Sprawling Karachi becomes an Islamic extremist melting pot

McClatchy NewspapersJune 9, 2010 

WORLD NEWS PAKISTAN 3 MCT

Benares, a poor neighborhood of Karachi, is one of the areas which Taliban, and other extremists, use to lie low.

SAEED SHAH — Saeed Shah / MCT

KARACHI, Pakistan — The jihadist recruiter, seated in an office attached to a lavish mosque in an affluent residential area of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, said volunteers who came to join the fight in Afghanistan these days were modern, educated Pakistanis.

"You guys look for beards, but the ones who come to me are clean-shaven," the Islamic cleric told McClatchy, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the al Qaida-linked militant splinter group to which he belongs is banned in Pakistan and listed as a "foreign terrorist organization" by the United States.

"It is no longer mullahs, it is misters now," he said as he detailed the wealth of some of his followers, including a doctor, who sat nearby.

Those who drove up to the mosque, which bore no outward sign of its extremist links, were in luxury cars.

In Karachi's crowded neighborhoods, jihadist enrollment and extremist fundraising continue despite the successes of a city police force and intelligence network that's arrested hundreds of suspects in recent years. Taliban and other militants also use the city to lie low or receive medical attention, officials said.

Karachi is Pakistan's only cosmopolitan city and its richest, with a range of quarters from mansions in elite neighborhoods to dangerous ghettos. Now it's turned into a melting pot for the extremist underground.

Unlike other major urban centers, Karachi has suffered few terrorist attacks since the outbreak of an Islamist rebellion in Pakistan two years ago. Extremists apparently don't want to disturb their haven. The port city of some 16 million is so big that it's easy for people to disappear into its sprawling slums or a jungle of cheap apartment blocks.

"This is the only city in Pakistan where anyone can come and live. It is the safest place to hide. Outsiders don't get noticed here," said Ahmed Chinoy, the head of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee, an official organization for Karachi residents that works along the city's police. "If (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar was here, polishing shoes on a street corner, no one would notice him."

Mullah Mohammed Omar might be holed up in Karachi. The leaders of the Afghan Taliban are among those who lie low in the city. In February, the Afghan Taliban's deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured in the city.

In Karachi, militant groups of different stripes mix and evolve into dangerous new hybrids, police said. Al Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban have created a nexus with long-established sectarian groups in the city, further radicalizing them. The extremists also have melded with the city's criminal networks, producing a fusion of criminality and jihad, which feed off and protect each other.

"These (extremist) groups are coalescing with each other. They're not clinging to their own identities," said senior police official Saud Ahmed Mirza, who's in charge of Karachi's Criminal Investigation Department, which specializes in counter-terrorism. "Now they are a broad coalition of like-minded forces, mixing and sharing their resources. It's a great strategy for them."

For the extremists, bank robbery and kidnapping for ransom have become reliable sources of revenue, according to police, with several cases traced to jihadist groups.

It's this militant underworld in Karachi that U.S. terrorism suspect Faisal Shahzad is suspected of tapping, with a wave of arrests in the city after his capture May 3. Shahzad, an American of Pakistani origin, is alleged to have tried to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square on May 1. He'd returned from a five-month trip to Pakistan earlier this year, including a visit to friends in Karachi who belonged to Jaish-e-Mohammad, a proscribed extremist group.

According to police, jihadist groups in Karachi operate in small cells that are difficult to penetrate. Sometimes these cells consist of a single ethnic group or extremist organization, but often they house assorted militants. The city also contains a huge number of madrassas — Islamic seminaries — which provide ideological indoctrination.

Karachi is a tense mix of ethnic groups, including the largest concentration of Pashtuns — who make up most of the Taliban and populate both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border — anywhere in the world, some 4 million.

A major source of revenue for gangs here is extorting money from Pashtuns who live in Karachi, whose family members in the tribal area or adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are vulnerable. The transport business, including the movement of NATO supplies from Karachi across Pakistan and into Afghanistan, is dominated by Pashtuns — another target for extortion, police say.

A jihadist group specific to Karachi is Jundullah, which raises money for al Qaida, said a security official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the news media. Run by al Qaida commander Hamza Jofi, an Arab who's thought to be based in Pakistan's tribal area, Jundullah mutated from a moneymaking venture into one of the most violent groups in Karachi. It isn't related to a radical outfit of the same name that's fighting the Iranian government.

Along with Jundullah, the main extremist groups active in Karachi are two militant sectarian outfits, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and the Pakistani Taliban. According to one reported police study, 246 significant terrorist suspects have been arrested in Karachi since 2001, including 94 from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, 12 from Sipah-e-Sahaba, 40 from a jihadist splinter outfit called Harkatul Mujahideen al Alami and 36 from the Pakistani Taliban.

"There's no divide (between groups). That's just to confuse," the security official said. "They're all the same."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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