Growing factionalization within the Pakistani Taliban has spurred a rise in kidnappings of wealthy businessmen and influential figures, security officials say, as separate strands of the militant network seek funds for their terrorist activities.
An officer from the Federal Investigation Agency who works specifically on kidnapping cases said the splintering of the Pakistani Taliban, formally known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, has led to more such crime in the past two years. “The militant groups are more active in this way,” he said.
According to the Wall Street Journal’s report, security officials also warn that the launch in June of the long-awaited military operation against Taliban strongholds in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan has sent a new wave of militants into the cities, and that criminal activity there may increase as a result.
Pakistan’s commercial hub, Karachi, has long been a notorious center for kidnapping, but these crimes are now increasingly being committed by Taliban factions or criminals they subcontract. Taliban-linked groups are also extending the practice to parts of the country where kidnappings have been rarer, including the capital, Islamabad.
The Taliban offer protection to kidnapping gangs in return for a cut of the proceeds. The criminals get access to havens in Taliban-controlled parts of the tribal areas, while the Taliban factions get the funding they need to operate. In some cases, kidnapping gangs of ordinary criminals sell their victims to the Taliban-linked groups, which then demand much higher ransoms from their families, said the Punjab police officer.
In a high-profile case in January, a group believed to have links with the Taliban kidnapped the deputy speaker of parliament, Moazzam Kalro, from Multan in Punjab province. Held for nearly three months in Kohat, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the edge of the lawless tribal areas, he was eventually released after his family paid 50 million rupees ($500,000), two police officials familiar with the investigationconfirmed.
Similar amounts have been paid in ransom in other kidnappings suspected of having been carried out by Taliban factions or criminals acting on their behalf, police say.
A Taliban spokesman denied that the militant group offers protection to criminal kidnapping gangs. “Islam justifies the kidnap and murder of our enemies,” said Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman. “We can take the money of other enemies, but we do not target innocent Muslims.”
As the Taliban have become more entrenched in the urban fabric of Karachi, the city has turned into a vital financial source for the militants, security officials said.
The Taliban mostly target the city’s ethnically Pashtun areas. The militants’ leadership is mostly ethnic Pashtun, and Pashtun businessmen tend to hire Pashtun drivers, cooks and guards—a community that the Taliban can easily infiltrate, said Niaz Khuso, head of the Karachi police counterterrorism unit.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched a security operation in Karachi in September, hoping to bring law and order to the country’s financial center and only major port. But police say the operation failed to curb Taliban-linked kidnapping. “These elements remain out of control,” said Farooq Awan, senior superintendent of Karachi’s special investigations unit.
The Punjab police’s official crime statistics cite 132 kidnaps for ransom in the country’s largest province in 2013, down from 160 in 2012. But an officer with the police force said accurate numbers simply don’t exist.
“There are kidnappings that are not reported, there are those that are reported but not registered, and there are those that are registered but dismissed,” he said. “They are no accurate numbers of the number of kidnappings.”
In Islamabad, five kidnappings were reported in the first six months of 2014, compared with nine in all of 2013.
A businessman who owns a factory on the edge of Islamabad told The Wall Street Journal he was kidnapped in September 2013 and didn’t report it to police. He was released after his family paid up but he refused to discuss any details of the incident. The businessman’s tight-lipped stance is not unusual among victims. Most victims avoid the police, preferring to negotiate privately with the kidnappers over a price and simply pay up, avoiding authorities they don’t trust.
“They feel that if they report to the police that the kidnapper would know and they would damage them,” said Akhtar Lalayka, the senior-most police officer in Rawalpindi, the garrison town that borders Islamabad.
Dr Muhammad Rizwan, a former senior officer in the Islamabad police, said links between the kidnap and extortion groups and terror networks based in Pakistan’s northwest “have to be proved,” but he admitted that the groups operate through a few religious seminaries on the outskirts of Islamabad known to have links to extremist groups.
Asif Tariq, who owns a high-end jewelry shop in Islamabad, said police advised him not to lodge a formal complaint after his brother was kidnapped five years ago, and to deal with the kidnappers directly. “If it goes wrong, it is your responsibility,” Mr. Tariq said police told him. He negotiated a ransom and his brother was freed.
Nowadays, Mr. Tariq says he hears about two or three cases of extortion and kidnapping each month. “This is just from people we know,” he added. “If they have money they are not safe.”