The would-be assassin who shot a Pakistani girl in the head because she dared defy Taliban prohibitions on educating women had been captured – but later released – during Pakistan's 2009 military sweep aimed at clearing the Swat valley of Islamic jihadists , senior military officials admitted.
Identified only as Attaullah, the gunman was believed to be one of two Talib assassins who gunned down Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old who had become an international figure of defiance for attending a school. Her near-fatal shooting 10 days ago sparked international outrage and, at least briefly, galvanized Pakistani politicians and generals to vow renewed efforts to hunt down Taliban extremists.
After emergency surgery in Peshawar to remove a bullet lodged near her spine, the teenager was medivaced to Britain to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for specialist care unavailable in Pakistan. However, the severity of her brain injuries remains unclear.
Late Thursday, the hospital provided a brief update, saying she was in "stable condition" and "responding well to treatment," but there was no confirmation of a report out of Pakistan attributed to an unnamed official claiming she was "moving her limbs."
Without detailing the nature or severity of her injuries, Dr. David Rosser, who heads the team caring for her, said earlier: "There's a long way to go and she is not out of the woods yet … but at this stage we're optimistic."
In the aftermath of the shooting, dozens of suspects were arrested, including some school staff and members of Attaullah's family. On Wednesday, Pakistani security officials made public their accusations that Attaullah led the attack.
"His mother and two brothers were taken into custody to force him to surrender," a senior Pakistani security official told Reuters. "Also, two other close relatives of Attaullah have been taken into custody because we heard he spent the night in their house after his escape from Swat."
Attaullah apparently led the attempt to kill Ms. Yousafzai on the orders of Maulana Fazlullah, a senior Taliban commander who fled Swat during the 2009 military operation. Like other top Taliban commanders, he moves back and forth across the mountainous, remote border between Pakistan's ungoverned northwest provinces and Afghanistan.
After claiming credit for the shooting, the Taliban said that if Ms. Yousafzai survived, it would again target the schoolgirl – who first captured international attention by writing for the BBC as an 11-year-old describing her determination to get an education.
Pakistani politicians and senior military leaders were quick to vow retribution in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
"We refuse to bow to terror, we will fight regardless of the cost," Pakistan's Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said a day after the shooting, in which two other schoolgirls were also injured. But that threat was quickly watered down.
"For the time being, there is no such plan for a military operation," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Thursday. "If needed, the decision will be taken by the political and military leadership of the country."
Equivocation over military operations against hard-line Islamists continues to cleave Pakistani politics and has poisoned U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Still, the attempt to kill an outspoken 14-year-old has sparked unprecedented soul-searching in violence-torn Pakistan where silence, rather than outrage, is often the response to bloody retribution.
"People say that the Taliban did this to Malala, but I think that we did," Azam Mahmood, a college student in cognitive and neuroscience, wrote in a commentary carried by the newspaper Dawn. "Our silence causes and continues to cause our future to darken."