An Epidemic of Extortion
By Ambreen Agha
Pakistan's business community has been plagued by an acute menace of extortion backed by terrorist groups, in Sindh, Punjab and, more recently, the tribal areas, though the scale differs in each Province. The worst hit is Karachi, the capital of Sindh and the financial capital of the country, followed by Punjab. The extortion networks have penetrated deep into the system with multiple overlaps of various terrorist, criminal and political organisations, and little hope for relief to the beleaguered target communities.
On October 23, 2012, the Sindh Government, Police and Rangers appeared in the Supreme Court to account for their annual performance with respect to violence in Karachi in the summers of 2011. During the hearing of the case, Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, who headed the five-member bench in Karachi, observed that the menace of extortion had increased to such an extent that areas have been divided between groups. Further, "no-go" areas had been established on a political basis-a political worker of one party could not go into another's 'territory'. Justice Jamali noted, further, that increasing numbers of strikes and extortion incidents were occurring, in which traders were being targeted, and that no trader or industrialist was safe. There was hardly anyone outside the extortion net.
The court order states,
"[We] Observe that violence in Karachi during the current year and in the past is not ethnic alone but it is also a turf war between different groups having economic, socio-political interest to strengthen their position/aggrandizement, based on the phenomenon of tit for tat with political, moral and financial support or endorsement of the political parties who are claiming their representation on behalf of the public of Karachi... there are criminals who have succeeded in making their ways in political parties notwithstanding whether they are components or non-components of Government, and are getting political and financial support allegedly from such parties...
...recent violence in Karachi represents unimaginable brutalities, bloodshed, kidnapping and throwing away dead bodies... receiving bhatta (extortion money) to strengthen the ranks of one group against the other; grabbing land; drug mafia, etc., destroying moveable and immovable properties of the citizens..."
The Supreme Court's observations confirm that the Provincial Government has failed to protect the lives and properties of the citizens, and that the Federal Government has also failed to protect Sindh against internal disturbances.
The trend of extortion suggests that the business and professional community lives in perpetual fear, anxiety and terror in the city, which is the jugular vein for Pakistan's business community. Daily Times, citing the official statistics exclusively available to them reported, on June 25, 2012, that at least 172 complaints of extortion were reported in first six months of 2012. Only a fraction of cases are reported, while unquestioning compliance is the general rule.
Shopkeepers in urban industrial areas have been particularly vulnerable targets, either succumbing to the threats to 'pay up or die'. Ahmad Chinoy, the Chief of the Citizen-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), which looks into extortion cases in the city and also engages in negotiations in kidnapping-for-ransom cases on behalf of the victims' families, discloses that he gets 7 or 8 calls every day from affluent businessmen, complaining of extortion demands. According to CPLC there have been more than 360 FIRs registered at Police Stations across the city in case of extortion. Chinoy notes, "Majority of the people do not report it and many are actually willingly paying extortion in different business and industrial areas of Karachi because they know they have no other choice."
The worst reported extortion-linked massacre occurred on October 19, 2010, in Karachi's Sher Shah Scrap market, claiming 13 lives. The attack was the result of failed 'negotiations' between an extortion group and the Sher Shah Market Association. The incident brought the city's extortion rackets under a spotlight.
Meanwhile, the Karachi Police set up an Anti-Extortionist Cell, headed by Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Wasif Qureshi, on March 5, 2012. The Cell has, however, proved redundant, as violence and extortion continue unabated. Some recent incidents of extortion related violence illustrate the enormity of the problem:
October 28: Shahid Hussian, the owner of a hotel, was killed in Mehran Colony after receiving death threats from a group of extortionists who had extorted from him five months earlier. Hussain refused to comply with their second demand and was shot dead.
October 26: An owner of an electronics shop, identified as Rasool Khan (35), was shot dead in an extortion incident within the Iqbal Market Police limits, at Chisti Nagar's Qureshi Market.
A tailor, identified as Altaf Baig, was shot dead in the Zaman Town Police remit in Korangi, in an extortion-linked incident.
October 1: Ashraf Khan (47), was killed, and Sher Khan (43), was injured in an extortion-linked clash between two political parties near Rabia City Apartments in Gulistan-e-Jauhar within the vicinity of Shahrah-e-Faisal.
September 15: The owner of a general store, Mohammad Ahmed Siddiqui, was shot dead and his brother Shams injured while they were returning home near Alliance Arcade in Block-15 of Gulistan-e-Jauhar. Police investigators revealed that Ahmed had received death threats from a group of extortionists.
August 25: A man, identified as Farooq, was shot dead over his refusal to pay extortion in Gulistan-e-Jauhar within the jurisdiction Shahrah-e-Faisal Police Station.
August 12: Three passersby were injured when a hand grenade was hurdled at Ali Hardware Shop situated at UP Morr, North Karachi, over refusal to pay extortion, in the jurisdiction of the Sir Syed Police Station.
July 24: In another extortion related incident unidentified assailants hurled a hand grenade at Haji Zahoor Hotel situated in Faqeer Colony, in Karachi, injuring five.
July 22: Four people were killed and several others, including a Station House Officer (SHO), were injured by a criminal group in Sohrab Goth. Some members of the Jannat Gul group of Lyari, arrived at the meat market located behind Al-Asif Square in Sohrab Goth and tried to extort money from shopkeepers there. The shopkeepers refused and tried to overpower the extortionists, but the latter managed to escape. They later returned to the market carrying weapons including Kalashnikovs and opened fire on the shopkeepers, killing four of them.
July 21: Three people, identified as Mirza Jan, Shah Faisal and Ghulam Rasool, were killed in an extortion related incident of firing at Al-Asif square in the Sohrab Goth area.
July 18: four people were injured in a hand grenade attack while they were protesting against extortion in the FB Area.
July 8: Unidentified armed extortionists targeted the house of a trader, Abdul Qadir, within the remits of Darakhshan Police Station.
June 6: A trader, identified as Abdul Hameed (45), was shot dead, while Head Constable Aslam Ameer was injured in an extortion-related attack in the Latif Cloth Market within the Kharadar Police Station limits.
June 1: A man, identified as Ali Muhammad (60), was killed outside a bakery in Khokhrapar. Investigators said the victim had been receiving threats from extortionists.
The All Pakistan Organization of Small Traders and Cottage Industries (APOSTCI), on August 5, 2012, declared that the recent trend of grenade attacks on shops and markets that refused to comply with extortion demands had terrorised local traders and businessmen, totally destroying the prospects of further investment in Karachi. Noting the involvement of 'power holders', the APOSTCI President observed that, in the past, extortionists backed by the ruling parties used to send bullets wrapped in bhatta parchi (extortion demand chits) to Karachi traders; now emboldened by covert backing from corridors of power, these mafias hurl grenades on shops and markets that refuse or delay bhatta payments.
On October 21, 2012, the All Karachi Traders Association launched a protest movement against the extortion mafia and Government inaction. Association leader Siraj Kassem Teli noted that extortion demands amounted to as much as PKR 1 billion. He further announced a complete shutter down strike in November 2012, if the business community was not provided adequate security.
The affected community in Karachi has little faith in Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs). There is a general feeling that LEAs have succumbed to pressure from different political groups, and fail to deal effectively with the extortion mafias. Expressing this sentiment, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain, on October 29, 2012, asked the Rangers, the Police and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials to find out the elements within their ranks, who were harbouring criminals involved in these heinous offences.
Limited Police action over the past two years has also exposed the role of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terrorist outfits in the extortion. On April 8, 2011, the Sindh Police Crime Investigation Department (CID) arrested two suspected terrorists, identified as Shahid alias Goli and Mohammad Sharif alias Malang belonging to TTP's Qari Shakeel Group, from the Sohrab Goth area. Interrogations revealed that they had been tasked to collect extortion money specifically from the transport business in Karachi. They had joined the TTP in 2008 under the leadership of Wali Khalid alias Umer Khalid after their Afghan mission, and were given the responsibility of generating funds for the outfit in Karachi.
TTP's involvement in extortion is not limited to Karachi alone, but extends deep into the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as Punjab. Though the tribal areas remain relatively less affected, they are not entirely out of the extortion loop, and serve as the "reserve coffers" for the TTP and Haqqani Network. Among the significant extortion related incidents in the tribal areas was the October 12, 2012, attack at a doctor's clinic near Race Course on Peshawar Road, where an explosive device was thrown, though no casualties were reported. A note found at the site claimed the blast was the work of TTP and he received a call demanding a huge (unspecified) sum of money.
The Haqqani Network, an Afghan militant outfit based in North Waziristan Agency of FATA and the most implacable foe of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, has also built a vast empire out of extortion, abduction and smuggling. A September 11, 2102, report titled, How to Launch a Sustained Attack on the Haqqanis' Financial Infrastructure, submitted to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Trade noted,
A conventional analysis would suggest the Haqqanis engage in organized crime in order to fund their war effort... The Haqqanis' capacity to raise funds from ideological supporters requires ongoing struggle, and their capacity to profit off key business activities, in particular extortion, kidnapping and smuggling, depends on a sustained state of insecurity and limited state influence. This suggests that Network leaders have a financial disincentive to ending the conflict through reconciliation, and that a campaign to reconcile with this criminalized network would be futile.
Punjab also exists within the reality of bhatta wasuli (extortion). According to Interior Ministry sources, TTP has generated funds to the tune of PKR 3 billion since 2008 till August 2012 through extortion, donations and kidnappings from three big cities including Karachi (in Sindh), and Islamabad and Rawalpindi in Punjab. On September 6, 2012, the Islamabad Police arrested alleged TTP operatives who used to arrange funds for their organisation through extortion and abductions. Interrogations revealed that the money raised through extortion and kidnappings was sent to training camps in tribal areas, where the militants also planned terrorist attacks.
Both native residents and migrants from tribal areas have been victimised. Among the first category, a businessman from Rawalpindi, identified as Naveed Sharif, received a threatening call from a TTP 'commander' identified as Lodhi, who demanded PKR 20 million, with the threat of abducting him and his family if the demand was not met. Police have registered a case and started investigations.
In another incident, Muhammad Saeed, the owner of Shah Flour Mills located at Wah Cantonment, received a call from unidentified extortionists demanding a large sum of money. Unable to comply, Saeed's mill was attacked with a hand grenade on October 6, 2012, injuring an employee. Complaining about Police laxity, Saeed said that no security had been provided by the Police, even after the mill was targeted. He also disclosed that his nephew, Abdul Qayyum Sethi, who also owns a flour mill, had received threat calls from extortionists.
On October 3, 2012, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) informed the Punjab Government that some families who left militancy-hit FATA and took up residence in the Rawalpindi District of Punjab, had received extortion threats, allegedly from the TTP. Officials divulged that the threats are delivered to affluent individuals over the telephone or through 'chits', demanding large sums of money or 'valuable articles', or other 'assistance' - under threat of kidnapping or other harm. According to CTD officials, the money raised by the terrorists through such crimes goes to finance their terrorist apparatus, as Governments at home and abroad put increasing checks on the flow of funds to banned outfits through charity and other sources. The Officials have also recognised at least eight wealthy families residing in Naseerabad, Chah Sultan and Chowki Hameeda localities of the garrison city, who had paid extortion money to terrorist formations. Under threat from extortionists, most victims steer clear of Police involvement, fearing collusion.
Pakistan is, today, awash with Islamist extremist militancy and organised crime groups backed by the state and political establishment, creating a regime of heightened lawlessness and anarchy. The dawn of 'democracy' in Pakistan has coincided with a further decline of political and administrative institutions, an escalation of conflict, and a further destabilisation of the economy. As the authority of the State disintegrates, the blood bath in Pakistan continues, with an abject failure on the part of both the Federal and Provincial Governments to respond adequately to a challenge that increasingly threatens the very integrity and existence of the state.
Ambreen Agha is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
Source: South Asia Intelligence Review