taliban's horrific attack on a female teenage activist in this scenic corner of Pakistan's northwest was the latest in a series of assassination attempts by militant sleeper cells in the area over the last year, each carried out with targeted shots to the head.
The insurgents activated their networks in the Swat Valley to take advantage of the army's decision to reduce its presence and accelerate the transition of security and governance to civilian authorities in the wake of a big offensive in 2009 to push out the Taliban.
The valley is in little danger of falling under the militants' control again anytime soon. But the resurgent threat raises questions about the army's ability to hand over control to civilians in Swat and other areas of the northwest where soldiers are fighting the Taliban, a fundamental part of the military's counterterror strategy.
Building effective civilian government and law enforcement is not only critical so the military can withdraw, but also to address local grievances related to development and justice that can fuel support for the insurgents.
The Taliban shot and wounded 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai as she was heading home from school in Swat's main town of Mingora on Oct. 9. The militants targeted the girl because she was an outspoken opponent of the group and promoted "Western thinking," such as girls' education.
The militants have carried out at least half a dozen other assassination attempts against their opponents in Swat since the end of last year, killing four people and wounding several others, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Haji Zahid Khan, a member of a major tribal council in Swat, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in August but managed to survive. Khan criticized the army and police for not taking his case seriously enough, which he believes emboldened the militants.
"Had they arrested the culprits in my case, the network that was working could have been traced," said Khan. "The Malala incident could not have happened."
Investigations into the shootings indicated the attackers came from Afghanistan, where many militants fled following the army offensive in 2009, said Kamran Rehman Khan, the top government official in Swat. The militants worked with networks of sympathizers in Swat who provided weapons, ammunition, cell phones and other logistical support, he said.
The insurgents activated their networks to take advantage of the army's decision to reduce its presence in Swat. The military has decreased the 40 checkpoints it had in the area by almost half in the last year, although the number of troops in the valley has stayed the same, said Khan, the senior government official.