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Pakistan: Roots Of Violence Go Deeper Than Al-Qaeda

Pakistan's largest metropolis, Karachi, has made international news headlines in the past year as a beehive of terrorist activity. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the city that has become an urban refuge for Al-Qaeda since the Taliban regime was ousted from Afghanistan late last year.

Prague, 2 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. authorities have known for years that Pakistan's port city of Karachi was a key transit point for Al-Qaeda recruits who traveled to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for training.

In the past year, Western and Pakistani authorities have detained hundreds of Islamic extremists from around the world who trained at an Al-Qaeda camp near the Afghan city of Kandahar. Many have told investigators that they had to contact Al-Qaeda operatives in Karachi before they could travel on to Kandahar.

The arrest in Karachi last month of Ramzi Bin al-Shaibah, a suspected organizer of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, has confirmed suspicions that high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda have taken refuge in the city since the Taliban regime was ousted from the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Bin al-Shaibah is thought to have been a roommate in Hamburg, Germany, of 11 September terrorist Mohammad Atta.

He surfaced in Karachi after Atta flew a hijacked airliner into the first of the two World Trade Center towers targeted by Al-Qaeda.

But Bin al-Shaibah's arrest is just one in a series of events that has focused international attention on Karachi as a center of terrorism.

In January, "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and later executed by Al-Qaeda when he tried to interview senior members of the organization that he had tracked to Karachi.

In May, outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi, a bomb was detonated near a bus full of French naval engineers working to upgrade Pakistan's submarine fleet. The blast killed 11 of the engineers along with three Pakistanis.

In June, a car bomb killed 12 people outside of the U.S. Consulate just a few blocks from the site of the blast the month before. The consulate has been operating from a secret location in Karachi since that attack.

There also has been a series of bomb attacks on buses and Christian churches in the urban sprawl of Sindh Province, which surrounds Karachi, as well as in rural areas of Balochistan Province and Northwest Frontier Province farther to the north.

Authorities in Islamabad said after Bin al-Shaibah's arrest last month that they had broken up Al-Qaeda's network in Pakistan.

Major General Rashid Qureshi, a spokesman for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, said Islamabad has handed over more than 420 Al-Qaeda suspects to the custody of the United States.

Qureshi said about 380 were arrested in Balochistan and the autonomous tribal regions that border Afghanistan.

He said only seven of the Al-Qaeda suspects handed over to the United States were arrested in Karachi. But they include the highest-ranking members of Al-Qaeda detained so far in the international antiterrorism campaign.

In reaction to Islamabad's declaration of victory against Al-Qaeda last month, antiterrorism experts warned that it was still too early to make such a claim.

Investigators are now trying to determine whether Al-Qaeda was involved in last week's execution-style killings of seven Pakistani Christians at the Karachi headquarters of their charity group.

For family members mourning the deaths of their loved ones in Karachi last week, Islamabad's claims of victory against terrorism have been little comfort.

During the weekend, funerals in Karachi for the slain Christian aid workers turned into antigovernment demonstrations. Police fired tear gas and clashed with a procession of funeral marchers as they chanted for stronger government action.

Among those who think Islamabad is not doing enough to protect Pakistani Christians and investigate violence against their community is Karachi-based lawyer Iqbal Kurrum. "We condemn this brutality and we demand the government to make proper arrangements for the Christian institutions, as well as [for] Christians in Pakistan," Kurrum said.

Najum Mushtaq, an expert on terrorism at the Islamabad office of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said it would be wrong to attribute all of the violence in Karachi this year to Al-Qaeda. He sees the wave of attacks on Western and Christian targets as a recent phenomenon in a city that has long been plagued by ethnic, religious, and political violence. "Karachi has been mired in a cycle of violence for years and years now. I cannot recall any month in the past many years when Karachi was not hit by a spree of terrorist activity. Sniper shootings have been so common in Karachi, [as have] explosions. Karachi has so many kinds of criminal mafias. There are so many illegal immigrants. There are so many local gangs of various shades that have been operating in Karachi for a long time," Mushtaq said.

But Mushtaq said that if those responsible for last week's executions had intended to destabilize Musharraf's military government, the result of the attack has been the opposite. "The irony is that it actually strengthens Musharraf's position in Pakistan instead of weakening it. It actually enhances the level of support the Musharraf government and General Musharraf himself is getting from the West, including the United States, regardless of whether his regime is democratic or not," Mushtaq said.

As Pakistan's only port city, Karachi is a hub of economic activity. About 60 percent of the country's tax revenue is generated from Karachi. More than half of Pakistan's industry is based in or around the city.

It is also a hub of labor activity, making it a magnet for migrants from rural Pakistan and neighboring countries.

Indeed, Karachi's growth in recent decades has been explosive. Much of the initial growth was fueled by a mass influx of Urdu-speaking Muslims who fled Hindu-dominated India at the time of partition in 1947.

Since the 1980s, with fresh waves of refugees coming from Afghanistan and Bangladesh, Karachi's population has continued to swell.

Official census data for 1981 lists about 5 million Karachi residents. By 1998, the city's population topped 10 million. Karachi is now thought to have more than 12 million residents.

Mushtaq said the sheer size of Karachi, together with its proximity to Afghanistan, its status as a port city, and its frustrated and impoverished Muslim population, have made it an easy place for Al-Qaeda operatives to hide.

And while Karachi's population has been growing as fast as its contribution to Pakistan's overall economy, the pace of developing basic urban infrastructure has not kept up.

More than 4 million Karachi residents now live in squalid shanty towns or camps made up of reed huts without sewage, running water, electricity, or paved streets.

Economic disparity is wide, as Karachi is home to both the richest and the poorest citizens of Pakistan.

Barrister Kamal Azfar, a former governor of Sindh Province, has said that Karachi's overpopulation and its lack of infrastructure has created a "creeping crisis."

Mushtaq agreed, saying that the two problems are the root cause of much of the violence that has plagued Karachi since the 1980s.

But Mushtaq said there is also widespread frustration in Karachi about the lack of democratic representation on the local level. He noted that officials from the political party that has won all provincial and parliamentary elections in the region since the 1980s, the Muttahida Quami Movement, or MQM, have never been allowed by Islamabad to complete a term of office.

And as a consequence of popular frustration, Mushtaq said the MQM, a party representing Urdu speakers who migrated from India to Pakistan, continues to dominate the political landscape of Karachi. "It's an ethnic party. Unfortunately, violence, too, is promoted by this party itself. It started as a protest movement. It evolved into a party which was aggressive, even militant. And it was during the 1980s when arms and drugs and violence were introduced in the culture of Karachi. And it has been like that for the last 20 years now. Violence of many kinds. There's ethnic violence; there's been sectarian violence, and now jihadi extremism," Mushtaq said.

In the absence of municipal development, criminal groups have built up their economic power bases by building local infrastructure and providing basic services to those who can afford to pay.

One example is known to Karachi residents as the "water-distribution mafia," a group of private businessmen who, in the absence of a municipal water department, are installing a water network in the homes and businesses in Karachi's wealthier new districts.

But as with criminal groups elsewhere in the world, violence and intimidation are a normal business tactic of the Karachi mafia.

Drug smugglers involved in the lucrative business of transporting Afghan heroin to the West form another layer of criminal violence in Karachi. The United Nations Drug Control Program says Afghanistan is the source of 90 percent of the heroin used in the West. Much of that passes through Pakistan, with the port of Karachi serving as a conduit for drug traffic toward the West.

Out of Pakistan's thousands of madrassahs, the religious schools that provide basic education to millions of poor Pakistanis but some of which have also contributed to Islamic extremism, the largest and most vociferous advocates of an extreme form of jihad are located in Karachi.

Mushtaq said it is no surprise that links have been found between terrorism, the Taliban and the most radical madrassahs in Pakistan.

But he said the madrassah sector is not responsible for creating extremism itself. He said focusing on religious institutions as a source of terrorism is a distraction. "We should make no generalizations about madrassahs. Madrassahs are of so many kinds. To associate militancy with madrassahs is only to avoid the real issue, which is that the Pakistani state has been promoting religious extremism itself, initially with the help of the West [in order to help mujahedin fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s], and then on its own as a tool of Pakistan's military strategy and defense strategy. Madrassahs were, at best, a pawn in the game of religious extremism. And [even] that [refers] to a very small section of madrassahs," Mushtaq said.

Sectarian violence is common in Karachi between extremists from the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, as well as among Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims.

There are also numerous militant groups in Karachi that are fighting against the military regime of President Musharraf.

Authorities in Islamabad say they have also banned militant groups and arrested their members in Karachi who have fought against Indian rule in the divided region of Kashmir.