Karachi is Pakistan’s commercial hub as well as its largest city. Taking advantage of Karachi’s ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence, militants from several Taliban factions and al-Qa`ida have moved to the city to escape U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani military operations in Pakistan’s northwest tribal regions.[1]

Karachi’s role as a shelter for al-Qa`ida and Taliban militants is well known. This article, however, provides clarity on how al-Qa`ida and Taliban militants are using Karachi to recruit university-educated youth as well as finance their operations against Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

A Brief Profile of Karachi City
Karachi is Pakistan’s financial hub with an estimated population of 18 million.[2] It accounts for the lion’s share of Pakistan’s gross domestic product and generates at least 60% of national revenue.[3] It is home to Pakistan’s central bank and its stock exchange. Karachi is where national and multinational corporations—such as international banks and real estate companies—have established their Pakistan operations.

Karachi is a key port city strategically located on the shores of the Indian Ocean, serving as a major shipping and maritime hub. It is the primary entry-point for U.S. and NATO supplies for Afghanistan. The majority of NATO supplies arrive at Karachi port where they are trucked through Pakistan to two entry points into Afghanistan.[4]

With its affluent residents, Karachi is fertile ground not only for criminal groups and armed wings of political and religious parties, but also for Taliban militants as well as al-Qa`ida. During the last decade, there has been an influx of Pashtun and Sindhi people to the city due to displacement caused by ongoing Pakistani military operations in the country’s tribal areas, as well as by recent flooding in Sindh Province.[5]

Karachi is considered an attractive hideout for al-Qa`ida and Taliban groups because the sheer size of the city, combined with its assortment of ethnic and linguistic groups, makes it easy to live and operate unseen.[6] Al-Qa`ida and Taliban groups can also rely on logistical and other support from Karachi’s assortment of militant, religious and sectarian groups.[7] The capture of several high-profile al-Qa`ida and Taliban leaders from Karachi shows that both organizations are operating in the city.[8]

Security experts argue that al-Qa`ida has successfully merged with Karachi-based local militant groups in Pakistan, and is in the process of shifting its base from the tribal areas to urban areas, especially Karachi, to avoid drone strikes.[9] These local militant groups include Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Jundullah, Jaysh-i-Muhammad, Jamaat-ul-Furqan, Harkat-ul-Mujahidin, Lashkar-i-Tayyiba, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, and Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami.[10]

Karachi’s role in recruitment for al-Qa`ida and Taliban groups is underreported. While the recruiting pool in the tribal areas is largely uneducated, Karachi offers a very different dynamic. Karachi is recognized for its academic institutions as well as religious seminaries.

One professor in the Applied Physics department at Karachi University told a reporter in May 2011 that the material learned in certain courses could be used by students for militant purposes.[11] “Last semester, I was planning to start a project with my students to remotely control a device, but then stopped when I learnt that one of them hailed from Waziristan,” the professor said.[12] The professor clarified that he was not profiling students from Pakistan’s tribal areas, but he did worry that the material learned in university courses could be applied in terrorist attacks.

Recruitment from universities was highlighted after the arrests of Dr. Akmal Waheed and Dr. Arshad Waheed in April 2004, two Pakistani brothers. The men were accused of having links to al-Qa`ida, attacking a Karachi corps commander’s convoy and aiding financially as well as harboring activists of the banned Jundullah militant group. The brothers, who were former leaders of the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA), an affiliate organization of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), reportedly inspired a number of students through their lectures and jihadist literature. Many of these students joined the so-called Punjabi Taliban and later lost their lives in U.S. drone strikes.[13] In 2006, the brothers were exonerated from all charges and released by Pakistani authorities. Yet in March 2008, Arshad Waheed was killed by a U.S. drone in Wana, South Waziristan Agency, while his brother, Akmal, was sentenced to three years in prison in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 for running a jihadist organization in the country and having direct communications with a senior al-Qa`ida member.[14] Interestingly, al-Qa`ida’s media wing, al-Sahab, released a 40-minute compilation video commemorating Arshad Waheed in the third part of a series of videos entitled “The Protectors of the Sanctuary,” which was also reportedly the first time that al-Qa`ida used Urdu in a video instead of Arabic.[15]

Three militants, all drop-outs of Karachi University, inspired by the Waheed brothers were arrested on January 13, 2011. In that case, Karachi Police said the three former students bombed Shi`a students on the university’s campus on December 28, 2010. According to police reports, the three men received military training in the Miran Shah area of North Waziristan Agency.[16] The accused told interrogators that in 2007 they created a group called the “Punjabi Mujahidin” after a disagreement with the JI leadership over jihad in Pakistan and after being inspired by the Waheed brothers.[17] They claimed to have recruited 150 activists, and their goal was to fight against Pakistan’s security forces as well as support the TTP.[18]

In another incident, on May 12, 2011, local police announced the arrests of four Karachi University students, who were accused of being members of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. The students were in possession of weapons and suicide bomber jackets, and planning to attack major government installations in the city.[19] The men were studying Applied Physics and Computer Science at the university.[20] After the arrests, various professors at the university reportedly worried that students with a “jihadist bent of mind” were more inclined to study at departments such as Chemical Engineering, Applied Physics and Computer Science—all subject areas that could be used to further jihadist violence.[21]

Al-Qa`ida and the Taliban’s move to penetrate academic institutions is strategic, said police officials who run anti-militancy operations in the city, adding that military groups have successfully gained sympathizers at not only Karachi University, but also at NED University of Engineering and Technology, Dawood College of Engineering and Technology, the Institute of Chartered Accountants and other prestigious institutions.

Taliban groups distribute jihadist literature among college and university students in Karachi in an effort to recruit them into militancy, and also disseminate guidelines for making bombs and thwarting explosive detection equipment to potential recruits, according to media.[22]

Observers argue that JI, and especially its student wing Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), has faced internal dissent ever since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. JI’s decision not to take a clear stand against the intervention in Afghanistan upset many of the party’s more radical members, especially among the youth. There is evidence that radical members within the party have joined or supported militant activities in Pakistan.[23]

It is also reported that Jundullah, a banned militant outfit linked with al-Qa`ida and the TTP, was also formed by former IJT activist Attaur Rehman, a student of the statistics department at Karachi University.[24] Rehman was arrested in June 2004 on charges of masterminding a series of terrorist attacks in Karachi and targeting security forces and government installations.[25]

Shahid Khan (also known as Qari Shahid), the alleged mastermind of the Mehran Naval Base attack in May 2011, was also a former member of the IJT and a key leader of the Punjabi Taliban.[26] He reportedly had a master’s degree in Political Science from Karachi University and was a working journalist.[27]

Taliban groups also run recruiting activities at religious madrasas, the only schooling available to many underprivileged children. During General Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year rule, Karachi experienced the tremendous growth of madrasa networks, and these schools have trained and dispatched fighters to Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. According to government estimates, out of a total of 1,248 madrasas in Sindh Province, at least 869 exist in Karachi alone.[28] Taliban groups manipulate deprived youth through jihadist literature and lectures into believing they can go from a state of dispossession to one of exaltation through jihad.

The sectarian, jihadist content of the madrasa curriculum is untouched, and there is no meaningful control over money flow into and through madrasas and other religious institutions. According to one sociologist, the madrasa landscape in Pakistan is still frightening not because some are directly involved in creating terrorists, but because they all foster a particular mindset in which—under certain circumstances—terrorism can easily take root. The umbilical link of banned militant groups, especially Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), with Karachi’s jihadist madrasas remains intact, their teachers and students its main strength. All SSP leaders, including Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and Azam Tariq, have been Karachi madrasa graduates.

Karachi, with its affluent residents and big business, has proved fertile ground for financing Taliban activities. Police say that Taliban generate funds in Karachi through bank robberies, protection rackets and kidnappings.[29] The police claim that the TTP has robbed Karachi banks of $18 million since 2009.[30] Similarly, kidnappings of high-profile figures and businessmen for ransom is a major source of funding. Kidnap-for-ransom schemes are common among criminal groups in Karachi, yet there are signs that Taliban-affiliated groups are escalating their kidnap-for-ransom activities in the city as well. Many cases of kidnapping are not reported to police, and families decide to pay the ransom money quietly due to fear of repercussions from militants.

In 2011, there were more than 100 recorded kidnap-for-ransom cases in Karachi, a record high.[31] A government adviser in Sindh Province told the BBC, “With local criminals, kidnaps can take six weeks to resolve. With the Taliban it can take six months, or a year. They demand payment in foreign currency and they do their homework quite well.”[32]

In October 2008, prominent Pakistani filmmaker Satish Anand was kidnapped in Karachi. He was eventually released in the Miran Shah area of North Waziristan Agency after his family paid approximately $169,000 for his release—down from an initial ransom demand of $530,000.[33] In 2011, three Punjabi militants kidnapped local Karachi industrialist Riaz Chinoy and demanded approximately $740,000. Although they eventually lowered their demands to $211,000, all three militants were killed after the police raided the home in which they were holding Chinoy.[34]

Prominent figures are not the only targets in kidnap-for-ransom schemes. A tribal elder based in Karachi explained that dozens of truck drivers working in the city have paid billions of rupees in ransom money after militants kidnapped their family members who were living in South Waziristan and Mohmand tribal areas.[35] In these cases, ransom demands range from about $10,000 to $50,000.[36]

In an interview with the BBC, one purported member of the Taliban in Karachi said that the group gets financial help from “university students and college students. Big businessmen also support us and help us. We cannot mention their names. People give freely.”[37] The Taliban member, who claimed to be in the group’s finance department, said “donations” amount to $80,000 per month in the Karachi area.[38] The BBC report suggested that what the Taliban call “donations,” others call “bhatta,” or protection money to prevent Taliban attacks.[39] Truck drivers who transport NATO supplies from Karachi to the border regularly pay protection money to the Taliban to prevent attacks on their convoys or families.

Karachi’s role as a shelter for al-Qa`ida and Taliban militants is clear. Yet the extent of the Taliban’s support network in the city, and its attempts to recruit educated students from the city’s many universities, is deeper than commonly reported. Recruits who receive university level training in Applied Physics and similar disciplines likely pose a bigger threat than other new fighters. Separately, Karachi’s role as Pakistan’s financial hub is also at risk should al-Qa`ida and the Taliban escalate their fundraising attempts—such as kidnap-for-ransom and other extortion schemes—in the city.

Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and researcher and covers the militancy in Pakistan. He has written for several international and national publications including The Friday Times, Central Asia Online, The Jamestown Foundation, Himal South Asian and The News International, and contributed to the New York Times.

[1] Personal interview, militant linked to the TTP in Karachi, Pakistan, January 5, 2012.

[2] Pamela Constable, “Bombing and Fire Disrupt a Fragile Peace in Karachi, Pakistan,” Washington Post, January 4, 2010.

[3] “Karachi Contributes 60-70pc of Revenue,” The Nation, July 25, 2010.

[4] Personal interview, Khan Dil Khan Niazi, a leader of Karachi’s truck association, Karachi, Pakistan, May 10, 2012. After a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011,Pakistan blocked NATO’s road-bound supply routes into Afghanistan.

[5] Zia Ur Rehman, “Demographic Divide,” Friday Times, July 15-21, 2011.

[6] Personal interview, ChaudryAslam Khan, head of the Anti-Extremism Cell (AEC), Karachi Police, Karachi, Pakistan, June 2, 2012.

[7] Zia Ur Rehman, “Karachi’s New Terrorist Groups,” Friday Times, January 6-12, 2012.

[8] In the past decade, a number of high-profile al-Qa`ida and Taliban leaders have been arrested in Karachi. These include, but are not limited to, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abdu Ali Sharqawi, Ammar al-Balochi, Walid Mohammad Salih bin Attash, Jack Thomas, Majid Khan and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. See Rehman, “Karachi’s New Terrorist Groups.”

[9] Personal interview, senior police official who runs anti-militancy operations, Karachi, Pakistan, June 15, 2012.

[10] “Profiling the Violence in Karachi,” Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad, Pakistan, July-September 2009.

[11] Salman Siddiqui, “After KU Student Arrested on Terror Suspicion, Time for an Examination on Campus,” Express Tribune, May 14, 2011.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Punjabi Muhahideen Involved in KU Blast Held,” The News International, January 14, 2011.

[14] Tahir Siddique, “Dr Akmal Facing Trial in UAE, High Court Told,” Dawn, August 20, 2011.

[15] Ali K. Chishti, “Jundullah, the New al-Qaeda,” Daily Times, September 7, 2010.

[16] “Punjabi Muhahideen Involved in KU Blast Held.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Siddiqui.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Javed Mahmood, “Jihadi Literature Distributed in Karachi Universities,” Central Asia Online, December 13, 2010; Javed Mahmood, “Al-Qaeda Distributes Thumb Drives to Teach Bomb Making,” Central Asia Online, December 13, 2010.

[23] Kalbe Ali, “Jamaat Factor in Saga of the Missing,” Dawn, February 24, 2012.

[24] Chishti.

[25] Ibid.

[26]  Ali.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Karachi: 11,000 Foreigners in Sindh Madaris,” Dawn, January 16, 2003.

[29] “Taliban’s Brisk Trade of Kidnapping in Karachi,” BBC, March 23, 2012.

[30] Central Asia Online, May 21, 2012.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Faraz Khan, “Satish Anand Released from Captivity After 6 Months,” Daily Times, April 13, 2009.

[34] “Three Alleged Taliban Militants Killed in Karachi Encounter,” The News International, December 6, 2011.

[35] Personal interview, Karachi-based political activist belonging to South Waziristan Agency, Karachi, Pakistan, July 18, 2012.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Taliban’s Brisk Trade of Kidnapping in Karachi.”

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

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