Living in Karachi today, it is difficult to believe that the nightlife in this port metropolis during the 1960s was livelier than that of Beirut, Bombay or Baghdad. Top Lebanese, Egyptian and even blond European artists were employed in Karachi hotels to perform cabaret dances. Topless dancers were allowed in certain nightclubs catering to Westerners and the equally Westernized local elite. Chilled beers were available in gas stations located in such upscale beach neighborhoods as Clifton. However, by the late 1970s, the city began to change. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s plans to build casinos and other entertainment complexes on the Arabian Sea coastline of Karachi to attract sybaritic Gulf Arabs went nowhere, and the half-constructed shells of such endeavors can still be seen lying desolate along the beach. General Zia ul-Haq took over the reigns of control in the military coup of 1977, and with the beginning of the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, the whole region began to shift its priorities to cater to the Mujahideen.
One of the most senior security officers posted in Karachi to control the law and order situation blamed the mass migration of Afghan refugees into the city as the primary catalyst for the developments that were to take place from the mid-1980s onwards. “The Afghan Koochi (nomad) camps were the main slums situated in the outskirts of the city from where all types of crime originated,” the officer recalled. “Previously, there was an underworld in Karachi, like in Bombay, Bangkok or in New York, but their involvement in criminal activity was limited. However, with the proliferation of Afghan refugee camps, the Karachi underworld connected itself with the two lucrative businesses of narcotics trafficking and gun running.”
The nomadic Afghan refugee camps established an arms supply line to the city underworld. The first automatic rifle was used in the University of Karachi in 1981, during a clash between the workers of Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (largest student union in Pakistan which takes its ideological inspiration from the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami) and Peoples Student Federation (affiliated with the socialist Pakistan People’s Party). Previously, the tradition of clashes between the student unions was rare, and restricted to stoning or fist fighting.
In the mid-1980s ethnic violence began to hold sway in Karachi with the emergence of MQM (then Mohajir Quami Movement and now Muttahida Quami Movement) – a political party catering to the immigrants who came as refugees or mohajirs from British India when it was partitioned into the Hindu-majority state of Bharat or India and the Muslim-majority wings of West Pakistan and East Pakistan in August 1947. MQM, led by the charismatic Altaf Hussain, became a power in the local politics of Karachi, fighting for the rights of the Urdu-speaking mohajirs against the indigenous Sindhis and other powerful immigrant groups of ethnic Punjabis and Pathans. Karachi – with its population of some 16 million – had become the industrial and financial center of Pakistan and all ethnic groups flocked there for jobs.
With the Afghan jihad in full swing, the 1980s saw the adoption of what began to be known as the “Kalashnikov culture” in Pakistan. The AK-47s were freely available, thanks to leaks in the CIA-funneled arms pipeline that was controlled by the powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Afghan refugee camps in Karachi became the conduit for arming rival ethnic and sectarian gangs who fought it out in the streets.
Meanwhile, the jihad in Afghanistan, with its overtones of Wahhabism imported by Saudi fighters such as Osama bin Laden, was embraced by Pakistan’s conservative military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq. Promoting Sunni Islam in Pakistan, General ul-Haq ignored the country’s 20 percent Shi’a minority, which, to protect itself, formed militant groups. As a reaction, the Sunnis also formed their own militant groups and clashes took place in the heartland of Punjab province that trickled down to Karachi. In the mid-1990s, many of these Sunni organizations joined the Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance.
The anti-Shi’a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LiJ), however, turned out to be the only Pakistani group that joined forces with al-Qaeda. The reasons for this were two-fold. While members of other jihadi groups who took part in actions in Afghanistan were able to return home, LiJ activists were wanted in Pakistan, making it difficult for them to re-enter Pakistan. As a result of this forced exile, LiJ members became heavily involved with the Taliban and their training camps; there they interacted with al-Qaeda operatives. When the Taliban retreated from Afghanistan in 2001, LiJ members helped al-Qaeda fighters find refuge in Pakistan.
The Punjab police have compiled a classified file of information on the lives of LiJ workers. According to the Red Book of the Punjab Police CID (police intelligence department), several LiJ members have been identified, including Amjad Hussain Farooqui and Qari Zakaullah.
Farooqui hails from Toba Tek Singh in the Punjab province. He received all of his military training in Taliban camps in Afghanistan. Farooqui is wanted in the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl, along with his al-Qaeda colleagues. Karachi is the main hub of Farooqui’s activities. He was recently seen having lunch at the Tariq Hotel in the Quaid-i-Abad suburb, just outside downtown Karachi. The “dangerous” Qari Zakaullah was born in the Punjab capital of Lahore. Given a life sentence by Pakistan courts, he escaped jail and fled to Afghanistan. He migrated to Kabul, where he became so entrenched in Afghan society that he married an Afghan woman and lived in Kabul’s upscale Sher-i-Nau neighborhood. After coalition forces ousted the Taliban in December 2001, Zakaullah returned to Pakistan and now is once again active in Karachi. As these individuals demonstrate, Karachi has become a haven for radical elements returning from the Afghan wars of the 1980s and 1990s.
By the end of the 1990s, other refugee slums had developed around the outskirts of the city – notably that of Bengalis from Bangladesh and Burmese from Burma or Myanmar. According to sources in the Karachi police, the Burmese have become the most astute at playing the terror connection game. They are willing to harbor any wanted person in their slums and even smuggle the person out through sea routes. At the same time, they charge a modest amount (between $1,000 to $2,000) to carry out any theft, robbery or killing. The most wanted among the Burmese criminals, Rizwan Burmi, is believed to be harboring several Arab militants in Karachi and involved in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks.
Other groups have also renewed operations in Karachi. After the Taliban retreated from Afghanistan at the end of 2001, different jihadis of Arab, Pakistan and Afghan origin regrouped themselves in South Waziristan, establishing training camps and other facilities. Organizations such as Jaishul al-Qiba al-Jihadi al-Siri al-Alami now prepare literature and films to incite hatred against the West for a new generation of jihadis. This material is distributed in Pakistani urban centers. New recruits are brought to South Waziristan for training and then fielded in cities, such as Karachi. Jund Allah, a similar organization, attempted to assassinate the Pakistan Army Corps commander in Karachi in June. Interrogation reports suggest that Jund Allah members were mostly from the provinces north of Sindh (except its leader Attaur Rehman, who is from Karachi). Apparently, they were sent to Karachi to target the Corps commander Karachi, the ISI operations officer, and the Aga Super Market and Pak Towers – places where foreign diplomats come for shopping.
To complicate matters further, foreign intelligence organizations have long been active in Karachi. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) that paralleled the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989), Iraqi and Iranian intelligence vied with each other to win over militant groups to their causes. The Iranians fought hard to counter not only Iraqi, but also Saudi influence in Pakistan. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1995, Iranian intelligence in Pakistan became even more active. This time not only Shi’a organizations, but also Sunni ones that opposed the Taliban, were supported. A great deal of support was given to the Sunni Tehrik party. According to Pakistani intelligence sources, dozens of Sunni Tehrik workers were taken to Iran and given military training. They were induced to take over the control of mosques in Karachi that were administered by any pro-Taliban jihadi organization. This development resulted in fierce clashes between the pro-Taliban groups in Karachi and the Sunni Tehrik. It was only the Pakistani government’s intervention on the side of the pro-Taliban organizations (before 9/11) that suppressed the Sunni Tehrik.
Today, hundreds of “usual suspects” are rounded up in police raids in Karachi. Whether they are linked to Iranian intelligence or al-Qaeda remains an open question. A senior intelligence officer has commented: “Law enforcing agencies clipped the wings of several terror groups through massive arrests but the terror infrastructure in the shape of Afghan Kuchi camps, Burmese and Bengali illegal slums still offer the best shelters for the terror groups.”