By Ambreen Agha
“As many as 180,000 mujahideen, followers of Baitullah Mehsud, are hiding in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and fighting against anti-Muslim forces for the supremacy of Islam. Their food expenditure is PKR 2,900,000 (USD 30,000) daily. You are requested to bear two days’ expenses of mujahideen-e-Islam or be ready to face dire consequences.” — Letter from the TTP to a lawyer in Islamabad, June 2013
In recent years the crime of extortion has spiralled and spread to all the Provinces of Pakistan, making the country a leading centre of this ‘industry’. Karachi, the country’s commercial capital and most prominent centre of the extortion racket, continues to be the worst hit, followed by the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad in Punjab, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province. Though the scale of violence varies widely across each Province, the targets remain the same, including the business community, politicians, doctors and, more recently, private school owners.
According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), there were at least 92 recorded incidents of extortion in Pakistan through 2013, of which 15 violent incidents claimed 29 lives. In 2014, Pakistan has already recorded at least 54 incidents of extortion, including 10 violent incidents that have claimed at least 10 lives (data till May 4, 2014). These figures likely represent the tip of the iceberg since an overwhelming majority of incidents of extortion go unreported due to fear and a general consensus that there is little the Police can or will do.
Karachi, according to SATP data, recorded the maximum number of extortion related activities. Of the 92 incidents recorded in 2013, 87 occurred in Karachi alone. Punjab had three, followed by KP two. No incident was recorded in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A more disturbing picture of Karachi emerges from disclosures by Ahmed Chinoy, the Chief of the Citizen-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a body set up to help the Police by providing crime statistics and technical support, who noted, on July 2, 2013, “The extortion racket has blown out of all proportion with the previous years.” According to the figures collected by the CPLC, 630 extortion complaints were registered in Karachi from January to mid-June 2013, compared to 589 in the whole of 2012. The CPLC has provided no subsequent data.
A heavily publicised ‘operation’ against criminals in Karachi, commencing September 5, 2013, has yielded no significant results so far. The current year has already recorded 50 incidents of extortion in Karachi alone, and media reports suggest that the problem, already endemic, is growing, demonstrating the redundancy of the much hyped ‘operation’. There has been no respite for the targeted communities in the mega city that has an estimated population of 13 million. Incidentally, on April 15, 2014, Member of National Assembly (MNA) and President of Awami National Party (ANP) Sindh Chapter Shahi Syed walked out of Parliament, protesting the poor law and order situation in Karachi. He informed the Senate that, despite the continued military operation, there had been no decrease in extortion, killing and kidnapping in the crime infested metropolis.
Medical practitioners and traders have been a vulnerable target of the pervasive and organised system of bhatta wasuli (collection of extortion). Expressing concern for the beleaguered medical fraternity, the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) called on Sindh Inspector General of Police (IGP) Shahid Kamran Baloch on April 2, 2014, and remarked, “Every fifth doctor is receiving threatening calls for money.” Earlier on February 13, 2014, the President of PMA’s Karachi Chapter, Dr. Idrees Adhi, claimed that at least 40 medical practitioners of Karachi have received threatening emails from certain extortion mafias demanding large sums of ‘protection money’. These calls, he said, were traced to South Africa, Afghanistan and Dubai, indicating the international dimensions of these operations. Adhi lamented, “Our community is under immense pressure. We are frightened because of threats against the backdrop of the killing of some of our colleagues in the recent past.” He disclosed that at least 130 doctors had been killed in the city since 2010.
Meanwhile, the business community and traders have also been the victims of grenade and rocket attacks that damage their property and make them live in constant fear. Back in 2012, the All Pakistan Organization of Small Traders and Cottage Industries (APOSTCI) declared on August 5 that the recent trend of grenade attacks on shops and markets that refused to comply with extortion demands had terrorised local traders and businessmen, totally destroying the prospects of further investment in Karachi.
Borrowing their tactics from terrorist outfits, the extortionists have also targeted schools in the District. In one such attack on October 22, 2013, two people, including a student, were injured when extortionists opened fire outside Prince School, a private secondary school in the Gulshan-e-Bahar area of Orangi Town, for allegedly failing to heed extortion demands. This incident was soon followed by another, on October 28, when some unidentified extortionists opened fire at the Al Mehran School located in the Ghaziabad area of Orangi. Reacting to these incidents, William Sadiq, a leader of the Karachi-based Action Committee for Human Rights observed, “Targeting innocent schoolchildren, doctors and patients reflects the brutality of the terrorists.”
While security agencies continue to fail to control the menace, the extortionists continue to devise new strategies. On April 14, 2014, Atiq Mir, the President of the All Karachi Tajir Ittehad complained that a new modus operandi had been adopted for extortion in Karachi, where the extortionists demand hundreds of thousands of rupees from businessmen in the name of welfare funds and social work. In case of refusal, the extortionists threatened their target of dire consequences, revealing their original identity and their affiliations with notorious criminal gangs and terrorist groups.
Extortionists often impersonate terrorists to intimidate victims. In one such instance in November 2013, a businessman in Islamabad received a letter on the letter head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and signed by its already-dead leader Hakimullah Mehsud, demanding USD 50,000, and threatening ‘dire consequences’ if he reported the matter to the Police or failed to pay. The terrified man paid up, but refused to register a complaint or divulge any further details. A senior intelligence official remarked, “Posing as member of the Pakistani Taliban is the easiest thing because the victims then get the impression that they are dealing with a very mighty thing. So they don’t report the case with the Police and are very ready to cooperate with the criminals.”
In Punjab, similarly, the racket thrives, particularly in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, primarily due to the intrinsic network between criminal gangs, their political patrons, terrorist formations, and affiliated seminaries and local mosques. Reports indicate that seminaries in Punjab act as intermediaries and couriers to receive and deliver extortion sums to terrorist formations. Civil and military intelligence sources have confirmed that Punjab’s extortion racket provides revenues to terrorist outfits based in the tribal area via local seminaries. Significantly, on May 1, 2014, intelligence sources disclosed that seminaries operating inside the capital were assisting TTP with the collection of extortion and ransom money by arranging deals between terrorists and their victims. The sources further disclosed that extortion calls received in Punjab were traced back to Miranshah town of the North Waziristan Agency in FATA. Citing one such incident, the Intelligence sources stated that, in 2013, a retired Army Doctor, Lieutenant General Mehmood-ul-Hasan, received a call from a man who introduced himself as Latif, second-in-command to Hakimullah Mehsud, and demanded PKR 50 million. Following the demand, an administrator from an Islamabad-based seminary acted as mediator and finalised the ‘deal’ at PKR 10 million, and also sent two persons to collect the money from the target. A month later, a man named Ashfaq called Dr. Hasan again and demanded an amount of PKR 50 million within 10 days. This incident, according to sources, was followed by another call from someone who identified himself as a leader of the TTP and asked Dr. Hasan to ensure that the money was delivered within 72 hours. In all the three instances “the same man who brokered the first agreement was used to negotiate the price,” officials disclosed, confirming the role of seminaries in collecting extortion money from the targets and delivering it to the TTP.
The business community in Punjab also faces the brunt of factionalism among the terrorist formations. On May 3, 2014, officials in the Islamabad Police disclosed that the recent regrouping within the TTP into factions led by Shehryar Mehsud and by Khan Said alias Sajna had created trouble for businessmen in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, because businessmen who had first paid extortion sums to the TTP received renewed demands after a few days. The second set of calls often came through middlemen. The differences between the two factions emerged over the assumption of leadership after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud.
Extortion now funds a range of criminal and terrorist outfits, prominently including the Pakistan Amn Committee (PAC, Pakistan Peace Committee) in Karachi; and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), TTP and innumerable other local gangs that have been formed for the specific task of extortion in their given areas to fill the coffers of terrorist groups in the tribal areas. On June 29, 2013, Superintendent of Police (SP) – Investigation, Mustansar Feroz disclosed that the Crime Investigation Agency (CIA) of Islamabad Police had arrested three TTP terrorists , identified as Malik Aalam Khan Wazir, resident of North Waziristan Agency in FATA, the ringleader; Mohammad Tahir Yousafzai, resident of Malakand District of KP; and Mukammal Shah Qasimkhail, resident of Upper Dir District (KP), on their arrival in Islamabad for extortion. All three had been embroiled in extorting huge sums from industrialists, business tycoons and lawyers of the twin-cities of Rawalpindi-Islamabad and KP. The three member gang is accused of operating from the Sakha Kot area of Swabi District in KP.
The situation in KP is also precarious as the extortionists threaten businessmen and school administrators. Identifying the problem as a law and order issue, officials briefing the KP Provincial Assembly on March 4, 2014, pointed out that there are 39 terrorist outfits operating in the Province, while 20 other gangs functioning under the garb of TTP were involved in extortion, kidnapping-for-ransom and other criminal activities. On August 4, 2013, terrorists fired a rocket at the house of Atta Muhammad, a private school owner, in Shabqadar tehsil (revenue unit) of Charsadda District for the third time, as he refused to pay an extortion amount of PKR 15 million. Muhammad had been receiving threats and he also lodged a complaint with the Police, but in vain. Instead, Police told him, “We are already short on resources; we cannot give security to every individual.” An angry Muhammad said, “Either the Police arrest the culprits or else I will buy weapons for self-defence.”
Lack of Police action worsened the situation in KP, Punjab and Karachi. Often, criminal gangs and terrorist outfits operate in collusion with the Police and politicians. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) Rabta Committee Deputy Convenor, Doctor Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, on February 10, 2014, alleged, “Karachi Police collects 22 crore (220 million) extortion money daily and it is the biggest organisation that is involved in extortion in the city today.”
Neither can the role of political patrons be ignored. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in its October 2012 report, ‘Conflict dynamics in Karachi’, remarked, “The armed wings of major political parties, including the MQM, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and ANP, are the main perpetrators of urban violence. The parties clash over city resources and funds generated through extortion.” This holds true for all of Pakistan’s Provinces.
Pakistan’s covert policy of supporting and sponsoring criminal and terrorist formations as instruments of state policy has led terrorists and criminals to consolidate their presence in all areas of commercial activities. Extortion – the menace of Karachi – has, gradually, spread to other parts of the country. While increasingly sophisticated and techno-savvy peripatetic groups of extortionists gain control across expanding regions in Pakistan, the Law Enforcement Agencies lack both capacity and will to act against them. Police laxity, political collusion and failure of the Federal and Provincial Governments to respond effectively to the challenge is pushing the endemic disorders of Pakistan to the edge of anarchy.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management