ISLAMABAD — A spate of Pakistani Taliban bomb attacks on candidates campaigning for Pakistan’s May 11 general election in the coastal city of Karachi has signaled what people close to al Qaida say is a strategic shift by the country’s militant insurgency from areas bordering Afghanistan to major urban centers.
Karachi, a chaotic mega-city of 18 million people, is the militants’ prime target, these people say.
"The migration of TTP fighters to Karachi has been ongoing, in fits and starts, for several years, but over the last 11 months, the trickle has turned into a steady flow of men, weapons and explosives," an al Qaida operative code-named Okasha said, referring to the Pakistani Taliban by the initials of their formal name, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
“Their plan is to establish a headquarters in Karachi, and spread their network to adjacent cities from there," said the operative, who’s based in Karachi and declined to divulge his real name.
The attacks in Karachi over three consecutive days last week, Thursday through Saturday, targeted candidates of two secular political parties: the United National Movement and the Awami National Party. The bombings killed 26 and wounded dozens, though the targeted election candidates survived.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were launched by remotely triggered car bombs parked near the offices of the two parties.
Calling democracy an "un-Islamic system which only serves the interests of infidels," the Pakistani Taliban had announced a week ago that they intended to disrupt the general election and would target parties that had been coalition partners in the outgoing administration, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party of President Asif Ali Zardari. The coalition included the United National Movement and the Awami National Party.
Since then, the Pakistani Taliban have carried out more than 20 attacks, killing 46 people and wounding 190.
The coalition led by the Pakistan Peoples Party was the first democratic government in Pakistan’s history to complete its five-year term in office, and the May 11 election would mark the first time that two consecutive votes have been held without being pre-empted by a military takeover. Four juntas have ruled Pakistan for half its 65-year history.
Terrorist attacks during the campaign were widely anticipated in the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which is adjacent to the Pakistani Taliban’s stomping grounds in the country’s tribal areas. But it was a surprise that the most lethal attacks were in Karachi.
Politicians and human rights activists warned that violence in an urban center such as Karachi could have a major impact on the election. "Unless the government . . . ensures that all parties can campaign freely and without fear, the election may be severely compromised," said Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch.
The persons with links to al Qaida were familiar with Pakistani Taliban plans because the two groups have close ties. They said the Pakistani Taliban relocation to Karachi wasn’t timed just to disrupt the elections, but was part of a wider plan to plug into the city’s political violence, which claims several hundred lives every year.
Historically, the violence has pitted the United National Movement, which represents most of the city’s majority Urdu-speaking population of mohajir, or migrants from India, against ethnic Pashtun and Baluch, Karachi’s two other major ethnic communities. Pashtun typically vote for the Awami National Party and Baluch for the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Since 2008, the violence in Karachi has taken the form of killings carried out by a mix of political party militias and criminal gangs, mostly aimed at securing territory for extortion, armed robbery and kidnapping for ransom.
The Pakistani Taliban, working with criminal gangs, have joined the fray in recent months, making virtual no-go areas of the largely Pashtun townships along the western periphery of Karachi. They’ve terrorized members of the Awami National Party into leaving the areas where they’d won in the last election, in 2008.
They’ve worked similarly with ethnic Baluch-led gangs in the southern area of Lyari, adjacent to Karachi’s port and central business district. Although politically associated with Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, and usually at war with militias associated with the United National Movement, the gangs also have provided havens to Taliban militants on the run, in return for securing smuggled weapons and ammunition from Afghanistan.
Gang members in the area told McClatchy that the Pakistani Taliban, since the second half of last year, have extended their relationship with the Lyari gang leadership to military training, including marksmanship, tactics and instruction in the use of armor-piercing ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades.
"That is how the TTP will operate: It will use criminal resources to carry out its agenda. The exercise is quite advanced in Karachi, and you’ll see it develop in other cities across Pakistan in the next few years," said Okasha, the al Qaida operative.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report from Karachi.