IF THE Pakistani Taliban thought they could silence their critics and stop girls going to school with the attempted murder of a 14-year-old, then they reckoned without the angry defiance of her teenage friends.
Malala Yousafzai still lies in a coma as military surgeons watch over her.
The school she attended in the former Taliban stronghold of the Swat Valley has remained shut since she was shot in the neck and head by assassins last Tuesday.
But that did not stop about 100 of her schoolmates assembling on Friday morning to pray for her safety. Some cried, while others described a role model, a girl who had blogged about Taliban brutality when even the government was prepared to turn a blind eye.
It is not safe to reveal their names. But one teenager, who is in the year above Malala at school, said the Pakistani Taliban – which is engaged in a campaign to burn, bulldoze or bomb girls’ schools – could not destroy their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers and professors.
“We will never be subdued by the militants and their acts,” she said, clutching her headscarf in the modern, airy classroom where they had gathered. “Islam gives us the right to education and we will fight for our rights. We will never ever give up our mission.
“This land needs us and we can only help Pakistan if we can complete our education.”
The attempted assassination of a schoolgirl by fundamentalist thugs has horrified Pakistan, a country hardened to senseless violence after years of suicide attacks, sectarian shootings, and political murders.
Campaigners hope it will force the country to reassess its long-standing tolerance of extremists. And the military has hinted that it may finally launch a long-promised offensive against militant safe havens in North Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan.
Malala’s campaign began when she was only 11, writing a secret diary for the BBC’s Urdu Service. It was an immediate hit, revealing the terrors facing girls under Taliban rule. She described hiding books at home after the Tehrik-i-Taliban banned girls education and living in fear that their goons would throw acid in her face.
In one entry, written in February 2009, she wrote about listening to the radio as Maulana Fazlullah, the cleric who ruled the valley, threatened a series of escalating bomb attacks.
“He said that the next attack would resemble a cauldron exploding and after that a blast the size of a tanker exploding would take place.” She was writing days after the government had signed a ceasefire with the TTP and her lone voice is credited with helping turn opinion in favour of a military operation. The extremists were driven back later that year.
Since then she has followed up the blog by speaking up for girls education in a conservative corner of Pakistan, where women are rarely seen outside the home, winning national and international recognition for her work.
By rights she should be dead. In a series of media statements, the Pakistan Taliban has said the attack was months in the planning and carried out by two experienced operatives, expert in killing with shots to the head.
Their justification was that Malala was spreading Western, secular values at odds with local values.
Malala was sitting next to her best friend, giggling and sharing jokes as their minibus – packed with 25 girls – lurched away from Khushal Public School for Girls in Swat’s main town of Mingora on Tuesday lunchtime.
Speaking on Friday, that friend tried to remember the horrifying sequence of events that followed.
One man dressed in traditional, loose-fitting shalwaar kameeze had flagged down the bus and asked the driver whether he had come from Khushal school.
As the driver tried to prevaricate, a second man, bearing the thick beard of the faithful, strode purposefully alongside the vehicle. He peered through the windows and called for Malala. When she spoke up, he raised his gun and fired without hesitation.
“She fell down in my lap,” said the friend, in a quiet, halting voice. “Everyone was screaming. It was chaotic. Everything seemed to go dark. We thought we were going to die.”
Two other girls were wounded. Malala has been in hospital ever since and needed surgery to remove a bullet from close to her spinal cord.
Her school was closed in the aftermath. Teachers expect half the girls to stay away in fear even when it reopens, possibly as soon as this week. But many of them are intent on defying the men who would deny them an education.
“We will stand by Malala’s dream,” said her best friend.
The Swat Valley was once the Switzerland of Pakistan. Its rolling hills and snow covered peaks attracted trekkers in summer and skiers in winter. The region has recovered slowly since the Taliban was ousted, sent packing to havens in Afghanistan. Hotels have gradually re-opened and last week Pakistan’s state-run airline flew to Mingora for the first time in five years.
The question now is whether hardening public opinion will force a lacklustre government and an overstretched – or unwilling – military to take action to clean out the Pakistan Taliban once and for all. Have the extremists made a tactical mistake, forcing a fresh offensive?
In a message to The Sunday Telegraph, Ihsanullah Ihsan, a spokesman, defended the attack. He said the decision to assassinate Malala was unanimous and had been reached in accordance with Islamic law.
He also dismissed reports that the TTP had been shocked by the level of public revulsion. “Not at all,” he said by email. “We are not supposed to care for the will of people, we are just obliged to follow sharia.”
Senior politicians from all parties have shown rare agreement by condemning the attack and the military has made sure Malala is being treated in its best hospital, by its best surgeons. The army has released photographs of General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s powerful military chief, beside her hospital bed overseeing treatment.
“She has become a symbol for the values that the Army, with the nation behind it, is fighting to preserve for our future generations,” he said in a statement.
Islamic scholars in Pakistan have also issued a fatwa condemning the attack.
The country’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, summed up the stark choice facing Pakistan. “She has put it as a black and white question. She has put it as either you are with the future that she represents, or the future they [Taliban] are trying to impose.”
Pakistan has shied away from such choices in the past. Its relations with Islamist extremists go back to the 1970s, channelling cash and support to Afghan groups and arming jihadis in disputed Kashmir against India.
Malala’s shooting may have united the country in shock but Pakistan is far too complicated for this to be a tipping point, according to commentators such as Nadir Hassan, with The Express Tribune.
He said Pakistan continued to hedge its bets in Afghanistan with the Haqqani network – a branch of the Afghan Taliban – and was unlikely to drop such a long-standing ally or give up its strategy of backing militant groups.
“It might mean in the short term some action against the Pakistan Taliban, but in the long-term it will make little difference,” he said.
Other “watershed” moments have come and gone – the killing of Osama bin Laden last year or the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 – with little change in direction.
In recent years, Pakistan’s politicians and generals have not shown as much courage as Malala and her school friends in standing up to the Taliban.
Additional reporting by Niaz Khan in Mingora