In Violent Karachi, Insurgency Finds a Haven and a Forge
By JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH
KARACHI, Pakistan — In this violent city of 18 million people, where the country’s wealthiest live just miles from thousands of extremist religious schools and their Taliban supporters, lies the urban front line of Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic militancy.
A thousand miles to the north, the Pakistani Army is fighting the Taliban in barren tribal lands, and the Central Intelligence Agency has unleashed an air war with drones.
But the infrastructure that propels the insurgency — recruits, money, hiding places, and ideological underpinning — is embedded across this grubby city on the Arabian Sea, according to politicians and militants alike.
It remains unclear whether Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who is accused of planting a car bomb in Times Square, set out from Karachi for his journey to the tribal area of North Waziristan, where, according to American officials, he got training from the Pakistani Taliban.
But he lived in a middle-class area of Karachi in the 1990s, and it would have been easy enough for him to find conduits to the Pakistani Taliban among this city’s more than 3,500 religious schools, or even to go to the Pakistani Taliban here directly, according to people familiar with his circumstances.
The Pakistani authorities have arrested two men in Karachi who they say were linked to Mr. Shahzad and are now questioning them in Islamabad, Pakistani officials say. One was close to Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical religious party that is staunchly anti-American and whose supporters have harbored operatives of Al Qaeda, a Karachi police official said.
The second man was arrested at a mosque funded by Jaish-i-Muhammad, an Islamic extremist group that has been backed by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, and has recently joined forces with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas.
Jaish and a multitude of other hard-line Islamic groups have helped make Karachi, with its overlay of radical Islamic edicts — cinemas barely exist, alcohol is essentially banned — a welcoming rear base for the Pakistani Taliban.
It is also a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban, who the Americans are fighting in Afghanistan and who are clients of the Pakistanis. Despite the arrest of a senior commander for the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, on the outskirts of Karachi in January, some senior members still stay in the wealthy area of the Defense Housing Authority and have free passage in and out of the city, according to local politicians.
The chaos and crime that bedevil Karachi, mainly the result of gang warfare among armed wings of the political parties, create a near perfect place for fighters of the Pakistani Taliban to plan and to hide.
Amid this violence, the Taliban organize, recruit and raise funds, even as the Pakistani military has opened a series of offensives in the north that have chased Taliban fighters to other areas, like North Waziristan and Orakzai.
Recently the army has launched an offensive in Orakzai, too, and many fighters were retreating to Karachi, a common tactic for the Taliban, according to Jan Mohammed, 21, a fighter from the Pakistani Taliban, who came to Karachi two months ago from Orakzai. “We have about 500 to 600 fighters here from Orakzai, waiting for orders,” he said. Some of the wounded Taliban — those who could make the journey sitting up in a car — were brought to Karachi for treatment, he said.
Another, more senior Taliban fighter in his early 30s, who has lived in Karachi for more than six months, boasted, “We are well organized here.”
Almost all Taliban are from the Pashtun ethnic group whose ancestral homes are in the tribal areas. About five million Pashtun have migrated to Karachi over the years, and while many of the Pashtun in the city do not agree with the Taliban, their presence in the city gives the Taliban cover, the senior fighter said.
The fighters are organized in cells according to the geographical area they came from in the tribal areas, he said.
A veteran Taliban official, known as the emir, serves as the central commander in Karachi, and he receives orders on financial matters and strategy from the Pakistan Taliban high command, now in North Waziristan, the senior fighter said.
This fighter, who said he changed his address every few days in the city, declined to give his name for fear of being discovered by the Karachi authorities.
After an interview, the police stopped the fighter, dressed in Pakistani garb of shirt and baggy trousers, as he hailed a pedicab, he said later. When he showed the police a business card with the name of his trading company, he was allowed to move on, he said.
Many Taliban fighters are seasonal, and use Karachi as a winter bolt-hole to earn money, often in lowly jobs. They migrate to the tribal areas or move onto Afghanistan in the summer. Last week, a Taliban organizer in South Waziristan said by telephone that he had just received a batch of fighters from Karachi who were heading to Afghanistan.
Karachi is important to the Taliban because it is Pakistan’s Wall Street. The city’s trucking industry, dominated by Pashtun businessmen, carries almost all the supplies the United States Army uses in Afghanistan — weapons, vehicles, fuel, food and water. Some of the huge amounts of money involved in that transportation splash back to the Taliban, politicians and trucking businessmen said.
“The militants put business first and by default they are benefiting,” said Ali Mohammed, who runs a company that takes supplies to Afghanistan. “They are paid very well by the trucking companies” not to strike the convoys, he said.
Moreover, the militants ran a parallel trade by truck to supply themselves along many of the same routes, he said.
Some of the trucking companies carried drugs from Kandahar, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan and a center of opium poppy cultivation, to Karachi and returned with weapons for the militants fighting American and NATO forces, Mr. Mohammed said.
Many of the rich Pashtun businessmen of Karachi donate to the Taliban, said the senior fighter. “Money is not a problem for us,” he said.
“They like to give to get a place in heaven.”
But Karachi is also an ideological motor for the insurgency, powered by a vast circuit of unregistered religious schools, known as madrasas.
Most of the militant groups, like Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have sponsored madrasas here for many years, where they imbue a hatred of all things Western and provide the justification for militancy, community leaders said.
In Sohrab Goth, a bleak sprawl of one-story concrete houses, a madrasa called Jaamia Farooqia is the alma mater for the Pakistani Taliban’s chief suicide bomb instructor, Qari Hussain. Many graduates from Jaamia Farooqia have headed to the tribal areas as recruits for the Pakistani Taliban, the senior fighter said.
But pressure on the Taliban from the police, often considered corrupt and violent, is mounting, the senior fighter said.
In a highly publicized case last October, the police, recently supplemented with more counterterrorism squads, arrested the senior Taliban commander in Karachi.
The house of the commander, Akhtar Zaman, was filled with weapons, the police said, and Mr. Zaman remains in custody.
The new commander is a younger, less seasoned man from South Waziristan. He has just installed himself at a madrasa in Baldia town, a ramshackle area of narrow alleys and dust-flecked palm trees, dominated by Pashtuns.
In keeping with a lower profile, he rebuffed a request for an interview. So far, said the senior fighter, he is keeping the madrasa free of weapons.