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Pakistan's Beirut
Karachi: A Terror Capital in the Making by Wilson John

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

Just as Lebanon's capital Beirut was under the thumb of an unbridled reign of crime, terrorism, sectarian and religious fundamentalism in the 1980s, Pakistan's port city of Karachi has hit headlines for all the wrong reasons during the decade of the 1990s. Going by the sobriquet of "The Untouchable City", Karachi has regressed from bad to worse to worst in terms of law and order, social harmony and dangerous externalities.

Journalist Wilson John's pithy new book probes the reasons why and the processes how Karachi turned into a potpourri of fanaticism and mayhem. Rife with heroin, hired killers, extortionists and jihadi groups, Karachi "reflects the times and tribulations of a nation that is increasingly becoming hostage to forces of terror". (p 2) John's sole objective in collecting diverse facts about Karachi's descent into chaos and joining them with the analytical thread is "to focus world attention on a very real threat that lurks in the shadows of this metropolis". (p 3)

Wounds of history
In 1947, the British designated Karachi as the capital of Pakistan. Mass movement of refugees during partition shifted the demographic profile of the city. Urdu-speaking Mohajirs from India's United Provinces and Bihar and Punjabis pushed out the original Sindhi inhabitants. The schism between Punjabi and other minority communities deepened when the national capital was shifted from Karachi to Islamabad in 1961.

The new rulers of Pakistan "abandoned Karachi ... the political establishment, military, intelligence and the bureaucracy were willing to look the other way" (p 7) as the city became infested with drug traffickers and gunrunners, with relentless bloodletting.

The 1971 India-Pakistan war brought new refugees to Karachi, Bengali-speaking Muslims who were predominantly Sunni. The Afghanistan jihad of the 1980s witnessed another mass in-migration of a million Pashtun refugees into the city. By then, Karachi drug barons decided who would be the next governor or prime minister, Sunni and Shi'ite extremists were killing in the name of Islam, and the city was set up by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the main operational center and recruitment office for the mujahideen. Karachi's troubled past proved advantageous to the merchants of intolerance and hatred.

Ethnic friction
Pakistan's Punjabi-dominated military assiduously promoted the Mohajirs to counter rising ethno-nationalism among Sindhis. In 1972, a Mohajir taxi driver in the United States, Altaf Hussain, was persuaded by the army to return to Pakistan and float the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). Keen on dividing Sindh on ethnic lines, General Zia ul-Haq allowed the MQM to form a network of professional militant bands with a hand in the drug trade of Karachi. In 1988, the city was rocked by unprecedented violence orchestrated by the army using the MQM in order to oust Benazir Bhutto from power.

By 1992, the army wanted to contain the growing power of Altaf Hussain and engineered a split in the MQM, thereby inaugurating a bloody turf war in Karachi. Gradually, the MQM's militant wing, the Black Cats, composed of 5,000-6,000 hitmen and notorious criminals, rose in stature. Carjacking, land grabbing, illegal construction etc earned them a massive annual revenue and the selfsame techniques of violence were copied by sectarian outfits to kill Shi'ites. The MQM's extortion coffers overflowed and abetted the party's remarkable gains in successive elections.

Afghans in the city, identified as a separate ethnic group, acted as conduits for the ISI's arms markets. Concentrated in the Gulzar-i-Hjiri area of Karachi, they supplied weapons and explosives to Sikh, Tamil and Kashmiri insurgents. It is in their neighborhood that US journalist Daniel Pearl's mutilated body was found.

Sectarian cleft
Shi'ite-Sunni slayings intensified after General Zia's 1979 imposition of Islamic penal code, Shariat, and Islamic taxation. In response to the formation of the Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafria by Shi'ites, the army and the ISI helped launch Anjuman-i-Sipah-i-Sahiba (SSP) under Sunni extremists. Pakistani governments successively showed munificence to Sunni madrassas (religious schools), recruiting grounds for SSP and its sister organization, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LIJ). In 1997, there were 165 Sunni madrassas with 2,000 students each in Karachi. The "jihadi outlook", redolent with sectarian and religious venom, was tutored in these institutions. SSP cadres were also trained as mujahideen in training camps in Afghanistan, particularly to strengthen the terrorist group Harkat-ul-Ansar.

The protection and favoritism given by the state to the sectarian outfits intensified Karachi's reputation as a haven for international terrorists. The March 1995 shooting of two US diplomats witnessed apathy and complicity of the Karachi police. Murtaza Bhutto's assassination in September 1996 was revealed by judicial enquiry to have been cleared by "a higher authority". Akram Lahori, one of the founders of the LIJ and an associate of Yemeni elements of al-Qaeda, was involved in the manslaughter of 40 persons, but let slip away by benefactors in the police and army. "Bearded generals" have often winked at massacres of Shi'ites, enabling the sectarian mafia to rule Karachi informally.

Criminal den
Crime syndicates took over Karachi after the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement allowing duty-free imports of goods through Karachi. A lucrative smuggling racket called the "Quetta-Chaman Transport Mafia" controlled the nerves of contraband trade. By 1991, tonnes of heroin was passing through Karachi to various international destinations. The illicit drug industry's annual turnover in Pakistan reached US$10 billion, one-fourth of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Drug lords spread their influence in Karachi under the umbrella of state patronage. The Memon family syndicate and Dawood Ibrahim syndicates are uncrowned kings of Karachi, thanks to their connections and linkages with political and army higher-ups. When the Indian government demanded the extradition of Dawood and the Memon brothers for the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts, the former was temporarily sent to East Asia by Islamabad. Dawood even revived Pakistan's central bank with a huge dollar loan and dictated the cricket match-fixing stakes. MQM-Haqiqi and SSP members have joined Dawood's syndicate lately, engendering gang wars on the streets of Karachi from August 2001.

The ISI instigates gang wars for its own objectives and uses crime syndicates to act as hawala (money laundering) channels for terrorist organizations operating in India, such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and the Jammu Kashmir Islamic Front.

Terrorist lair
In 1986, Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked by the Abu Nidal terrorist group and landed in Karachi. When asked why Karachi was chosen as the venue, one of the hijackers replied: "It's so easy here." (p 37) With fundamentalists as perfect allies and covers and a warren of ghettos and "no go" areas offering anonymity, Karachi's labyrinths are terrorists' favorite hiding spots. Ramzi Yousef, the first well-known international terrorist, took full advantage of Karachi's infrastructure and set up an import-export firm first. Then he started a school for "terrorists in transit", boasting students such as Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid. With his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's help, Ramzi planned the 1993 World Trade Center blast and flew back to Karachi with Pakistan Airlines.

Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the Jaish-i-Muhammad (JIM), studied at the Binori mosque complex in Karachi and went on to don the mantle of ideologue of jihad against India, aiming to recruit a million holy warriors for Kashmir. Azhar's aims were complemented by the decision of an Islamist international meeting in Khartoum to nurture Karachi as a "center for terrorist operations in Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Albania-Kosovo". (p 42) The Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami, led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar, another adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, like Azhar, acted as the hub for holy war stretching from Grozny to Manila.

In December 1999, Muhammad Atta and Ziad Jarrah flew to Karachi on their way to Afghanistan for preparing the attacks that took place in the United States on September 11, 2001. Sheikh Omar Syed, another Karachi resident, part-financed the attacks by wiring $100,000 to Atta via the ISI network. Syed and Ramzi Binalshibh, aided by agent handler Abu Zubaidah, ran al-Qaeda's top-secret Karachi cell before and after September 11. To camouflage the presence of al-Qaeda and Taliban cadres in the city, the cell coopted Harkat-ul-Ansar, JIM and LIJ activists as foot soldiers. On October 1, 2001, the cell executed a deadly attack on the Jammu Kashmir assembly in India. The December 13, 2001, attack on India's parliament can be traced back through telephone records to the same Karachi contacts.

The ISI was alarmed at Daniel Pearl having an inkling of the major al-Qaeda regrouping in Karachi and sent its "man for all missions", Sheikh Omar Syed, to lure him into a ghastly murder. In May 2002, the Karachi cell activated a devastating blast killing French technicians outside the Sheraton Hotel, followed by the US Consulate bombing in June. The author feels that the Federal Bureau of Investigation's newly discovered Harkat-ul-jihad-al-Aalami is nothing but the al-Qaeda Karachi cell.

City of omens
Despite recent raids, holdups and arrests, John concludes that the revival of the al-Qaeda cell is inevitable as Karachi's support base is unshaken. "Dawood Ibrahim and his associates remain unaffected by the war on terrorism and will provide the new cell with logistics." (p 73) His syndicate has reportedly shipped Osama bin Laden's sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri to safety in Chittagong. Airport alertness having been pepped up, terrorists will rely more and more on the sea route, again roping in Karachi as the epicenter of the next wave of terrorist strikes. Al-Qaeda is said to have purchased a fleet of freighters and tested them out in the October 2002 French oil-tanker explosion off the coast of Yemen.

Karachi's image as a launch pad for terrorism endures. The city is a warehouse of forged travel documents and credit cards. Several fake passports were mailed from Karachi to terrorists who carried out the 1998 East African US embassy bombings. According to intelligence inputs, several hundred al-Qaeda terrorists are hiding in quarters of Karachi such as the Defense Housing Society and Korangi. They are, in the words of the United Nations Monitoring Committee on al-Qaeda, "poised to strike again, how, when and where they choose".     

This book is highly recommended for terrorism-studies junkies and governments pursuing misdirected "wars on terrorism". Its most valuable contribution is to highlight the guilt of the Pakistani establishment in converting Karachi, once the magnificent City of Lights, into another Beirut.

Karachi: A Terror Capital in the Making by Wilson John. Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2003. ISBN: 81-291-0220-4, price US$4, 114 pages.

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Jan 17, 2004


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