TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images Militants of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Mohmand Agency in July 2008
Karachi police chief Waseem Ahmed said April 8 that police had arrested 5 militants belonging to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) who reportedly were planning attacks on seven government buildings in Karachi, British newspaper the Telegraph reported. The targets included the home of the interior minister, police headquarters, Shiite religious centers and suppliers cooperating with NATO forces. LJ is a jihadist group based in Punjab province allied with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Jihadists have struck in Karachi before, but a campaign against Karachi by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) would create a serious confrontation for the city’s ruling party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a group that is itself known to engage in significant violence.
On April 8, Karachi police chief Waseem Ahmed said police had arrested five militants who were part of militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) and were planning to attack government offices (including the police station), intelligence agencies, mosques, suppliers who ship goods to Western forces in Afghanistan and counterterrorism personnel. These arrests are only the latest sign that Karachi’s ruling party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), is nervous about the jihadist threat to its city. LJ is a jihadist group based in Punjab province and allied with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) , which is led by Baitullah Mehsud.
The TTP has shown an ability to strike beyond its traditional territory in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) by expanding to virtually all of Pakistan’s major metropolitan areas with attacks in Islamabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar in recent months. Most recently, a group of 10 militants under Mehsud raided a police training facility just east of Lahore in Manawan in Punjab province. The TTP also has shown an interest in attacking Karachi, such as when Mehsud threatened in August 2008 to launch attack on MQM offices and other targets in Karachi if the party leader, Altaf Hussain, did not forfeit his rule there. Mehsud’s spokesman added that the time “was ripe for the Taliban to gain control of the city.”
An attack on Karachi by the TTP would lead to substantial fallout. Judging on past attempts of outside political groups dissenting from the MQM’s political views, the party would not tolerate the presence of the TTP.
Karachi is a strategic city in Pakistan, as it has the only major port in the country and consequently is a major nerve center for Pakistan’s economy. If the TTP wants to be viewed as a major force in Pakistan, going after Karachi would make a strong argument that the group can indeed strike anywhere. And striking in Karachi is definitely possible for the TTP. Many Taliban members come from Pashtun tribes and derive much of their political support from Pashtun populations. Karachi has a Pashtun population of 3.5 million, making up some 30 percent of the city’s population. Karachi police have reported that Taliban members are among the “several hundred thousand” tribesmen fleeing violence in the frontier regions who have settled on the outskirts of Karachi.
Jihadists already have exhibited an ability to make limited strikes in Karachi. In 2002, jihadists kidnapped and killed U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl and attacked the U.S. Consulate. Again in 2007, jihadists targeted the U.S. Consulate using explosives, killing a U.S. diplomat and injuring 52 others on the eve of then-President George W. Bush’s first trip to Pakistan. There are networks already in place that would allow for members of the TTP to infiltrate the city and carry out an attack.
However, there is a major force in Karachi that would vehemently oppose any jihadist activity – the MQM. The MQM is a political party in Pakistan’s southeast Sindh province that has come to dominate cities like Karachi and Hyderabad over the past 25 years. The party formed during the mid-1980s from a student group called the All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organization (APMSO), which protested the power of the land-ruling elite and the limitations placed upon their own ethnic group. The MQM formed out of the APMSO, a group of Urdu speakers who immigrated to Pakistan from India during the partition in 1947. They settled mostly in Sindh province, taking jobs in Karachi’s industrial sector, and were marginalized by Pakistan’s dominant Punjabi majority.
During the 1980s, Pakistani leader Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq practiced the policy of supporting smaller, regional movements to weaken the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose power base is located in Sindh. The Muhajirs made a power grab in a series of riots from 1986-1987, out of which sprang the MQM party. With support from the Zia regime, the MQM went on to defeat the PPP in local elections in Karachi and other cities in Sindh in 1987. While the PPP still controls rural Sindh, the MQM not only has positioned itself a major force in urban Sindh (especially the larger metropolitan areas of Karachi and Hyderabad), but also has branched out into national-level politics – albeit with little success.
The MQM survives by controlling the city of Karachi. Its various factions have been known to fight for control of Karachi, and it has also fought with other parties trying to move in on MQM turf. From 1993 to 1995, intragroup violence as well as clashes with other groups in Karachi killed approximately 1,800 people. The group is also known to crack down harshly on any dissident groups through torture or simply by killing them. In May 2007, the MQM refused to allow a political rally in support of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, resulting in clashes that left 43 dead and shut down the city for a day – an example of how the MQM does not allow political shenanigans in Karachi. This is definitely true when it comes to jihadists operating in Pakistan, and especially in Karachi.
While jihadists have been active in Karachi in the past, there is a significant difference between attacks in the past and attacks now. Previously, attacks were carried out by al Qaeda in conjunction with local allies; al Qaeda was just establishing itself in Pakistan after being run out of its safe haven in Afghanistan. The attacks were limited in magnitude and frequency, and not perceived by the MQM as a threat to their power in Karachi.
The TTP, however, has a much larger following and more political power due to greater local support, which underscores the MQM’s distaste for the TTP’s presence in Karachi. Crackdowns on the city’s large Pashtun population would be expected, as well as retaliation attacks, leading to significant violence and disruption in the city’s daily routine. Such violence would play into the TTP’s hands nicely, as it would churn up instability in yet another area of Pakistan, adding to the central government’s already flagging security efforts and threatening the economic center of Pakistan.
The situation in Karachi definitely merits watching over the coming weeks as a potential flashpoint of expanded Taliban violence. And perhaps more importantly, it is worth watching how the MQM responds to jihadist activity in its city.