KARACHI, Pakistan — The P226, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol made by the weapons manufacturer SIG Sauer, is a favorite of law enforcement agencies and militaries worldwide, from the FBI and Navy SEALs to NATO troops in Afghanistan and police departments across the United States.
But the shipment of 232 pistols that arrived in the Pakistani city of Quetta in January was intended for a different recipient: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an al Qaida affiliate that's accused of targeting Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The group used some of the pistols in deadly attacks and distributed others to favored militants — sort of a jihadi version of a corporate bonus — according to militants and criminals in Quetta.
Even more troublesome to U.S. officials, however, is the purported source. A Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant who received two of the pistols, and who gave his name only as Raees, told McClatchy that smugglers had purchased the shipment from a gang of corrupt Afghan National Army soldiers, who'd pilfered them from a NATO armory in Afghanistan.
The prospect that al Qaida affiliates are using the same weapons as the SEAL team that killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last May illustrates the ease with which Pakistani criminal and militant gangs draw on a network of gunrunners that operates from neighboring Afghanistan and Iran to procure a wide range of Western, Russian and Chinese weapons.
In Washington, a senior U.S. defense official said that while he couldn't confirm the report, it was troublesome to consider that the U.S.-led NATO coalition's weapons were making their way into al Qaida hands.
"But it's more worrying that they continue to get resourced at a level that would allow them to make purchases like that," said the official, who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.
The weapons pipeline is fraught with shadowy deal-making and persistent danger — McClatchy correspondents were detained twice while reporting this story — but it's served the militants well. Pakistani human rights organizations calculated that 89 people were killed last year alone in sectarian attacks in the western province of Baluchistan, including 63 in the provincial capital of Quetta. In the deadliest attack, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants hijacked a bus that was carrying Shiite pilgrims to neighboring Iran in September, executing 26 of them.
The weapons have contributed to a worsening crisis in remote Baluchistan, where a variety of armed groups hold sway. The sparsely populated terrain of scrubland and hills, ruled mostly by tribal chiefs with little interference from the government, has allowed nationalist insurgents to wage an eight-year rebellion against vastly superior Pakistani security forces — and makes it ideal for smuggling.
Brand-new weapons such as the SIG Sauer pistols are somewhat of a rarity because of their comparatively high cost — due, in part, to the 50 percent slump in the value of the Pakistani rupee to the dollar over the last four years — said two middlemen based in Baluchistan. Instead, there's a roaring trade in used handguns and automatic rifles, which are trafficked into Afghanistan for distribution to Iran and Pakistan.
The most popular items include Chinese, Russian and European pistols and Russian and Chinese-made assault rifles, said the middlemen, who work in the Lasbela district of Baluchistan, west of the bustling port city of Karachi, and who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to protect their business. Trade also flourishes in Iranian-made assault rifles, they added.
Two P226s — still in their original packaging — were given to Raees, a militant from the Kurram tribal area of northwest Pakistan who's based in the gang-ruled Karachi suburb of Lyari. He contacted a McClatchy correspondent in late January, offering to sell one of the guns for 300,000 rupees — about $3,300 — three times the listed U.S. retail price.
He said the pistols had been procured in Afghanistan by a smuggler named Raziq Khan, who specializes in trafficking weapons along a well-traveled smuggling route from Spin Boldak, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, through the neighboring Pakistani border town of Chaman.
Once across the Pakistan border, weapons commonly are offloaded from vehicles near the hills that separate Chaman from Quetta, and smuggled into the city on mules and donkeys.
Quetta is a dusty expanse of a city, like many others in Pakistan, and it's a natural smuggling hub because of its proximity to the Afghan and Iranian borders. The ethnic Pashtun traders who dominate the city's wholesale bazaars specialize in smuggled goods and are focused on quick turnaround — stockpiling not being a realistic option.
Negotiations are thus fast and furious, and usually concluded within a couple of minutes.
The absence of security checkpoints in much of Baluchistan has facilitated the development of several major smuggling routes, the middlemen said, the biggest of which brings weapons from Quetta to Karachi along a highway known as the RCD.
Other routes funnel weapons from the southern Afghan province of Helmand through Iran and into Pakistan. Another snakes from Iran into Pakistan's Panjgur district to the town of Wudd, where it joins the RCD Highway. Yet another uses small wooden ships known as dhows that sail from Iran to the Pakistani coastal town of Jiwani.
Smugglers bypass military and police checkpoints on the RCD and coastal highways by using donkeys to carry the weapons — along with hashish and opium — through adjacent hills and canyons, the middlemen said.
They said caches of weapons changed hands frequently, where the territory of one gang met the next. Each middleman adds a hefty premium — often 100 percent — to the price. The crunch point is the town of Hub, where the two highways converge some 30 miles from Karachi, and the last of the exchanges takes place.
The smugglers have a captive market in Karachi, which is frequently wracked by terrorist attacks as well as violence generated by militias and gangs affiliated with competing political parties. About 300 people have been killed here in such attacks already this year.
With introductions from a Karachi gang lord, McClatchy was invited to meet a weapons dealer in Hub on the pretext of making an illegal purchase. The staff took a correspondent into a back storeroom. From another room above, concealed by a false ceiling, they showed a range of weapons that included a new Russian 9 mm pistol, a Chinese-made AK-56 assault rifle and an Iranian-made G-3 rifle.
They permitted photographs to record what was for sale, but held the correspondent captive for 22 hours in the concealed room after he took a picture of the shop's staff putting the weapons back. He was released unharmed upon the arrival of the shop's proprietor, a local politician who asked that his identity and the shop's location not be reported.
The correspondent was subsequently driven back to Karachi in the politician's car accompanied by a police officer.
The involvement of local officials and police in the weapons trade is an open secret in Karachi. The last link in the supply chain is the village of Yusaf Goth, on Karachi's southwest periphery, from which weapons are smuggled into the city by vehicle with the connivance of corrupt police officials.
During periodic government crackdowns, the smugglers revert to donkey tracks through the hills that spill into shantytowns. One day last month, a McClatchy correspondent found a set of tracks, along with a smuggler perched on a sandstone ledge above the Faqir Colony shantytown. The smuggler — a well-groomed man in his 20s whose clothing, a beige shalwar kameez, camouflaged him perfectly against the sandstone — ordered the correspondent to "put the camera down and your hands up."
Four armed companions soon joined him. They phoned their boss, Tahir, a former Pakistani militant who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s. He arrived two hours later and said that some photography of their paths and hideouts would be permitted the following morning under the watchful eye of the smuggler on the ledge.
"But not now," Tahir said. "We're working here today."
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Matthew Schofield in Washington and special correspondent Amjad Hadayat in Hub, Pakistan, contributed to this article.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2012