The making of a terrorist
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Two and a half years ago, Pakistan's most-wanted person, Asif Ramzi, was found dead, along with five others, following an explosion in a bombing-making factory in Korangi, a satellite district of the southern port city of Karachi.
Ramzi was wanted in connection with the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the June 2002 bombing of the US consulate in Karachi.
This incident alerted the security agencies of both the US and Pakistan to the emergence of Korangi, as well as neighboring Landhi, as a new breeding ground for the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, and consequently a new target in the "war on terror". The Landhi-Korangi area already had notoriety as a "no-go area".
The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is the militant offshoot of the banned Sunni sectarian group Sepah-i-Sahabah, which although not directly affiliated with al-Qaeda, its members have a kinship, as many of them trained together in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban in that country.
A road to terror
From the bustling artery of Sharah-i-Faisal in Karachi, when a car turns at Gora Qabrustan (a Christian Cemetery of British India times) toward Korangi Road, the driver breathes a sigh of relief as a smooth, broad road offers a swift drive to the expressway that connects the southern districts to the central and eastern parts of the city.
However, this is just 15-minute ride. Before the expressway, one turns off into Korangi, a veritable ghetto where one can almost smell the fear and tension. By the time the sun goes down, gangs of armed youths have taken to the streets, where they rule until dawn - frequently letting off shots into the air to announce their presence and authority to officials, and the local population.
Welcome to the hunting grounds of Korangi and Landhi.
The discovery of Ramzi's bomb-making factory in Korangi in December 2002 has been followed by dozens of arrests of members of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi with connections to the area. In the most recent incident, a man identified as Tehseen was arrested in connection with a suicide attack on a Shi'ite mosque in Karachi in which several people were killed, including two of the attackers. Tehseen was injured when guards at the mosque fired at him. He is from an extremely poor family in Korangi.
Rooted in depravation
Korangi and Landhi were established in the early 1960s for displaced families that had come from British India after the partition of 1947, and which were living in squatter settlements near founding-father Muhammad Ali Jinnah's mausoleum in the heart of the city.
Bureaucrats at the time were well versed in British ways - they knew the art to building colonies. Small housing units were set along a network of broad roads, complemented with schools, dispensaries, basic health units and playgrounds. The generation raised in the early 1960s in Korangi and Landhi was ambitious, and despite their poor background, many reached the top ladders of the corporate, social and sporting worlds, while others established themselves at lower and middle levels in government offices.
By the 1980s, though, Korangi and Landhi had changed. As people prospered, they shifted to better neighborhoods, and their cheap houses were filled by an altogether different community, including Bangladeshis, people from Myanmar and a huge Pashtun population. The latter worked as unskilled laborers in the industrial areas that had sprung up in the vicinity.
However, displaced families from India still made up the largest and most dominant component of Korangi and Landhi, which became the strongest pillar of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) when it was launched in 1985 in Karachi. The MQM was a national movement created to protect the rights of displaced families from India.
The MQM's militant wing established arms dumps, torture chambers and training centers in Landhi. This area was inaccessible to police and very well guarded by armed youths. No strangers were allowed in the area, which was called Mohajir Khail. (Mohajir means immigrant, from British India, and Khail is a Pashtun word which shows that, like the North West Frontier province's tribal areas, Mohajir Khail was also inaccessible to law-enforcing agencies.)
The MQM used Mohajir Khail to torture their political opponents belonging to the Pakistan Peoples' Party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, and other ethnic groups, such as the Pashtuns and Sindhis.
The Mohajir Khail was destroyed in 1993 by the Pakistani army, which also engineered a split in the MQM, leading to the formation of a faction led by Afaq Ahmed (now in jail). Subsequently, an army operation was conducted in the whole of Karachi, including Landhi and Korangi. The army arrested members of the MQM led by Altaf Hussain (who later went into exile in London to escape cases against him) and posted rangers in the area, but at the same time, the men in uniform patronized the faction of Ahmed. The cases against Hussain included killings, abductions, extortion, and burning the national flag. Now his party - renamed the Muttahida Quami Movement - is part of coalition governments in federal and provincial administrations.
As a result of the army action, the area became the hotbed of gang wars, where guns ruled and outsiders dared not enter. Every day, two or three bullet-riddled bodies would be found in gunny bags.
Religion, the poor man's addiction
The mid-1990s saw severe economic depression in Landhi and Korangi, with markets closed for five days of the week. In job advertisements, companies clearly stated that candidates from Landhi and Korangi need not apply as they knew that because of the chaotic conditions in these areas workers would never be punctual. Schools and stadiums were occupied by the Pakistan Rangers, who often remained silent spectators as the gangs fought each other.
When the Taliban movement emerged in the mid-1990s, men from the Bangladeshi and Myanmarese populations in the area responded enthusiastically, as the clerics in their mosques were mostly pro-Taliban. Within a year, many men from both factions of the MQM joined different militant organizations, top of which was the Sepah-i-Sahabah. Thus, an already heavily militarized area due to its gang politics became a paradise for jihadis as well.
The banned Sepah-i-Sahabah was an anti-Shi'ite organization founded by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. It has been renamed Millat-i-Islamia. Sepah-i-Sahabah sermonized against the beliefs of Shi'ites but did not call for their massacre. However, when many Sepah-i-Sahabah heads were killed by Shi'ites (this still goes on - the most recent was Maulana Azam Tariq, a member of the National Assembly and a pro-President General Pervez Musharraf person) a breakaway faction called Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, which believes in the killing of Shi'ites, was formed by Riaz Basra. Basra was rounded up by Pakistani security agencies when he tried to enter Pakistan after the Taliban retreated in 2001. After an unannounced detention, he died in what is believed to be a stage-managed encounter with the authorities.
Since the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi was banned and most of its members were wanted, they left Pakistan and took refuge in Afghanistan during the Taliban's time. There they interacted with Arab Afghans. When the Taliban fell, they returned to Pakistan, bringing with them many Arab friends to whom they gave shelter and sanctuary. Later, they carried out several joint terror actions in Pakistan.
Amjad Farooqui, who was involved along with al-Qaeda's Abu Faraj al-Libbi in assassination attempts against Musharraf, was a leader in the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, as was Ramzi. Invariably, they all took sanctuary in the thickly populated areas of Korangi and Landhi.
US outsmarts all
Since September 11, 2001, the US has invested millions of dollars in Pakistan to help track down al-Qaeda members and other terror suspects. Some of this money has gone to the Pakistani police, and some has been invested in a network of informers called Spider. But as long as no-go areas such as Landhi and Korangi existed, where police and rangers could not go freely, success was limited.
So US intelligence came up with a plan. It used the Altaf Hussain group's network in the MQM to counter jihadis and militants, leading to the arrest of many wanted people, to the extent that many militants have been rooted out from the area.
A case study
This correspondent has interacted with many people from the Landhi and Korangi area, and one in particular stands out. Let's call him Akhtar, a man in his late 20s. He is not a militant, although circumstances conspired to push him in that direction, just like many who did turn out to be militants.
When Akhtar started going to his nearby mosque in Korangi four years ago, everybody in his family was happy that he had separated himself from the drug addicts and goons of the neighborhood, as well as from the ethnocentric parties of the area known for their terror, militancy and extortion. They were satisfied that Akhtar was now on the right path and would lead a straight life.
Akhtar grew a beard and insisted that he interact with all religious circles in the mosques. He was a tolerant human being, searching for pearls of virtue wherever he could find them.
However, after four years, during which time Akhtar's personality was molded and he became known for his piety and his tabiligi (preaching) activities, a police unit came looking for him, not to hear his wisdom, but to inform his family to hand over the "sectarian criminal" in a few days, or face the music. Akhtar happened to be out of town preaching at the time.
Akhtar met this correspondent through a friend, as he believed that newspapers were his last hope.
"Yes, Korangi and Landhi are two points where many suicide bombers and members of the Laskhar-i-Jhangvi stay, but you cannot write a story in isolation or without enumerating the causes which made this area with its destitute population a breeding ground for terror groups," Akhtar said.
"Our misfortune starts from our birth place, that is Landhi and Korangi, which became the nucleus of crime from the mid-1980s. Armed youths roamed around freely. Two military operations were conducted in the area, which gave a free hand to the police to rough up the whole population. They used to arrest criminals, but also innocent suspects, which they only let go after their poor families paid a bribe.
"That was the environment in which I grew up. My friends were either members of ethnocentric parties, as one could not survive without their association, or those who fell into drug addiction," said Akhtar. "The first time when I was picked up, I happened to have associated with members of a breakaway faction of the MQM, that is, the Afaq group. During interrogation, I was badly tortured. Later, the Afaq group's leaders secured my bail and I came out of jail. Now I was 'member' of the Afaq group.
"That is exactly the time when police and rangers were playing a game of hide and seek in Landhi and Korangi. Youths were put in police lockups without their cases being registered, and they were badly tortured. There was a time when the government crushed one faction of the MQM and patronized the other faction, and then the other way around. The youths changed their loyalties accordingly. In such an environment, two prominent groups emerged and attracted hundreds of youths who were tired of arrests and tortures. One is the banned Sepah-i-Sahab, and the other was the Jaish-i-Mohammed.
"Maulana Masood Azhar [chief of the now banned Jaish-i-Mohammed] quite often came to our neighborhood, with over a dozen armed guards. His speeches were truly impressive, but more impressive was his protocol and police security. Many disgruntled youths joined Jaish-i-Mohammed, and many joined Sepah-i-Sahabah. Some were inspired by their teaching, and some came in search of protection from police raids.
"I was neither in the Sepah-i-Sahabah nor in the Jaish. I was a peaceful talibligi [Muslim preacher]. However, since the leaders of these groups were regular visitors to the mosques in the area, I was a regular listener of their lectures, and in that way I was part of their circle and kept friendly ties and social interaction, but not as a member.
"After 9-11, the situation changed. All ethnocentric groups, which previously had been under official scrutiny, were given a respite, and organizations like the Sepah-i-Sahaban and the Jaish-i-Mohammed came under fire and were banned.
"Instead of neighborhoods, mosques and seminaries were the target, where police and intelligence officials carried out daily raids. As a result, all members of those banned organization went underground. Many stopped their activities, but several joined militancy in the name of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.
"The police game of extortion and bribery, played with members of the ethnocentric parties in the past, was now played with members of sectarian and jihadi organizations. In the past, all Mohajirs [immigrants from India] were culprits, whether they belonged to any party or not, but now all mosque-goers were guilty of terror.
"The law-enforcing agencies created a hellish situation. Many people who did not have the money to bribe their way out of trouble knew that they could be killed in a fake encounter [police have a reputation for extra-judiciary killings in which suspects are shot in what is officially termed as 'retaliatory fire'.] Therefore, many choose to become suicide bombers, because they know that either way their fate is death.
"There are people like myself who are suspects and who were given an option list by the police, including 'gentle' arrest and then freedom after paying a bribe - or else be ready for a 'fake encounter'. I am again standing at a crossroads, like I was some years back when I was detained as a suspect by the police and then my release was secured by an ethnocentric party. But in return I became a member. Now I have to either collect money to bribe corrupt police, or join a sectarian group to get a safe sanctuary to hide and then make myself mentally ready to be killed in police encounter, or in a suicide attack."
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org