How the Taliban took control of organized crime in Pakistan’s largest city

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Marco Werman: For our next story, imagine “The Sopranos” having a turf war on the set of “Homeland.” That’s kind of what’s happening for real in Karachi, Pakistan’s huge commercial capital. There’s a turf war going on there between local organized crime groups and the Pakistani Taliban. The police are in the middle, with officers getting killed by the Taliban, but also being accused of using illegal tactics, like torture and summary executions. Our BBC colleague, Mobeen Azhar, recently rode along with the Karachi police unit that was looking for Taliban suspects. Mobeen has a one word description for all this.


Mobeen Azhar: It’s a mess, really. I think that’s the best way to describe it. So, you’ve got a situation in Karachi where it’s intensely divided; you’ve got lots of different ethnicities. What’s happened in more recent years is the Taliban have come in and they have effectively top sliced a lot of the gangs. So, what that means is in the past, you might have had gangs that deal with kidnap or extortion or phone theft or drugs, or all of the above. The Taliban have come in, they’ve visited these gangs and they’ve said “You will continue your work, but you will now work for us. So, we will get a cut of everything you’re doing.”


Werman: How much control do the Pakistani Taliban now have in Karachi, would you say?


Azhar: It’s quite frightening actually, because I’ve been working in Karachi on and off maybe for 6 or 7 weeks a year for the past 5 years. Every single time I go back, I can notice a marked difference. Now there’s complete areas that have been taken over by the Taliban. What that means in a practical sense is the Taliban know who is coming, they know who’s going, they know what business people have. I even spoke to vendors on the street who told me that they have to pay a tax to the Taliban. I’m talking about guys who make a tiny amount of money shining and polishing people’s shoes.


Werman: The exclusive access you got included the police taking you along on a raid. Let’s hear a clip of what happened that evening.


[Audio excerpt from the ride along]


Werman: Tell us what was happening there. The suspect had a vest on? What kind of vest?


Azhar: He got out of bed, it was the middle of the night. So I think it was actually about 3 o’clock in the morning and we were in this Taliban stronghold, and we went into this area and you see the lights of Karachi fading behind you, and something in your gut tells you that you’re going in the wrong direction. That’s exactly what we were doing. We went into this very dangerous area. The police had had a tip off that the particular property we went to was controlled by a man who was training suicide bombers, and so that’s why we went to this particular house.


Werman: We’re used to hearing about the Taliban in Afghanistan, although the hostility toward the West from the Taliban in Afghanistan has waxed and waned there. What about the Pakistani version of the Taliban, especially this iteration of it in Karachi. Are they equally hostile to the West?


Azhar: They are completely anti-Western. They talk about a war with America. I worked with the police for a couple of weeks and one of the things that I really wanted to do was to meet a Taliban suspect who was in custody. I went down to a prison and I actually interviewed this man who was very open. I was quite shocked at how brazen he was. He told me about his objectives.


Taliban Suspect: When they kill our people, do they feel anything? When we attack, it makes us happy. We say “Good!” because they are partners of America, that is why. It is a war. We are a fighting a war with America.


Werman: What happens with him when he gets out of custody?


Azhar: He has actually be charged now. I remember meeting him, it was in a closed room with no windows. He wear a balaclava and an eye mask, and the reason for that, the police told me, is that no one in the room should be seen because we ourselves would become targets. But one of the big points of the story is that in the 12 month period from September 2013 to September 2014, there were zero convictions. There were no convictions on terrorism-related charges, and that is a real problem for morale with the police, and morale in Pakistan generally. I think that’s something that really needs to be looked at by the government.


Werman: Our colleague at the BBC, Mobeen Azhar, who got rare access to a Karachi police unit deployed to raid Taliban suspects. Thanks for telling us about it Mobeen.


Azhar: Thank you.