May Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

Writing about politically-backed bhatta (extortion) networks in the city, Majyd Aziz Balagamwala, a business tycoon and former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), called the financial situation that has in large part arisen from the practice of bhatta, the “economic genocide of Karachi.”

After one of the most debilitating global recessions that began in 2008, the rest of the world has faced slowing economies and rising unemployment. Karachi, meanwhile, has had to endure terrorism, a deteriorating law and order situation and political instability as added woes for an already beleaguered city. And then there is financial corruption of all kinds, with extortion the most commonplace, having over the years, woven itself into the city’s economic fabric.

“The problem is that none of the major political parties can entirely distance themselves from the rot that has set in. For example, at the outset they will claim that their associates are not involved in extortion,” says the owner of a small textile unit. “When some proof to the contrary emerges, they concede that some elements could be using the party name and immediately dissociate themselves from these elements.”

It started, he says, in the early ’80s, with calls for donations and sacrificial animal hides by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Soon thereafter, they started soliciting funds from the public, purportedly to help organise party events and to buy cloth for flags. In those days the funds sought were not sizeable, and so sympathisers — largely people from the same ethnic group — readily dipped into their pockets, many believing the mohajir nation had found itself someone to champion its cause.

The city’s religious parties did object to the MQM’s collection of zakat, fitrah (alms) and sacrificial animal hides, not least because they saw these areas as their domain and sources of revenue. But as the MQM’s fund-collecting drives became more insistent, even members of the religious organisations, or those forming part of their support base, did not have the courage to resist them. As a result they ended up paying MQM activists the same amount they donated to the religious seminaries or charity organisations they were linked with.

But it was not just the MQM that was guilty of the practice of bhatta. “When I came to Karachi from Sahiwal 14 years ago and started working at different industrial units in SITE, our employers had to pay the police, officials from government institutions such as the Labour Department, and members of the MQM local committees at regular intervals, just so they could keep their factories running,” says a garment factory owner. “When I started my own business in 2009, I realised that the Awami National Party (ANP), the Sunni Tehrik and the People’s Aman Committee had also joined the extortion bandwagon, taking advantage of the influence they exercised in the residential settlements nearest to the establishments where they were plying this racket.

Early in the day, the MQM set up an organised mechanism for collecting extortion money from businesses and marketplaces. The incoming funds included donations in the name of the Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation (KKF), and daily bhatta ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 100 extracted from shops, stalls and cabins at various marketplaces around the city in its areas of influence.

“The MQM also constituted committees in the marketplaces for mediation between shopkeepers, or interaction with law-enforcement officials and other institutions involved in public utility services,” says the owner of a cosmetics shop. “Paying a small amount on a daily basis, or a larger one once or twice a year, was not a big problem as we knew the people working at the unit offices, and on many occasions they were very helpful. For example they would help us resist forced shutdowns during strike-calls by other political parties.”

But, as an MQM unit official himself acknowledges, the situation became untenable when the MQM’s own repeated calls for strikes started creating a significant dent in the shopkeepers’ businesses. “The MQM’s clashes with other political groups and gangsters from Lyari resulted in the latter encroaching and make inroads in our places of business,” he adds.

A mohajir automotive parts dealer in Shershah describes the time the Aman Committee entered the extortion game. “When the Aman Committee started demanding bhatta, we had no way to escape,” he says. “The MQM had no influence in and around the Shershah Market, and gangsters from Lyari — known for being the most ruthless of all the thugs operating — were the most difficult to negotiate with.”

But even worse was to come. The line between all the players in the extortion business started to blur with time, and soon there was literally no place to turn to for relief. A  mqm-fitra-parchi-253x300 case in point: A businessman in Federal B Area received an extortion call from the Aman Committee with a man at the other end of the line saying, “…I have direct contact with Uzair Baloch.” The businessman says, “The Aman Committee men assured me that they would stop calling, when I coughed up what they had demanded, but only if I also paid Rs 500,000 to local MQM workers who had provided the Aman Committee all the information about me. I was shocked, but I had no choice other than to comply.”

A former associate of a slain Aman-committee ringleader revealed that it was a city-level office bearer of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who was also providing the Aman Committee with contact details of businessmen and entrepreneurs. And members of the Awami National Party (ANP) were equally culpable in the extortion racket, making extortion demands from the owners of businesses close to the Pashtun localities of Rasheedabad, Zia Colony, Metroville, Benaras, Manghopir, Qasba, Bawani Challi, Sohrab Goth and Ittehad Town.

A businessman dealing in food products, who was supposedly affiliated with the Ahmadi sect, received an extortion call from someone claiming to belong to the Taliban. After he had paid, he learned that the man was a local ANP leader who was ironically, later attacked by the Taliban during a local election.

Haji Jahan Sher, a resident of Metroville SITE Town, says that the level of extortion has started to deter people from even coming to the affected areas. “Despite the relatively slow salaries, doctors would still come here to work at a hospital run by a welfare organisation,” he says. “But many of the doctors have stopped visiting Metroville after they received calls for extortion from local ANP officials. In addition to attacking our factories and our shops, our houses are not even safe from hand grenades and the IED attacks of the extortionists when they want to exert pressure on people to pay what they are demanding. That understandably creates a lot of fear.”

Other religio-political organisations such as the Sunni Tehrik, too, have a share in the extortion business, and have on several occasions, had armed clashes with local MQM activists in the matter of collection of extortion money and sacrificial animals’ hides.

In 2012, the banned outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, that rechristened itself the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), reemerged as an active organisation, as the new name was not on the list of banned outfits and they managed to constitute shadow organisations such as the Al-Badr Welfare Trust to ask for ‘donations.’ They also constituted a labour wing in Korangi and SITE industrial areas which, they claim, is aimed at resolving labour disputes, but is, in fact, a front for identifying Shia businessmen and entrepreneurs from whom they demand huge amounts as extortion money.

According to the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), the number of extortion calls was at its peak in 2013, and while such incidents have since decreased, extortion still continues. In April, a factory owner was killed for not paying up; a shop at Bolton Market was recently attacked with a grenade for the same reason; and a five-year-old girl was killed when her house was attacked near the Lyari town office because her family had not paid up.

Ghulam Hyder Jamali, IGP Karachi, recently stated that during the last four months, action against terrorists and criminals has been stepped up, as part of the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP). He claimed that as a result incidents of terrorism have decreased by 70 per cent, murders by 42 per cent, extortion cases by 55 per cent and a 77 per cent decrease has been noted in cases of kidnapping.

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A recent report by the Sindh Police states that over 5,000 individuals accused of various crimes have been arrested since the operation was launched. Of these, 1,957 are alleged murderers, 552 have been arrested under the Terrorism Act, 108 have been held for kidnapping, 488 for extortion, and 2,470 for robbery/dacoity. Additionally 9,758 have been apprehended for violation of the Arms Ordinance, 7,858 have been arrested under the Narcotics Act, and 583 proclaimed offenders have also been held.  Furthermore, 8,497 absconders have been rounded up and 18,718 involved in petty crime have been taken in.

Conversely, 482 members of the Sindh police have lost their lives in the line of duty since 2012. Of these, 129 cops were killed in 2012, 177 in 2013, 142 officials lost their lives in 2014, and 34 were killed in the first three months of 2015.

The Rangers have also come to the aid of businessmen in SITE as they have increased patrolling, demolished illegal installations such as chappra hotels (small hotels built on empty plots and footpaths) — and nabbed many criminals from the area. “But this help has come with a price as the Rangers, too, have now started receiving monetary benefits in exchange for their services,” alleges one businessman.

In 2010, traders and businessmen from the Mohmand tribes living in Karachi — who are closely connected to each other due to family relationships and businesses of similar natures — started receiving extortion calls by people claiming to belong to the Taliban. Most of them were running businesses such as supplying firewood (taal-walas), making cement blocks and providing other construction materials (thalla-walas), iron-scrap dealers, manufacturers of small products from recycled plastic, fruit wholesalers and other similar small industries.

“The majority of the thalla-wallas and taal-walas are from different tribes of the Mohmand Agency,” a thallaowner in Khawaja Ajmer Nagri explains. “It makes it easy for us to coordinate with each other about material supplies, credit payments and pricing the materials we provide on cash or credit to the customers.”

This close integration with all its benefits backfired when the Mohmand faction of the Taliban, with the help of its aides in every tribe, started collecting information about their co-tribals’ businesses and estimated incomes and made extortion demands based on the information they had gleaned.

“I thought it was just a prank call when someone speaking in Urdu, having knowledge of my native place, family and my business advised me to pay for the jihad in my home town,” a fruit wholesaler says. “But I got nervous when my elder brother told me he had received a similar call. I got in touch with other relatives, and many of them told the same story. A distant relative who was known to have links with the militants advised me to take the call seriously or prepare for a severe backlash.”

Within a few days it was clear that Sayed Yaseen Shah (alias Saain), a jihadi and criminal of Barohhi Baloch descent, was speaking on behalf of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Mohmand commander, Qari Shakeel Ahmed Haqqani. The latter was a key commander of the TTP Mohmand faction. It was on Qari Shakeel’s instructions that Saain started calling members of the community and asking for extortion money under the guise of ‘muawinat’ or ‘financial assistance.’

Initially, Saain was unknown to the tribe and rejected all bids of mediation and pleas from the elders of the tribe and even those who had in the past claimed to have links with the TTP.  After a week of negotiations over the sum of money, most of them had to pay between Rs 100,000 to Rs 1,000,000 to a fellow tribesman who had been assigned the task of collecting it and handing it over to the militants in Kanwari Colony in Qasba. Saain and his henchmen, in fact, managed to accumulate millions of rupees in just their first ever extortion drive.

Saain was killed in January 2012 by intelligence agencies after an investigation into attacks on the offices of cellular companies’ at Sakhi Hasan and Hyderi market led to him. Fayyaz Khan, SSP CID, subsequently confirmed that Shah had killed many traders and businessmen on Qari Shakeel’s orders. Saain’s death did not, however, put an end to the business of extortion.

The collection of money forcibly extracted from citizens continued, with new faces at the helm of affairs. Later, a monthly mechanism was devised for the purpose of collection, whereby thalla-walas, taal-walas and other businessmen were to pay between Rs 3,000  to Rs 5,000 each, per month.

“Refusal was not an option as they had ruthlessly killed nine of our fellow tribesmen in different parts of Karachi, including a thalla-wala in Sakhi Hasan, a tea wholesaler in Lea Market and a tribal elder in Orangi Town,” explains the thalla owner in Khawaja Ajmer Nagri.

There is no denying that after the LEA’s operations in Karachi, the situation has improved, because many individuals affiliated with different TTP factions have either been apprehended or killed in alleged encounters. “I have filed an FIR at the Police Station against a threatening call and extortion demand by a TTP-JA official from the Afghan border,” says a Mohmand businessman. In a defiant tone he states, “Now the terrorists won’t be able to harm me through their local network. Most of their hardcore associates in Karachi have either been killed or have fled Karachi after the LEA’s operation.” But there remains a tinge of uncertainty in the bold assertion. Can the peace last?

Who Is Qari Shakeel?

taliban8-150x150Qari Shakeel was a key commander of the TTP Mohmand faction and the head of the recently reconstituted faction of the TTP-Jamatul Ahrar’s political shura. He represented the TTP in a committee constituted for talks with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in 2013.

Qari Shakeel hailed from a lesser known Mohmand subtribe known as Salgaree, that lives in Lower Mohmand. He studied in the Samiul Haq-owned Darul Uloom Haqqania, and later joined the Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM), a jihadi outfit known for fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan and its close links with the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Shakeel fought in Taliban ranks in Afghanistan and was arrested at the Gandhao checkpost while entering Pakistan in 2001.

After being released, he was stationed at the Maichanai area of Lower Mohmand and earned prominence by assembling a small force and either killing or driving out the notorious criminal gangs and dacoits of Maichanai involved in incidents of kidnapping from the neighbouring Peshawar region.

When Abdul Wali alias Umer Khalid Khorasani, an associate from HuM, started TTP (Mohmand faction) after the Lal Masjid Islamabad offensive, Shakeel joined him and became one of his close aides.

Slowly the TTP Mohmand increased its influence in Karachi, replacing the tribal elders and Malik-run arbitration committees with one of their own: Qari Shakeel, who soon learnt the tricks of the crime trade. Before him, various Taliban groups had used other financial crimes such as bank heists and kidnapping as ways of generating funds in Karachi, but Qari Shakeel turned the crime business into a thriving enterprise. No surprise then that Qari Shakeel became something of a muse for other militant groups. Soon businessmen from other tribal territories such as the Khyber Agency, North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Orakzai and Kurram, with businesses in Karachi and elsewhere, started receiving similar extortion calls, emanating from assorted terror groups operating in the country.

The TTP Mohmand group became so powerful that it is now seen as being in the forefront of targeted operations against LEA officials. And the group has no compulsions admitting to this fact. It has, for example, claimed responsibility for the killing of DSP CID Chaudhry Aslam and SHO Shafeeq Tanoli.

The Mohmand faction dissociated itself from the TTP led by Fazlullah and joined hands with Ahrarul Hind, forming a new faction, the TTP-Jamatul Ahrar.

Qari Shakeel was killed this year in March along with other militants, when they clashed with a faction of the Punjabi Taliban in a remote area of the Afghan province of Nangarhar bordering the Khyber Agency.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order