Fresh Violence Threatens to Make Karachi the New Mogadishu

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 5

Pakistani Rangers detained over 500 people for question about targeted killings in Karachi over the last several days.

Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city and its commercial capital, is yet again in the throes of violence. With Karachi generating 68% of the government’s revenue and 25% of the country’s gross domestic product, the implications for Pakistan are serious. The first three weeks of 2011 saw some 150 deaths, including the killing of Pashtun journalist Wali Khan Babar. This violence assumed more alarming proportions amidst reports that the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban has now shifted to Karachi and Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar was treated for heart problems in a Karachi Hospital.

Karachi has a long history of violence based on its diverse ethnic mix, a history of sectarian and ethnic conflict, battles for turf and political influence, the complex dynamics of urban governance and a growing “Talibanization.” According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, Karachi witnessed a 288% increase in incidents of terrorism and targeted killings in the last year, even though the overall rate of violence in the country decreased by 11%. [1] Reports suggest that in addition to the political parties, ethnic groups and sectarian organizations, there are powerful groups like extortion mafia, land mafia, water mafia, arms dealers and other criminal groups behind the Karachi violence. The problem is exacerbated by the vast number of small arms flowing into Karachi (Daily Times [Lahore], January 29). Due to the current violence, businesses are suffering, investment (both foreign and domestic) is drying up and unemployment is increasing. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of unskilled laborers have come to Karachi from different parts of the country, especially the volatile northwest, to find work, aggravating an already difficult situation.

Depending on their affiliations, politicians from different spectrums of the political divide have blamed each other for the current and previous episodes of violence. While Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has pointed to an illusory third force and sometimes “non-state actors,” as well as “the stream of terrorists trickling in from the north-western areas of the country,” provincial Interior Minister Zulfiqar Mirza and various Pashtun nationalists have blamed the Muhajir-dominated Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) for the violence, claiming that most of those killed are Pashtuns. [2] MQM has in turn blamed Pashtuns and the Awami National Party (ANP) for the violence and has submitted a draft bill in the National Assembly that calls for disarming the country.  This move has been taken by most as a political ploy to establish the movement’s peaceful credentials. Many legal experts have noted there are already half-a-dozen pieces of anti-weapons legislation on the statute book and there is no need for fresh legislation – just for effective and serious implementation of the existing statutes (The News [Islamabad], January 20).

The killing of journalist Wali Khan Babar has also been blamed on MQM and one report suggested that a certain “chief”, the head of a mafia sponsored by MQM, was directly responsible for the journalist’s death (Daily Ummat [Karachi], January 15; Geo TV, January 17). Of the 26 hardcore killers who have confessed to  the Joint Investigation Team (JIT – consisting of all the major intelligence agencies of the country), 13 belong to MQM, seven to sectarian organizations like Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP), the Lashkar-i-Janghavi and the Sepah-i-Muhammad, three to a splinter group of MQM called MQM (Haqiqi) and one to the ANP (Pulse [Islamabad], January 28).

While the violence continued, the Washington Post quoted a report from the private intelligence agency The Eclipse Group stating that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been rushed to a hospital in Karachi for heart surgery by Pakistani intelligence officials on January 7 (Washington Post, January 18). The report was based on the second-hand testimony of an anonymous Pakistani physician who never actually saw Mullah Omar himself (OneIndia, January 19; AP, January 20). Afghan Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi denied the report, saying that Mullah Omar was in good health and had not undergone any surgery (The Nation [Islamabad], January 20).  Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani, also rejected the report, saying “it had no basis whatsoever” (The News, January 20).

MQM has blamed the ongoing killings on Pashtuns – especially the Taliban. There is no doubt that Taliban fighters have been moving to Karachi in increasing numbers because of the military operations and drone attacks in the northwest. However, it is not in the interest of the Taliban to become involved in these targeted killings, as they would not like to be the main focus of law-enforcement agencies in Karachi and risk losing a sanctuary where they can hide, take rest, receive medical treatment and raise money through donations, ransom and extortion. Nevertheless, the involvement of sectarian anti-Shi`a organizations who are closely allied with the Taliban cannot be ruled out, as is clear from the identity of some of the killers identified by the JIT (The News, June 20, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2010).

In determining responsibility for the current turmoil, neither the role of the different mafias nor the various political and ethnic groups can be ignored. There is a chronic shortage of housing and water in Karachi while demand continues to grow due to the extremely rapid increase in population.  Rival mafias that have grown up around the huge and lucrative business of supplying the housing and water needs of these people have marked their turf and kept law enforcement agencies at bay by sharing part of their revenues with them. The inability of the government to provide basic facilities and services to people has strengthened local dependence on these mafias. During the last two years, turf wars between criminal organizations have increased sharply (BBC, December 28, 2009; see also Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2010; Terrorism Monitor Briefs, January 7, 2010). Ethnic-based political parties are part of this violent game, as is clear from the affiliation of those identified as hard-core killers. As a Karachi-based journalist explained:   

"The actual issue is the effort to capture the city by the MQM, ANP and the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party]. As tens of thousands of IDPs from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] have migrated to Karachi due to military operations, the demography of the city has completely changed and now MQM is afraid that they will lose their grip on the city. The PPP, which represents Sindhis, is also worried about the rising influence of Muhajirs and Pashtuns in the city, while Pashtuns are frustrated as they are deprived of basic civil rights like safe drinking water, jobs, education and the issuance of computerized national identity cards. While Pashtuns constitute 25% of the Karachi population, they have no representation in the national assembly and only two out of the 40 Karachi MPAs [Members of the Provincial Assembly] are Pashtuns." [3]

Thus, there is a need for all political actors to sit down and work out a solution that enfranchises all the citizens and to suggest and implement effective solutions to the problems of governance that have been haunting this megalopolis for the past several years. Otherwise there will be little to stop the slide of Karachi into becoming another Mogadishu.


1. Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, “Pakistan Security Report, 2010,”, January 2011.
2. The Muhajir are Muslim Urdu-speaking post-partition emigrants from India.
3. Email communication with Karachi-based journalist Zia Rehman, January 24, 2011.