By Zia Ur Rehman
The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may have been born in the tribal agencies, it might have even ruled Swat, but it is Karachi that has been crucial to the TTP`s perpetuation of power across the country. It is Karachi that helped fund the TTP`s war in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as the organisation routinely conducted bank heists to generate finances. It is also Karachi where members of the TTP found sanctuary as security forces pounded their hideouts. Slowly but surely, the largest city of Pakhtun people has witnessed three factions of the TTP taking control of a number of areas and exert their influence in many others. This is a process that has spanned more than half a decade; it promises to decisively shape the future of the city.
Back in 2007, as the Pakistan government began an operation to regain control of the Swat valley, thousands left their homes to escape being caught in the crossfire. The choice of Karachi was a natural one for these victims of war; with some four million Pakhtuns living in this megacity, many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) had kin they could count on, and with whom they could shelter until they returned home.
In 2009, guised as IDPs, militants from Swat, South Waziristan, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur, Dir, and elsewhere began taking refuge in Karachi, as the military operations reached their respective areas. At first, they did their best to blend in: a number of militants who fled to Karachi shaved their breads, cut their trademark long hair, and worked in the city as petty labourers. Thus disguised, they waited for the right time to establish and reinforce their networks in the city.
Prior to such large-scale migrations, small cells of various TTP groups existed in the city; their job was primarily to raise funds for the operations of their parent groups, largely through bank robberies. “In the beginning, the TTP did not get involved in subversive activities. This was in line with the TTP policy of using Karachi only for fund-raising, rest and recuperation,” said a Mehsud tribal elder living in Ittehad Town.
“But then they seem to have changed their strategy for Karachi. Political leaders from Swat say that Swati militants who fled to Karachi had been assassinating pro-government Swat residents in the city, all under the cover of then ongoing ethno-political targeted killings.”
In short, the TTP took advantage of the chaos of Karachi to, quite literally, get away with murder.
The perfect distraction: `target killings`
When the TTP entered Karachi proper, it found a city in the midst of politico-ethnic conflict. At the time, it was convenient for both the police and political parties to sweep any so-called `target killings` under the larger rug of ethnically-fuelled violence and political turf wars. Assassinations carried out by the Taliban also came under this catch-all phrase.
In fact, it was largely thanks to the peculiar political dynamics of Karachi that the Taliban presence remained mostly unnoticed and unremarked. When the MQM, in 2010 and 2011, began to warn that the Taliban militants were acquiring a presence in the city, the ANP accused it of trying to use that claim as a pretext to `ethnically cleanse` Karachi`s Pakhtuns.
“MQM chief Altaf Hussain had pointed out the presence of the TTP in Karachi years ago, but the authorities, despite taking the issue seriously, denied the reports regarding the presence of the TTP in the city," said Khawaja Izhar-ul-Hasan, a MQM leader.
Privately, members of other political parties and analysts say that the MQM`s claims may have been proved true later on, but they were definitely written off as politically-motivated when first raised. There was no trust between the ANP and MQM, and the Taliban effectively took advantage of this gap, eventually becoming a direct threat to both parties.
Background interviews with Pakhtun elders, analysts and police officials familiar with the network of the TTP in Karachi suggest that most of the Pakhtun-populated areas of the city are now under partial or complete influence of the TTP.
A direct result of this dominance is the deterioration of the law and order situation in these areas. Here, the various factions of the TTP have joined hands with banned sectarian outfits and criminal syndicates in the city to increase both their subversive activities and fund-raising campaigns (mostly through extortion, robberies and kidnapping for ransom). These areas have become extremely dangerous not just for law enforcement agencies, but also for political activists of mainstream parties, especially the ANP, polio vaccinators and non-governmental organisations.
The battle for Pakhtun representation: ANP pummelled
The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has traditionally tolerated no opposition, political or otherwise, when establishing a stranglehold over local populations. In keeping with their modus operandi, the TTP first went after local Pakhtun leadership in Karachi — which in this case was also the Awami National Party (ANP).
“Killing influential Pakhtun elders is a key strategy of Taliban groups, first successfully carried out in Afghanistan, then FATA and KP, and now in Karachi,” said Kahar Zalmay, an Islamabad-based security analyst who monitors the network of TTP across the country, saying that through an organised campaign of killing influential Pakhtun political leaders and elders in Karachi and forcing the ANP to vacate most of its traditional strongholds, now all Pakhtun-majority areas of the city are under varying degrees of TTP influence.
In fact, the first open acknowledgment by the TTP of its presence in this city came as a threat to the ANP. In June 2012, it openly threatened ANP activists to quit the party, remove their party`s flags and graffiti and close their offices.
The TTP then claimed the responsibility for killing Amir Sardar, an ANP leader and former union council mayor, in the Frontier Colony area in August the same year.
On Feb 21 this year, three ANP activists — Dr Israr, Jamshed Khan and Razeemullah — were shot dead along with two guests by unidentified people in MPR colony in Orangi Town. Israr`s relatives said that the three party activists were receiving threats from the TTP Swat chapter. Earlier, on Feb 8, grenades were thrown at the Sher Shah residence of Raza Jadoon, then Sindh president of Pakhtun Students Federation as well as at the home of ANP leader Rahim Swati in Qasba Colony area. Jadoon said that he had been receiving threatening calls from the TTP with the phone code of Afghanistan.
In a series of interviews with Pakhtun political and civil society activists, it emerges that the TTP Swat faction has killed a number of political activists mainly belonging to the ANP as well as social activists in different parts of the city.
Shahi Syed, Sindh president of the ANP, claimed that around 80 leaders and office-bearers of ANP have been killed by the Taliban. As a result, party offices across the city, including even the Baacha Khan Markaz, the provincial party headquarter situated in Pirabad, have been closed. Perhaps there can be no greater example of how serious the threat is than the fact that several leaders of the party have left Karachi and migrated to their native towns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because of threats issued by the TTP.
The political strength of the ANP has also diminished as a direct result of this: In the 2008 general elections, the ANP won two provincial assembly seats from Karachi`s two largest Pakhtun-populated areas — SITE Town and Landhi industrial area. But in the 2013 polls, the rallies and offices of ANP candidates — Bashir Jan and Amanullah Mehsud — from these two areas were targeted by TTP militants, killing and injuring several party activists. The TTP claimed the responsibility of the May 2, 2013 killing of Sadiq Zaman Khattak, an ANP candidate from NA-254 Korangi, in the Bilal Colony area.
Because of the attacks on the ANP, some party members and leaders sought safer pastures, joining other political parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and even the Ahl-i-Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ). Khurshid Inqilabi, an ANP candidate in the general elections from Baldia Town area, has recently joined the PTI. Inqilabi`s family sources said that he joined the PTI in order to save his life as he was also receiving threats from the TTP.
Besides the ANP, the TTP Swat faction has also started targeting leaders of the PPP. On Jan 24, Mujibur Rehman, president of the PPP PS-96, was killed near Banaras chowk. A Pakhtun leader of PPP in district West said that they are also feeling insecure because of the tough statements issued from the party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari against the TTP. They fear that the TTPs retaliation will target them.
But political parties are only a few of the targets. In Karachi, the TTPs Swat faction had also killed dozens of Swati pro-government elders and those who were associated with peace committees in Swat or who supported the security forces during the operation. “A number of influential political figures and members of anti-Taliban committees of Swat travelling to Karachi for personal or business reasons have been murdered since 2009,” said Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai, a political analyst and president of Kabal Tehsil Bar Association in Swat, adding that majority of assassinated people were from Kabal tehsil as that area was the birth-place of TTP Swat. He said that dozens of Swati families living in Karachi for the last three to four decades have recently migrated to Swat because of the security situation in Pakhtun neighbourhoods.
The golden goose of the TTP
All three TTP factions have been involved in collecting extortions from the Pakhtun traders and transporters, school and hospital owners and even madressahs for the last several years in Karachi. A number of Pakhtun traders interviewed for this report revealed that increasing incidents of extortions remained unreported because of immense pressure and threats by the TTP. The use of hand grenades as a scare tactic, and the killing of those who refuse to pay on time is part of their strategy. And, as usual, they prey mostly on those who are ethnically and tribally connected to them. “They know very well about the wealth of everyone belonging to their own tribe,” said a Mehsud transporter.
The TTP Mehsud faction, for example, has systematically occupied the trade bodies of the business of heavy machinery (heavy-duty vehicles) and local truck and mini-bus associations of Sohrab Goth and imposed fixed taxes on the traders and transporters associated with these bodies. Of course, the reason is that Mehsud tribesmen are largely involved in these businesses. The TTP Mohmand faction has been collecting extortion money from Mohmand tribesmen based in Karachi, who are well-off and mainly involved in selling timber and construction material.
Analysts are of the view that the TTP has been facing a severe financial crisis and a shortage of funds in wake of the measures taken by Pakistani authorities to cut off their international sources of income, especially from gulf countries. Now, the central leadership of all three TTP factions have directed their Karachi members to collect funds through extortion and kidnapping for ransom from the businessmen and transporters belonging to tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These funds are then used to purchase equipment, weaponry and fill the many expenses associated with running an insurgency.
Killing of law enforcement personnel
In keeping with their increased strength on the ground and their raised profile, the TTP also started posing a greater threat to law enforcement agencies. In recent months, a number of personnel of Police and other law enforcement agencies and their informers have been murdered in different Pakhtun areas of Karachi.
Police officials believe that the TTP is working off a hit list that includes police officers involved in the arrests and deaths of a number of militants, including its key commanders in Karachi. Bahaddin Babar, a well-known police officer, was gunned down on Dec 31 2013 by unknown assailants near the Bab-i-Khyber in the Metroville area of SITE Town. At the time, Chaudary Aslam said that the TTP Swat faction killed Babar because he was actively working against TTP operatives in the city. But after nine days of the killing of Babar, Aslam was also killed along with his two guards in a massive bombing on Jan 9 this year.
Several police stations and mobiles have also been regularly targeted in the areas under the influence of the TTP. For example, in February, Pirabad Police station was targeted with hand grenades twice in eight days. Similarly, Sohrab Goth, Mominabad and Mangophir police stations have been attacked several times by Taliban militants. Recently, trenches were dug around the Sohrab Goth and Surjani Town police stations while the same measures will be implemented in other sensitive police stations of the city soon.
In interviews with low-ranked police personnel, they said that the TTP militants target policemen standing on the roadsides, attack their vans by hurling grenades and in some cases, carry out grenade attacks near their houses when they are not on duty. “It has become very dangerous to patrol in these areas during night,” said a police officer deputed in the Mominabad police station.
Ongoing operation and the TTP
Although law enforcement agencies, and especially the Rangers, claim to have arrested several suspects belonging to banned militant outfits recently, leaders of political parties — especially the ANP and the MQM — and Pakhtun residents said that law enforcement agencies have not focused on the TTP in the whole operation.
“It is true that the ongoing operation has disrupted the network of targeted killers belonging to different political and sectarian groups and extortionists of different gangs, but the TTP-linked militants are still openly threatening and killing the people,” said a Pakhtun trader in the Pathan Colony area. In interviews with Pakhtun residents of different areas, they claimed that law enforcement agencies largely apprehend innocent people during the operation while militants flee the area before the arrival of the law enforcers.
“We have asked the government several times to take action against the TTP militants, who are killing our ANP members and capturing the Pakhtun areas, but instead of taking the matter seriously, no action has been initiated so far,” said Shahi Syed. The MQM has also similar reservations. Izharul Hassan said that the ongoing operation in Karachi was being conducted against the MQM and not against the Taliban militants.
However, sources familiar with the network of TTP in Karachi said that operation has in fact shattered the network of TTP Mohmand chapter in Karachi by killing its key leaders in encounters. However, the LEAs have not arrested or killed any significant leader of the Swat and Mehsud factions.
Sindh Rangers` director general Major Rizwan Akhter, in a Feb 25 interview with an Urdu daily, claimed that they have arrested and killed a number of militants associated with different Taliban groups and that reports of `No-go areas` for law enforcement agencies is baseless.
The strengthening of the TTP in Karachi has nationwide security and political implications. Karachi is considered a key area in the nexus of terrorism in the country because it has become the main hub of militants` fundraising and alliances. Security experts, politicians and law enforcement all agree that TTP wants to tighten, where they already have great influence in the Pakhtun dominated suburban areas. It not only adds to the city`s already worst security situation, but also adds to TTPs financial and strategic assets. The TTP militants in Karachi are drawing their strength from the continuing silence of the government and a lack of focus by the security forces. Government is still in position to control the spreading TTP network in the city through launching a `selective and surgical` operation against various factions of TTP in Karachi. Although a month-long ceasefire between the TTP and the government has been announced, analysts believe that it will not stop the TTP`s campaign of fund-raising and killing Pakhtun leaders. “The TTP can stop targeting law enforcement agencies in Karachi but their campaign of fund-raising and killing Pakhtun leaders in the city will continue,” said Kahar Zalmay.