By Ambreen Agha
Terrorist and extremist outfits in Pakistan have deepened their involvement in organised crimes, particularly including abduction-for-ransom and extortion, both to increase revenues and to push various illegitimate demands. A rampage of both high and low profile abductions across the country has provided the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, along with their various affiliates, with new ‘resources’ to fuel their politically and religiously motivated ‘jihad’, both within the country, and against the West and other ‘infidel’ states. According to information retrieved from slain al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, for instance, al Qaeda in Pakistan had turned to abduction-for-ransom to offset dwindling cash reserves.
Reports indicate that all of Pakistan’s provinces are now under attack from armed abductors, with women and children, becoming the easiest targets. A report published by the Human Rights Commission South Asia (HRCSA) on February 19, 2012, estimated that some 7,000 children had been abducted in 2011 and, of this total, the largest number belonged to Karachi (Sindh). The report noted that kidnappings noticeably increased in 2011.
The Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) has suggested military operations in militant strongholds have a trickledown effect, spurring abductions and extortion in other parts of the country, with particular focus on Karachi, one of Pakistan’s most volatile cities, owing to the sophisticated network of jihadi and criminal gangs in the country’s commercial capital. Similarly, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) Director Amir Rana argues that Pakistan’s ‘military successes’ in tribal areas have “probably led to resources becoming closed for TTP, and smaller groups that affiliate themselves with the TTP and al Qaeda might be responsible for raising resources in cities across Pakistan, including Karachi.”
The problem, however, goes way beyond Karachi. A March 22, 2012, media report indicated a swift rise in the number of abductions-for-ransom in the Lahore District of Punjab Province. According to the figures available in the report, at least 400 cases of abduction had been registered in the District in 2012, till March 20. Some 2,954 abductions were reported in 2011, while 2010 saw 2,831 abductions. The CPLC categorised the abduction gangs in Lahore into two groups – those operating from southern Punjab and affiliated with various terrorist outfits and others gangs operating principally on criminal-financial motives.
Similarly, a fact finding report compiled by the Balochistan National Party-Awami (BNP-Awami), highlighting the plight of the Baloch people, released on March 22, 2012, alleged that as many as 1,047 people had been abducted in the Province over the preceding four years. Provincial Agriculture Minister Asadullah Baloch of BNP-Awami observed, “Abduction for ransom has become a lucrative business in Balochistan and people are joining this business en masse as Police and Law Enforcement Agencies have failed to book a single culprit.” There are also strong charges of political and establishment collusion in this rash of abductions and, on March 20, 2012, during the Balochistan Assembly session, provincial Ministers demanded that Home Minister Mir Zafarullah Zehri and the law enforcement agencies disclose the names of Ministers allegedly involved in abductions in the Province.
According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 664 persons were abducted between January 1, 2010, and April 8, 2012. 2010 recorded 242 abductions, 2011 and 2012 witnessed 328 and 94 respectively. During this period, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) witnessed the highest number of abductions (251) followed by Balochistan (183), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (179), Sindh (43) and Punjab (8). These figures are likely to be a sever under-estimate, as lesser incidents of abduction, involving low profile individuals and small numbers, have become quotidian occurrences, and often go unreported.
The state’s negligence and complicity have led the entrenchment of major criminal- militant combines and their lesser affiliates. A January 2012 report by journalist Zia-ur-Rehman noted that the enforcement agencies in Karachi had discovered that several previously unknown militant outfits operating in the city were linked to TTP, and these provided access to local level logistics and manpower support to Pakistan’s major domestic terrorism combine. The head of Karachi’s Anti-Extremism Cell (AEC) Chowdhry Aslam, disclosed that one such group, al Mukhtar, basically a splinter cell of TTP’s Badar Mansoor group, was specially deployed in Karachi to collect extortion funds, carry out bank heists and abductions-for-ransom, as well as for terrorist activities and attacks. Sources in CPLC noted that abduction for ransom had become an easiest way to collect large sums of money.
The terrorists have also found their targets among foreigners in the country, as well as across international borders, in Afghanistan. A huge ransom was paid in Pakistan, for instance, for the release of two French journalists, Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier, who were abducted on December 30, 2009, by the Qari Baryal Afghan Taliban faction in Afghanistan’s Kapisa Province. An Afghan Taliban militant close to the group’s central command revealed, on condition of anonymity, “A ransom was paid — an enormous amount — millions of dollars. The money was handed over in Pakistan.” Significantly, the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban work in close collaboration with TTP, both to launch terror attacks and in activities like abduction-for-ransom.
Similarly, on July 1, 2011, TTP abducted a Swiss couple, Olivier David Och and Daniela Widmar, coming from Dera Ghazi Khan District in Punjab towards Quetta, Balochistan’s provincial capital, in the Killi Nigah area in Loralai District. The couple was taken to the neighbouring South Waziristan Agency of FATA. TTP ‘deputy chief’ Waliur Rehman demanded they be exchanged for Pakistani scientist, Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the US. On March 15, 2012, the Swiss couple was reported to have ‘escaped’ from captivity. However, a March 30, 2012, media report claimed that a massive ransom of PKR 1 billion was paid to the abductors for the release of the two Swiss tourists.
Several cases involving foreigners, moreover, remain currently unresolved. The most significant among these include:
January 19, 2012: Two Europeans, identified as Giovanni and Bernd, working with the Welthungerhilfe, a German International Non-Governmental Organisation for food rehabilitation, were abducted from Western Fort Colony of Qasim Bela area in Multan District of Punjab while returning from Kot Addu tehsil of Muzaffargarh District. The TTP claimed responsibility for the abduction and said that the two were being kept hostage near the Afghan border. Punjab Police Inspector General (IG) Javed Iqbal claimed that the aid workers were being held for ransom.
January 5, 2012: Unidentified militants abducted a British official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), identified as Doctor Khalil Ahmed Dale, from the Chaman Housing Society in Quetta. Later, the Police arrested up to 50 suspects for questioning in connection to the abduction, but to no avail.
August 13, 2011: An American aid expert, identified as Warren Weinstein, was abducted after unidentified assailants stormed through the backdoor of his house in the Model Town area of Lahore and overpowered his guards. On March 16, 2012, al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri declared, “He (Weinstein) will not return to his family, by the will of Allah, until our demands are met, which include the release of Aafia Siddiqui, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the family of Shaikh Osama bin Laden, and every single person arrested on allegations of links with al Qaeda and Taliban.”
Currently unresolved cases of abduction include two prominent Pakistanis as well.
August 26, 2011: Shahbaz Taseer, son of assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, was kidnapped in broad daylight by armed abductors from Lahore District. Accusing TTP of being behind the crime, his brother Sheryar Taseer told the media a day after the abduction, “Our family has been receiving threats from the Taliban and extremist groups.” On October 17, 2011, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that the abductors were keeping Shahbaz Taseer in areas near the Pak-Afghan border and that he was alive. No demand letter has been received and his whereabouts are still not known. It is believed that Shahbaz Taseer is being held to force the family to accept a token financial compensation under Pakistan’s (Islamic) Diyyat law, so that the death sentence against his father’s assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, is not executed.
September 7, 2010: Doctor Ajmal Khan, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University of Peshawar, was abducted by TTP. Several videos have been released over the long period of one and half years, including footage of the VC making appeals for an acceptance of Taliban demands for his release, the latest of which was released on March 7, 2012. In response, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain stated that the Government was ready to concede the “just demands” of the TTP, but could not accept “unjust demands”, adding that conceding at this point would only encourage abductors to ‘lift’ more people for ransom, or for the fulfillment of other demands.
Abduction with the motive of fulfilling demands, other than the payment of ransom, is another facet of the rising current trend. In one of the most prominent incidents of this nature, the TTP faction led by Maulana Faqir Muhammad abducted 30 children, on September 1, 2011, from the Mamoond tehsil of Bajaur Agency in FATA. The children were held against demands which included the release of women and children languishing in various Pakistani prisons, ending state instigation of tribesmen to form anti-TTP lashkars (tribal militia), and the disbanding of such lashkars and ‘peace committees’ in the Bajaur Agency of FATA. On October 30, 2011, two boys, identified as Amanullah and Abdullah, managed to escape and returned home more than 40 days after being abducted. Subsequently, after holding them captive for another three months, on January 4, 2012, TTP released 17 boys. Bajaur Administration official Islam Zeb noted, “Today, Taliban has released 17 of them; some 8-10 are yet in their custody.”
More worryingly, children have been abducted to create ‘a trained breed of jihadis’, and to serve as ‘live bombs’. The US State Department report, Trafficking in Persons, dated June 27, 2011, also noted that militant groups in Pakistan used children to act as spies, to fight and to carry out suicide bombings: “Non-state militant groups abduct children or coerce parents with fraudulent promises into giving away children as young as 12, to spy, fight, or die as suicide bombers in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The report also noted that militants often sexually and physically abuse the children and use psychological coercion to convince them that the acts they commit are justified. In one such case, on June 20, 2011, Police said that terrorists abducted a nine-year-old girl, Sohana Jawed, on her way to school and forced her to wear a suicide bomb vest. Quoting the rescued girl, the Police claimed that she managed to escape her captors when they directed her to attack a paramilitary checkpoint in Timergarah town of Lower Dir District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Abductions have also overlapped sectarian faultlines in Pakistan, and on March 25, 2011, for instance, at least 33 Shias belonging to the Turi tribe were abducted by TTP militants in an attack on a convoy of passenger vehicles in the Kurram Agency of FATA. Later on April 25, 2011, one of the abducted tribesmen, Haji Asghar Hussain Turi, was released after the militants received PKR 5.4 million as ransom. Three months later, on June 22, 2011, another 22 were released after paying a ransom of PKR 30 million. According to media reports, the remaining 10, who were in the custody of a local TTP commander ‘Noor’, had been killed and buried somewhere near the Pak-Afghan border. Their coffins, with the names of the dead inscribed on them, were sent to Parachinar two months later.
Adding to the growing threat of terrorism is the state’s negligence, collusion and consequent impunity with which the terrorists act. In one prominent case, a key al Qaeda operative and former Pakistan Army commando, Major Haroon Ashiq, accused in several cases of murder and of abduction-for-ransom, was set free from Rawalpindi Jail on March 21, 2012 because witnesses withdrew their testimonies for fear of reprisals, and the prosecution failed to furnish any further material evidence. According to media reports, Haroon is a close associate of Illyas Kashmiri, the founder of Brigade 313, later an operational arm of al Qaeda, and a member of the jihadist outfit Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI). With such coloured action, and the visible impotence or collusion of state agencies to act effectively against the perpetrators of the current and rising epidemic of abductions, as well as against the wider acts of terrorism that create its context, it is unlikely that the people of Pakistan – across all Provinces – will secure any early relief from this scourge.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management