KARACHI THE HUB FOR JIHADISTS
Pakistan’s Labyrinth of Terror
International Jihadists Use Karachi as Hub
By Susanne Koelbl in Karachi, Pakistan
The circle had to be closed with blood, in order to wipe out the disgrace of the previous day. That’s the way of life here — the way of life in Karachi.
Pakistan’s Labyrinth of Terror
Karachi is the pulsating heart of Pakistan, but the city of 18 million is descending into a maelstrom of violence. While NATO uses the port to support its war in Afghanistan, international jihadism has established strongholds in the metropolis’s slums
The six men were heavily armed, and yet they still managed to get through all the checkpoints and reach Club Road in the red zone, a highly secured district in the heart of the city. The head of the provincial government has his official residence here, not far from the American consulate, two luxury hotels and the police headquarters, where the office of the young inspector Omar Shahid is located. As the head of the anti-extremism unit, Shahid was at the top of the attackers’ hit list.
The terrorists started shooting at the entrance to the police station. For 10 minutes, they fired at the guards, who returned their fire, until a vehicle packed with 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs.) of explosives rammed the gate of the police station. The massive explosion destroyed the three-story building occupied by the counterterrorism division and set off a firestorm.
At least 20 people, including the suicide attackers, died on the evening of Nov. 11. Some 120 police officers, residents and passersby lay bleeding under the wreckage, as well as an unknown number of members of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who had already been in custody at the police station.
It was a retaliatory attack committed by al-Qaida’s foot soldiers. On the previous day, a counterterrorism unit had arrested half a dozen of their fellow terrorists.
‘They Are Showing Us that They Are There’
Omar Shahid was supposed to be one of the victims, but he happened to be on duty elsewhere on that evening. He is usually in command of counterterrorism units when they conduct raids against militant Islamists in the backstreets of Karachi neighborhoods like Sohrab Goth or Shershah Market.
“They are showing us that they are there, and that they can strike back,” Shahid says, speaking very calmly. He does not show any visible emotion. Otherwise he would be unable to deal with the situation. His office was destroyed by fire, and many of the people with whom he had been waging this battle for years are now dead.
The 32-year-old police officer has a short haircut and is wearing a white shirt over jeans. He looks athletic and a little too young for the job. Shahid refuses to be photographed for security reasons.
His living room is furnished with upholstered English armchairs and oriental rugs. Abstract paintings hang on the walls. The décor is a reflection of the owner’s personality: a loyal Pakistani citizen with a British accent and a taste for a modern lifestyle.
Shahid studied in London. He believes in justice, and he believes that the eternal cycle of revenge has to be broken. Many people all over the world feel the same way, but not in Karachi.
Parties Have Powerful Militias
In Karachi, politics is conducted with Kalashnikovs. The major parties maintain gangs of thugs and killers to protect their spheres of influence. Armed men dressed in suits stand in front of the heavily guarded headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). The party represents the Urdu-speaking immigrants who came to Pakistan from the Indian part of British India after partition in 1947. Today they have their own courts and their own security service, representing a parallel system to that of the state’s, according to the police.
The Awami National Party (ANP), which represents the Pashtuns, has also become a powerful force. The two parties accuse one another of constantly inciting violence. Since October, about 100 people have been killed here for political reasons, most of them provincial members of parliament and party officials. The death squads travel on motorcycles and shoot their victims while driving or stab them to death with knives.
The militias are fighting each other for the dominance of individual apartment blocks and streets, for shares of the drug and weapons trade, for votes, for shakedowns or sometimes simply for honor. Even the liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is supported by its own trigger-happy militia in its stronghold of Lyari, a drab neighborhood of narrow streets near the harbor.
All are perpetrators and victims alike in this megacity of grotesque contradictions. Vastly wealthy families live in their villas, protected by high walls, while the barefoot children of the poorest of the poor play football in the garbage heaps of the rich. Young urbanites like the shrill TV host Ali Saleem, 31, who says he wants to “party, party, party until the end,” crave a freer, Western lifestyle. Meanwhile, in large Koran schools a few blocks away, thousands of students are being indoctrinated into an extreme interpretation of the Koran — and taught to hate the American way of life.
Where the Threads of Power Come Together
It is not just in the manicured capital Islamabad that the threads of power come together in this country of 171 million people, but also very much here in Karachi. One of the largest cities in the Islamic world with its 18 million inhabitants, Karachi is where the deals and the profits are made.Without the port of Karachi, the NATO mission in Afghanistan would be almost inconceivable. The heavily guarded containers of war materials, sand-colored Humvees, food and gasoline stand in endless rows on the piers. Almost 80 percent of military supplies for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) pass through Karachi.
The logisticians of terror also use the city as a hub, a place to recruit fighters, handle financial transactions and pass on news and attack plans. The Karachi underworld is the extremists’ money machine. Extortion and bank robbery are second only to donations as the most lucrative sources of income. The money flows back to the militants’ training camps in the tribal areas.
The maze of Karachi’s suburbs is the ideal hiding place for terrorists. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, is believed to hide at times in Karachi. In 2002 al-Qaida fighters kidnapped and beheaded US journalist Daniel Pearl here. The group of terrorists that murdered 166 people in Mumbai in the fall of 2008 set out from Karachi. In February of this year, Karachi security forces arrested Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s second-in-command.
Determined to Fight Corruption
Karachi is also the place where counterterrorism specialist Omar Shahid, who recently escaped the attack on his office, lost his father 14 years ago. He was the director of the city’s electric utility and was murdered by a contract killer after he discovered that senior members of the dominant MQM party had not been paying their electricity bills. Shahid’s father was determined to fight corruption.
In those days, women would often find the bodies of their husbands, brothers and sons who had been murdered by MQM killers in the morning on Khajji Ground, a football field in the Nazimabad neighborhood near downtown Karachi, hanging from the goalposts.
Shahid’s father was shot to death. “The murderer was an MQM militia member,” says Shahid. He searched for the killer and found him, and the man was put on trial. Despite the objections of powerful backers, the killer was sentenced a few years ago and is now in prison.
The verdict validated Shahid’s conviction that a criminal must pay for his crime, even in this country, and even in Karachi. That was why he became a police officer.
Asif Square in Sohrab Goth in the northwest of the city is one of the most dangerous areas on his beat. It is a long, dusty rectangle with a large clock tower and a few food stands in the middle, flanked by a row of rundown apartment blocks. This is where the Pashtuns meet.
They are good businesspeople. They trade in heavy construction equipment and transport gasoline to Afghanistan for the NATO mission there in their brightly decorated trucks. But the Taliban and other extremist groups also recruit fighters from this ethnic group. The Pashtuns can be anything from liberal and secular to violent and radical.
Fazal Elahi, 25, is sitting in a snack bar consisting of fiber mats and woven benches. A Pashtun from a town on the Afghan border, he is one of the many minor supporters of the great war against the infidels.
A red pennant from the Pashtun party, the ANP, hangs from the streetlight, signifying that the area is off-limits for the rival MQM, but also for the government. Not even the gasman is willing to venture into this rundown neighborhood.
Elahi is wearing a long white shirt. He is thin and has a hook-shaped nose. He feels completely safe. He smiles self-confidently as he eats his plate of pulao, a traditional dish of mutton with rice and raisins. He never looks at the female reporter during the entire conversation.
Elahi’s militant group was only founded a few years ago. It calls itself the “Mujahideen Islam” and reflects a new form of globalized jihad in which everyone cooperates with everyone else. Elahi’s leaders either fought in Afghanistan or as underground fighters against India in Kashmir. Later they turned against the Pakistani government.
Of course, says Elahi, his first goal is to “liberate” his brothers in Afghanistan, but he also has sympathy for the al-Qaida militia that committed the attack on Omar Shahid’s police station a few days ago, as well as Muslims in Palestine, Somalia and Yemen. Elahi works for the worldwide caliphate. He helps wherever he can.
He passes on messages, sends money and arranges meetings. His family owns a three-room apartment on Asif Square. They are cattle traders, the perfect cover for Elahi’s real business. “We are on the right track,” he says. “The Americans are almost ready to leave the country. They can’t hang in there forever. You don’t have to be an academic to understand that.”
There is a small police station diagonally across the street. These days, no police officer dares to venture into the notorious Pashtun district on foot. Only the best man at the station, Major Irfan Bahadur, patrols the neighborhood — in two SUVs with machine guns mounted on them.
A Suicide Bomber for $300
They say that it is now possible to buy a suicide bomber in Karachi for 25,000 rupees (about $300 or €220). “Poverty is to blame, and so is the poor political leadership,” says a high-ranking intelligence officer. He is referring to the president, Asif Ali Zardari, whose PPP is itself part of the undeclared civil war in Karachi.It is an eternal game of mutual recrimination. The role of the notorious Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is anything but clear in Karachi. For years, ISI agents have supported the military forces that are helping to uphold Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. At the same time, the ISI is fighting radical splinter groups that are now targeting the Pakistani government and that even attacked the army headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009. The ISI leadership still believes that it can rein in the radical forces it has unleashed at any time. But those forces are now acting out of control.
In the 1970s, young Europeans and Americans used to stroll through Karachi’s Zainab bazaar, which was famous for colorful hippy outfits, and make pilgrimages to the shrine of the Sufi saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi. For the backpacking tourists of the day, Karachi was the “city of lights,” a place where they could stroll past crystal-blue waves on French Beach.
In the Mood for Jihad
General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq ended this era of cosmopolitanism. After coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1977, he took the up-and-coming Islamic state in a completely new direction. The sanctimonious military ruler stoked ethnic and political rivalries in the multiethnic nation, and when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he put the country in the mood for jihad.
The Westerners who come to Karachi these days are diplomats, journalists, businesspeople or spies. They are there to track down sources of funding for al-Qaida, search for suspected terrorists or work with the Pakistani army. They keep a low profile, always traveling by car, careful not to become the victims of an attack or a kidnapping.
The cloying smells of sweat and decay fill the air among the weathered Art Deco buildings in the city’s old downtown. Crumbling masonry is all that is left of the colonial splendor of the shops and bazaars. But the city’s heart is still beating, say the old people, insisting that every period of decline must always come to an end — even the current downward spiral of poverty, extremism and violence.
But most young people are already in an apocalyptic frame of mind. They no longer believe in the grand ideal of a secular Islamic nation that offers justice and modest prosperity.
Television host Ali Saleem often refers to Pakistan’s politicians as “gangsters” on his talk show. His provocative interviews are immensely popular. Saleem breaks taboos. He wears women’s clothing, drinks and hosts lavish pool parties at Karachi’s exclusive golf club. Prohibition is “a joke,” he says, and alcohol is never more than “a call to my dealer” away.
Saleem embodies the other Karachi. The 31-year-old wears jeans, a striped shirt and flip-flops when he isn’t on television. Dressed like this, he could just as easily be sitting in a sidewalk café in California. He is on his way to his next beach barbecue, he says.
He loves this “crazy mix in Pakistan,” says the entertainer. “This country isn’t really conservative. You can find everything that exists in London and New York,” he explains. Life in Karachi, according to Saleem, doesn’t “revolve around religion at all,” but, as it does almost anyplace else in the world, “around power and money.” The only problem, he adds, is that things have been going steadily downhill for the last 30 years, “almost exactly as long as I’ve been alive.”
The End of Hope
For many Pakistanis, the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto marked the end of hope. Although the popular political leader was seen as being as corrupt as any other politician, she was also liberal, and she had her home in Karachi. Her return in October 2007 was like a promise, after the years of military rule under General Pervez Musharraf and the war being waged in neighboring Afghanistan, which has also seriously affected Pakistan.
Bhutto’s murderers haven’t been convicted to this day, “because murderers in Pakistan almost always get away with it,” says Saleem.
How much longer can the country — can this city — go on like this?
The politician and journalist Sherry Rehman was standing next to Bhutto when the former prime minister was killed by a suicide bomber. There are still bloodstains on the back seat of her car today. It was Rehman who rushed her friend to the hospital after the assassination.
Accustomed to Murder
Rehman, 49, an attractive cosmopolitan woman with long hair, is sitting in her colonial-style villa in Karachi’s upmarket Clifton neighborhood. Her elegant pants suit matches the colors of the turquoise-and-brown sofa and the wallpaper.
Rehman, who is Bhutto’s former press secretary, still constantly travels to international conferences today, where solving the never-ending crisis in Pakistan is a recurring topic. She has even become “accustomed” to the series of murders of politicians in Karachi, she says resignedly.
Few people still believe that this city will eventually recover or that it will be possible to contain extremism. It is difficult to catch anyone in this huge labyrinth, says Omar Shahid, the police officer.
“But today I might catch another one,” he says. “Even if two new ones appear tomorrow.”
Alauddin Khanzada and Sohail Nasir contributed to this story.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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