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Karachi: Annus Horribilis

First published in the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR)

On December 12, 2011, the Gadap Town Police in Karachi, the Provincial capital of Sindh, rescued 53 children chained in an underground dungeon at a seminary, the Jamia Masjid Zakaria Kandhelwi Madrassa Arabia, situated in the Afghan Basti in the Sohrab Goth area of Karachi. These children had been chained for 30 days. Unearthing tales of torture, the Police revealed that the chained captives received indoctrination from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) instructors, preparing them to join the outfit’s ‘jihad’ (holy war) on the Afghan front. One of the rescued students stated, “We are being made mujahedeen (holy warriors) here. We are being made Taliban here. They say you should get training… we will send you to fight.” An unnamed Police official told the Press, “The rescued students included kids as young as seven years old and 21 teenagers,” and further revealed that the chained students were beaten and barely fed.

This gory incident is only the tip of the iceberg. There are more than 1,935 seminaries in Sindh, of which 1,800 are in Karachi alone. Crucially, most of the seminaries in Karachi are run by religious political parties that preach sectarianism and extremist Islamism, destabilizing both internal order in the country and regional security.

Karachi, a city of migrants, is, today, a fragmented city. Karachi’s violent landscape has long been scarred by ethnic and sectarian conflicts, in addition to conflicts, and is plagued by extortion and politically motivated crimes as well. The Mohajirs (migrants from India, who came to Karachi during Partition) are supported by the militant Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), while Pashtuns constitute the political elite of the Awami National Party (ANP). A multiplicity of armed radical formations – prominently including, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Sunni Tehreek (ST), and TTP dominate life in Sindh’s capital city.

Significantly, however, out of the 23 Districts in the Province, it is only Karachi which is constantly rocked by acts of ethnic and political violence, including an endless stream of target killings. In fact, all 1,048 terrorism-related fatalities in the Province, recorded by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP, all data till December 25) through 2011, have occurred in Karachi alone. The fatalities included 923 civilians, 60 Security Force (SF) personnel and 65 militants. Fatalities in 2010 stood at 172. The 2011 data includes ‘Targeted Killings’, which many believe are carried out by the terrorists, backed by warring political parties, while SATP data till 2010 excluded this category. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had recorded 749 fatalities in ‘Targeted Killings’ through 2010, and 490 in the first seven months of 2011.

Some of the major incidents of violence in Karachi through 2011 included:

December 9: Three Rangers were killed while four sustained serious injuries in a blast that occurred near Safura Chowrangi in the Gulistan-e-Jauhar area of Karachi.

September 19: At least eight people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack targeting Senior Superintendent of Police, Crime Investigation Department (CID), Chaudhry Aslam, in the Darakhshan area of Karachi.

August 18: Politically motivated ethnic violence claimed at least 27 lives in Karachi.

August 1: 40 people, including activists of the MQM and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were killed and several others were injured in various parts of Karachi.

July 8: At least 35 people were killed and several were wounded when unidentified assailants attacked passenger buses and went on shooting sprees in several neighbourhoods in Karachi.

April 21: At least 18 people were killed and 41 sustained injuries in a powerful blast that ripped through Rami Club building near Ghaas Mandi area of Lyari locality in Karachi.

Karachi has, indeed, the unfortunate distinction of being the worst affected District in all of terror-ridden Pakistan. The fatalities in Karachi exceed the fatalities in the entire province of Punjab (137) and Balochistan (672), and almost equal those in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (1,191).

Unsurprisingly, Khalid Tawab, Vice President of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, notes, “There is law in Karachi but there is no order.” HRCP Chairperson Asma Jahangir on August 23, 2011, observed that armed men from all political parties were involved in extortion and ‘Target Killings’ on the roads of Karachi, making the city a living hell. “The heads of all the parties would have to sit together to find solution to the crisis of Karachi where people of all parties were playing a game of death,” she added.

At the root of this sectarian, ethnic and political violence is the bhatta (extortion) system that has been prevalent in Karachi for the past two decades. The struggle is for the control of the country’s economic hub. Karachi accounts for over 50 per cent of the total revenue collected by the Federal Bureau of Revenue, and accounts for about 20 per cent of Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Media reports indicate that all the major political parties participate in the collection of bhatta from their areas of dominance. Turf wars over control of bhatta among various parties have instigated target killings and gang wars.

Prominent among the various criminal gangs operating in Karachi are the Rehman Dakait Group, Arshad Pappu Group, D Company (Dawood Ibrahim Group), the Shoaib Group and the the Lyari Gang. The Lyari Gang has been among the most active in extortion, drug peddling and gambling related killings, backed by the political groups like the Peoples Aman (Peace) Committee (PAC), the Kachchi Raabita Committee (KRC) and elements within the local administration. Gang wars are the defining feature of the underdeveloped Lyari neighbourhood, making it a virtual “no-go area” for common people. Regrettably, as one unnamed Police officer told the media, narcotics and gambling dens in Karachi were run under the patronage of Police officers, often up to the highest ranks.

Enormously compounding the problem are the various sectarian-terrorist groupings operating in the city. These include LeJ, SSP, Jundullah, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami-Arakan (HuJI-A), Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen-al-Alami (HuMA), ST, Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), Jafaria Alliance (JA), and the more recent, but increasingly visible TTP. Confirming the presence of TTP in Karachi, Federal Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik stated, on July 8, 2011, “Intelligence Agencies have identified presence of the TTP in Karachi and the Government is working on it.” On December 19, 2011, the CID arrested six TTP suspects and recovered weapons from their possession from different places, including the Korangi Industrial Area, Sohrab Goth and Saddar areas of Karachi. Officials said that the accused were associated with the TTP and were providing logistic support to TTP militants who arrived in the city from tribal areas.

Apart from sectarian-terrorist groups, Karachi also provides space to mainstream religious groups such as the Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI), Jama’at Ulema-e-Pakistan (JuP), Jama’at Ulema-e-Islam (JuI), Markazi Jama’at Ahl-e-Hadith, Jama’at Ghurba-e-Ahle Hadith, Jama’at-ul-Muslimeen (JM), Dawat-e-Islami (DI) and Tableeghi Jama’at (TJ). Many of these groups have direct linkages with armed extremist formations, and all of them have been instrumental in shaping the religious-sectarian-extremist landscape in Karachi, and in fuelling ethno-political conflicts.

Conspicuously, the religious-political-criminal groups involved in terrorizing Karachi have been aided and abated by the huge and unhindered inflow of arms and ammunition into the city. During a debate in the Senate on January 18, 2011, it was revealed that there were no less than an estimated two million weapons in Karachi alone. Abuse of a lax and deeply corrupted licensing system has enormously facilitated illegal arms possession. On August 1, 2010, Interior Minister Malik had claimed that “some people in Karachi are keeping around 50 weapons on a single license”. On August 8, 2011, in the middle of a wave of escalating violence, Malik had claimed that Karachi would be ‘deweaponised’ in phases, and that all arms licenses issued by the Ministry of Interior would stand cancelled with effect from September 1, 2011. He added, further, that no arms licenses, except those issued by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), a Federal Department of the Government of Pakistan which has now been authorised to issue arms license, would be valid. Malik also stressed that criminals carrying illegal arms would be tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and the Arms Ordinance, 1969. Possession of illegal weapons would be a non-bailable offence, with a minimum punishment of seven years, going up to life, imprisonment. A reward scheme was also announced for informers, with PKR 20,000 on offer for the recovery of automatic weapons and PKR 50,000 for heavy weapons.

There have been repeated earlier attempts by the Government to de-weaponise Karachi, but each of these failed to accomplish their objectives. Partial data compiled by SATP has recorded 57 incidents of arms and ammunition recovery in Karachi in 2011, of which 33 incidents occurred after Malik’s August Declaration on deweaponisation. The recoveries included Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, suicide jackets, TT pistol, and other sophisticated weaponry. The estimate of over two million weapons in circulation in the city, however, indicates clearly that these recoveries do not even begin to scratch the surface of the problem.

Evidently failing to deal effectively with the situation, Malik has started making allegations about “foreign hands” in the Karachi violence. On July 17, 2011, even before his de-weaponisation drive was initiated, he had already declared, “The use of Israeli-made weapons indicates ‘foreign hands’’ behind the Karachi unrest. Over 200 persons have been arrested and Israeli-made weapons, including AK-45, have been recovered from them. It proves that foreign hands are behind the unrest in Karachi. Weapons are being brought to Karachi from abroad. Not only weapons, even target killers also were coming from outside.”

Though the SFs have managed to arrest as many as 1,979 suspects through 2011 [till December 25], the core issues of weaponisation, ethnic violence, political patronage and sectarian strife continue to haunt Karachi. The courts, in any event, operate a turnstile system, quickly releasing a majority of those arrested, even as enforcement agencies fail to build an effective case against the accused.

It is evident that peace cannot be restored to Karachi without the elimination of millions of illegal weapons, the extortion racket that is running the politics of Sindh, and the rampage of armed criminal and Islamist extremist groupings. On January 19, 2011, civil society activists and business representatives called for the complete de-weaponisation of Karachi in order to control target killings. Zia Ahmad Awan, President Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, thus demanded, “all the arms licenses should be cancelled and all the illegal weapons should be recovered across the board; the criminals should be treated as ‘criminals’ irrespective of party affiliations and sympathies.”

The patronage extended to armed and extremist political, ethnic, sectarian and criminal groups has shattered the structures of society in Karachi. Before the province sinks deep into a ‘civil war’, the coalition Government of Sindh, comprising of the PPP, MQM and the ANP, will have to abandon its old policy of protecting terrorist and criminal elements, dismantle the bhatta system, and work towards the demilitarization of the population. Unfortunately, each of these political formations has deep vested interests in the perpetuation of these insidious systems and structures, and there is little reason to believe, despite escalating violence and fatalities, that effective action is now imminent.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).